Reflections on Christmas 2020 and 1968
Whether they were atheist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Confucian, or anything else, one of the most moving experiences of humanity was the message of the Apollo 8 astronauts on Christmas Eve, 1968, as they left lunar orbit and headed for the blue and white planet of Earth, which stood out in the blackness of space.
It is estimated that quarter of the world’s population heard the message live.
Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders took turns reading the first words of Genesis from the Bible. Historical photos of Mission Control in Houston show engineers in short-sleeve white shirts with tears in the eyes. Likewise, old films of scenes from around the world show people of all nationalities and races looking up at the sky in the same emotional state.
That could never have happened in 2020.
First, amazingly, when Borman had asked NASA what they should say on Christmas, officials responded that they should say something appropriate. It is unimaginable that they would’ve been given that much freedom today.
In 2020, the message would’ve been drafted by multiple committees at NASA, run past the agency’s office of diversity and inclusion, sent to the State Department for review, and from there to the White House for final revisions. After being chopped, diced and sanitized, the message would’ve been something like this:
Greetings from space. We look forward to returning to Earth to lead the fight for social justice, racial and gender equity, income equality, equal outcomes, and green energy—and as white men of European descent, to atone for slavery, colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, and fossil fuels. We pledge that astronauts on future lunar missions will be representative of all races, all ethnic groups, all genders, all sexual orientations, and all family arrangements.
We’re sorry to break it to our wives and children this way, but in that spirit of enlightenment, Frank has decided to become Francine, and Jim and Bill are going to marry each other—in a civil ceremony, of course. We hope to be chosen for the lunar landing and the planting of the United Nations flag on the moon.
With that message, tears of joy would be flowing down the cheeks of residents of San Francisco, Greenwich Village, Portland, and faculty lounges across the land.
Fifty-two years ago, all of the astronauts were white males, and almost all of Mission Control was the same. This was due to cultural norms at the time and to the GI Bill after WWII, which was a way of compensating returning soldiers for their years of service, by offering them a free college education. The bill had the unintended consequence of filling the engineering pipeline with males, to the exclusion of females.
Now, more women than men graduate from college, although not necessarily from engineering programs. And the number of African-Americans with college degrees has increased dramatically. As a result, in a positive development, if Apollo 8 took place today, Mission Control would not look like Mission Control of yesteryear.
For the men, crewcuts, pocket protectors, and slide rules would be out. Untucked shirts and scraggly beards would be in, except for those who wanted the androgynous look of android Mark Zuckerberg.
To make a statement about not wanting to be treated like sex objects, the women in Mission Control would be wearing tight yoga pants, revealing every nook and cranny of their Peloton bodies.
Woman and men, and everyone in between, in a display of their independent thinking and refusal to go along with fashion trends, would be sporting tattoos, piercings, and nose rings.
Instead of NASA’s parking lot being full of Chevy, Ford and Chrysler station wagons, it would be full of Teslas, Priuses, Subarus, and SUVs the size of the command module.
There has been lots of good news for the nation as a whole since 1968. For example, income has increased significantly from 1968, even for those at the bottom of society. In inflation-adjusted dollars, income for the bottom quintile of Americans has increased 45% over the last 52 years.
There has been lots of bad news, also. Paradoxically, for example, the percent of single-parent families has more than doubled since 1968; the suicide rate has increased 35% over the last 20 years; deaths from drug overdoses are at a record high; less than a third of Americans now say that most people can be trusted, versus the half of Americans who said that in the early 1970s; racial tensions and political divisiveness are as high as they were in 1968; record numbers of homeless are being left to live and die on city streets, and China, where COVID-19 was hatched, is demonstrating that its brand of authoritarianism and its anti-diversity policies just might prevail over America’s liberal democracy and diversity.
If current trends continue, future astronauts will be reading from Mao’s Little Red Book on Christmas Eve.
That will bring tears of joy to the residents of San Francisco, Greenwich Village, Portland, and faculty lounges across the land.