The Spiritual Side of Apollo 11

Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins

"Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins were launched away in space
 Millions of hearts were lifted, proud of the human race
 Space control at Houston, radio command
 The team below that gave the go they had God’s helping hand" 

– Zeke Manners, Scott Seely (Recorded by the Byrds, 1969)


July 20, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon and Michael Collins above in the command ship.

1969 was a divisive year with an unpopular war in Vietnam, racial strife and assassinations. The Cold War continued and many wondered about the growing expenses of the space program. Events had moved quickly – it was just a little over eight years since the flight of Alan Shepard, followed quickly by President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon before the decade is out. Maybe too quickly!

However, Apollo 11 brought the world together for one short week in the middle of summer in July. We focused not on our individual conditions but the spirit of humankind. A half a billion people watched the ghostly images of Armstrong and Aldrin as they explored the moon.

One of the best indicators of the larger meaning of the event was the plaque left on the moon. "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."  We are still searching for that peace.

Although faith and science have often been in conflict in the past and many see the mission as only a triumph in science, there are examples of faith a part of the Apollo program.  

Apollo 8

The spiritual side of Apollo 11 really began earlier in December, 1968 with Apollo 8.

Since the lunar module was not yet ready for testing, NASA officials made the bold decision to fly a manned crew around the Moon to test the Saturn V booster. This historic flight was the first time that humans had reached beyond the confines of the Earth’s orbit. This was the first time that people had seen the Moon up close. Moreover, it was the first time people had seen the Earth from the distance of the Moon, as a small blue marble amidst the blackness of space.

Apollo 8 orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968. In a special TV report viewed by people around America and the world, the crew of Apollo 8 sent a Christmas greeting, and a special message — a reading from the first chapter of the book of Genesis. The first message ever received by astronauts visiting another world was the Biblical account of the first three days of Creation.  You can hear their message.  Command Jim Lovell also remembers the event.

Brian Cox, British physicist talked about the important of exploration in a 2010 TED talk and cited Apollo 8:


 

"A famous picture; many people have said that it’s the picture that saved 1968, which was a turbulent year — the student riots in Paris, the height of the Vietnam War. The reason many people think that about this picture, and Al Gore has said it many times, actually, on the stage at TED, is that this picture, arguably, was the beginning of the environmental movement. Because, for the first time, we saw our world, not as a solid, immovable, kind of indestructible place, but as a very small, fragile-looking world just hanging against the blackness of space." It was the first color picture of taken of Earth as it became visible as the spacecraft came from behind the farside of the Moon.   Here is Goddard’s recreation of the event.

A 50th anniversary event was held at Washington National Cathedral in Dec., 1968:

I like to think Eucharistic Prayer C in the Prayer Book came from this and later Apollo missions in the use of the phrase "this fragile earth, our island home." However, later generations have called this the “Star Wars Prayer:”

“At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.

“From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed your trust; and we turned against one another.”

Howard Galley actually wrote Eucharistic Prayer C while doing his laundry at a laundromat!

Prayer C  reminds us the power of God to not  creating our world but the rest of the universe.  Most importantly, the phrase at the heart of Prayer C asks of God this: “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us. Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”

Apollo 11

One of first acts performed on Apollo 11, after first landing on the Moon, was a celebration of the Communion by astronaut Buzz Aldrin. In 1969, Buzz Aldrin was an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church in Houston, where he was given the communion kit that he took to Sea of Tranquility. Upon landing on the Moon in the Eagle LM, Buzz made the following announcement to Mission Control:

“Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, whoever or wherever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the last few hours, and to give thanks in his own individual way.  

Aldrin reported later

“ In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture:

“ I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.

“I had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute Deke Slayton had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madelyn Murray O’Hair, the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly…

“Eagle’s metal body creaked. I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.”  The event can be relived here or in the 1998 mini series "From the Earth to the Moon"

Buzz also gave this version of the story in his book, "Return from the Moon."

“ During the first idle moment in the LM before eating our snack, I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out two small packages which had been specially prepared at my request. One contained a small amount of wine, the other a small wafer. With them and a small chalice from the kit, I took communion on the moon, reading to myself from a small card I carried on which I had written the portion of the Book of John used in the traditional communion ceremony.

It is especially fitting and poignant that Buzz also read Psalm 8: 3-4:

3 “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;

4 "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals[a] that you care for them?”

Each year since 1969, his church, Webster Presbyterian,  holds a Lunar Communion service to to commemorate Buzz Aldrin’s celebration on the Moon.

The mission also carried goodwill not only with the message "We came in peace for all mankind" but also left a special disc. The company Sprague used a photo-etching technique using lithographic thin films to create a long-term alternative to microfiche to engrave letters (scanned and reduced 200x) from the leaders of the world’s nations.   Each letter was photographed, and optically reduced to the point where each letter was ¼ the width of a hair! 

“The Silicon disc represents a historic time when many nations looked beyond their differences to come together to achieve this historic first.”
— Charlie Duke, Apollo 16 moonwalker

Here is the Free Lance-Star’s coverage of the moon landing

Bible on the Moon

The Apollo Prayer League was a group of NASA engineers, scientists, administrators and astronauts. The League was headed by Rev. John Stout, a NASA Information Scientist and chaplain who worked closely with the astronauts and NASA personnel.

The Apollo Prayer League created a microfilm Bible and 300 microfilm copies were carried to the lunar surface. The microfilm is about 1.5 inches square, and yet contains all 1,245 pages of the King James Bible. These pages so small that they must be read under a microscope. This Lunar Bible is the only complete copy of the Bible to have flown to the surface of the Moon.

The microfilm Lunar Bible was flown on three Apollo missions. It was packed onboard Apollo 12 spacecraft, but was mistakenly left on the Command Module. It was then placed onboard Apollo 13, and was with the astronauts during their perilous return to Earth after the explosion of the Service Module. The Lunar Bible copies were finally carried to the Moon in the pocket of astronaut Edgar Mitchell on Apollo 14.

The experience

Some like Buzz Aldrin carried their religion to the moon but at least two others felt the tug of religion on their return.

Jim Irwin of Apollo 15 felt the presence of God during his 67 hours on the Moon’s surface. In his autobiography Destination Moon he wrote:  

"Before the flight, I was really not a religious man. I believed in God, but I really had nothing to share. But when I came back from the moon, I felt so strongly that I had something that I wanted to share with others, that I established High Flight, in order to tell all men everywhere that God is alive, not only on earth but also on the moon. "

Astronaut Alan Bean recounts another experience on Apollo15, "I can remember when he and Dave were riding along on their rover near the end of their 3rd EVA and Dave said, "Oh, look at the mountains today, Jim. When they’re all sunlit isn’t that beautiful?" Jim answered, "Really is, Dave. I’m reminded on a favorite biblical passage from Psalms: ‘I look unto the hills from whence cometh my help.’ But of course, we get quite a bit from Houston, too.

In describing seeing the Earth from the Moon, Irwin wrote:

"The earth was very small, the size of a marble. I thought it the earth is that small, how small am I? Just a speck in the universe, but yet significant enough that God would love me and create me and love me enough to touch my life….I felt privileged like an angel to get God’s view of the earth.  "

Alan Bean again:

"Jim would later say, "I was aware on the Moon that thousands of people on Earth were praying for the success of our mission…The hours I spent on the Moon were the most thrilling of my life. Not because I was there but because I could feel the presence of God. There were times I was filled with new challenges, and help from God was immediate."

"Dave and Jim journeyed into space as test pilot astronauts and most of us returned the same way. But Jim changed outwardly. As he explained, "I returned determined to share with others that profound experience with God on the Moon and lift man to highest flight in life."

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