By Jonathon Van Maren
Over the past week, nearly every major media organization has taken time to celebrate and commemorate the Apollo 11 Moon landing fifty years ago on July 20, 1969. For all those listening back on Earth, hearing Neil Armstrong’s crackly voice would be a historic experience they would remember for the rest of their lives: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Man had slipped the surly bonds of Earth and set foot on the Moon, that place, Buzz Aldrin would later say, of “magnificent desolation.”
But there is more to the great American space saga, which goes far beyond the New York Times and other once-great newspapers taking the opportunity of the fiftieth anniversary to complain about the space program’s lack of diversity—and even praising the genocidal Soviet Union for “beating” America in this regard. I was actually mildly surprised that no progressive commentator took the time to denounce another part of this story, one which emphasizes the fact that America once had a common culture–a culture that was profoundly Christian.
Buzz Aldrin was an elder at his Presbyterian Church in Texas, and knowing that he was about to embark on an unprecedented historical journey, he asked his pastor to assist him in commemorating the death of the Lord Jesus Christ in space. As Eric Metaxas tells it:
And so the pastor consecrated a communion wafer and a small vial of communion wine. And Buzz Aldrin took them with him out of the Earth’s orbit and on to the surface of the moon. He and Armstrong had only been on the lunar surface for a few minutes when Aldrin made the following public statement: “This is the LM pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.” He then ended radio communication and there, on the silent surface of the moon, 250,000 miles from home, he read a verse from the Gospel of John, and he took communion. Here is his own account of what happened:
“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. Apart from me you can do nothing.’ I had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute [they] had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly.…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.”
When the first—and to this day, only—lunar mission drew to a close and headed back to Earth, Aldrin read a second Bible verse aloud from Psalm 8:3-4 that he’d written on the same notecard: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained: What is man that thou art mindful of him? And the Son of Man, that thou visitest Him?”
The reference Aldrin made to the “legal battle with Madelyn Murray O’Hare” referred to a lawsuit launched against NASA by an atheist who was furious that the astronauts of Apollo 8 had read aloud from Scripture as they orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968. William Anders began the reading:
We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
James Lovell went next:
And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
And finally, Frank Borman:
And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.
And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.
It is fascinating to look back and realize that a mere fifty years ago, America still had a common culture. Her preeminent scientific explorers took the first opportunity when orbiting in space and setting foot on the Moon to glorify the Creator, to acknowledge Him, and to commemorate His sacrifice for mankind. They recognized that despite man’s great accomplishments, which they themselves were spearheading, men should stand in humility and awe at the reality of the Creator.
A half-century on, the intellectual descendants of the angry atheist who sued NASA over the astronauts’ reading of Scripture on Christmas Eve have triumphed in many ways. But while they can trash the present, they cannot rewrite history—and the simple fact is that the first acts of American astronauts in space and on the Moon were the acknowledgement of God’s infinite goodness and the magnificence of his Creation.