CONSIDERING THE HEAVENS
REFLECTIONS ON THE APOLLO 8, 11 AND 15 SPACE MISSIONS
Psalm 8 asks the question that all of us encounter during our lives, vv.3-4:
“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him …”
I went to watch the film FIRST MAN recently – which shows the NASA quest to get a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, which was JFK’s target. It’s a stunning film, charting a remarkable achievement.
The interesting thing is that, for those who did make it up into space, and who walked on the moon, they were struck in a strongly spiritual way - in much the same way as the psalmist is in Ps.8. So here are some reflections on 3 of the Apollo space missions – Apollo 8, 11 and 15 – that testify to the reality and greatness of God.
1. APOLLO 8 - CHRISTMAS EVE 1968
Apollo 8 was the 2nd manned spaceflight, the first to orbit the moon, launched 21 Dec 1968.
The 3-astronaut crew — Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders — became the first humans to travel beyond low-Earth-orbit; see Earth as a whole planet; orbit the Earth's moon; see the far side of the Moon with their own eyes; witness an Earthrise
Apollo 8 took 68 hours to travel to the Moon
It orbited 10 times over the course of 20 hours
Famously, on Christmas Eve 1968 the crew of Apollo 8 read the creation account from Genesis 1 and then prayed. They said: “For all of the people back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 have a message that we would like to send to you ... “ and they read the Bible's creation story.
It's a profound moment from history - as the SIGHT of Planet Earth inspired these men to reflect on the ORIGIN of Planet Earth.
2. APOLLO 11 – JULY 20, 1969
The Apollo 11 mission was the first spaceflight that actually landed men on the moon.
Commander Neil Armstrong & pilot Buzz Aldrin landed lunar module Eagle on July 20, 1969.
Armstrong became the first man to walk on the lunar surface, six hours after landing
the famous quotes: “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
After describing the surface dust as “very fine-grained” and “almost like a powder” he stepped onto the lunar surface and declared: “That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Michael Collins piloted the command module Columbia alone in lunar orbit while they were on the Moon's surface. Armstrong-&-Aldrin spent 21.5 hours on the lunar surface
But our interest here is in what Buzz Aldrin was doing in the period between landing the lunar module on the moon, and actually setting foot on the lunar surface – and the answer is that he celebrated the Sacrament-of-Communion! Sadly, this was not portrayed in the film (which concentrated on Armstrong) – and was not broadcast at the time because of a lawsuit from an American atheist suing NASA for broadcasting the earlier Apollo 8 reading of Scripture. The lawsuit was unsuccessful, but it made NASA cautious about broadcasting anything religious.
So in the lunar module, on the surface of the moon, Aldrin got on the comm system and spoke to mission control back on Earth. “I would like to request a few moments of silence,” he said. “I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.”
Then he took the bread-&-wine he’d brought with him. “I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup,” he later wrote. Then (with Armstrong looking on, but not participating) Aldrin read some scripture and ate.
The Scripture was John 15 – “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.”
and Psalm 8 – “When I consider thy heavens, the works of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained, what is man that thou art mindful of him, the son of man that thou visitest him?”
Aldrin was an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church, and before heading into space had been given permission to take bread-&-wine with him into space and give himself communion. Lunar Communion Sunday is still celebrated at the church where he was an elder – so this tradition lives on, though is not as well-known as it might be.
There has been debate – at the time and subsequently – as to the appropriateness of Aldrin’s actions. Since they “came in peace in the name of all mankind” (as the plaque said) should he really have done something so specifically Christian? I’d suggest that the moon being created by God and belonging to him probably settles the argument!
3. APOLLO 15 – JULY 26 – AUG 7 1971
The Apollo 15 mission was July 26 – Aug 7, 1971.
It was the 9th manned mission in the Apollo programme, the 4th to land on the moon, and the 1st to use lunar-buggies on the surface. Commander David Scott and Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin spent three days on the Moon, with the latter famously saying: “I felt the power of God like I’d never felt it before.”
But it’s another of his famous quotes that I wanted to highlight.
Richard Bewes tells of the occasion when Irwin worshipped and spoke at All Souls Church, London. He presented a framed picture of the moon landing, and under the picture he had added in his own hand: “God walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon.”
For all the wonder, ingenuity and skill of this great achievement of man getting to the moon, it certainly is more significant that God – in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ – came to earth, and walked on earth, and died-&-rose-again … in order that we might be reconciled to God: