When the second man to step onto the moon, Buzz Aldrin, planted his feet, his first words were “Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation.” Which was never going to eclipse Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind”.
Yet Aldrin in one clear respect is more interesting than Armstrong. Across 400,000km of space travel he had brought his faith. And he was not the first Apollo astronaut to have had God as his travelling companion.
“You need to step a little further back to Apollo 8 (in 1968),” says Jonathan Clarke, an astro-geologist, kindly sharing the fruits of a lifelong obsession with space travel to Eternity. (He is also a director of ISCAST, a body of Christians in science.) As the planning went ahead, people started to realise that this was going to be an epoch-making event – the first flight to the moon, and on Christmas Eve (Christmas Day in Australia).
“NASA public Affairs and the Mission Commander Frank Borman came up with reading the first few verses of Genesis. It had a huge impact.”
Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to leave earth orbit, and travelled to the Moon and back. The Apollo 8 crew’s reading formed part of what became the most watched TV broadcast. William Anders, who later became famous for taking the photograph of our planet above the lunar surface called “Earth rise”, began the reading with “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.” Their reading can be listened to here.
“There was a notorious American atheist called Madelyn Murray O’Hair who sued NASA for breaching the separation of Church and State, for publicly reading the Bible from the Moon,” Clarke recalls. “She lost, by the way.
“But it made NASA very twitchy.
“So when Apollo 11 came along, some of the astronauts – Buzz Aldrin in particular – wanted to make some similar kind of statement. Buzz was attending a Presbyterian church at the time. NASA was worried about ruffling feathers.
“So, when they landed on the moon, Buzz came on the radio and said ‘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.’
“And he then proceeded to take communion on the Moon. He’d brought a little cask of communion wine and a wafer along and he read from the Gospel of John, ‘I am the vine you are the branches.’
“Yes, faith was on the Moon, right from the start.”
In 1980 Aldrin told Guideposts, a US Christian magazine, “It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the Moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.”
But there was more. “On Apollo 15, Jim Irwin, a Lunar Module pilot, did not find faith on the Moon but found his faith strengthened by that experience,” says Clarke.
The response of the astronauts to going to the Moon, and viewing a fragile Earth from afar, gives rise to something called the “Overlook effect”.
“The experience of going out into space – even just going into Earth orbit, seeing the world as some of them describe ‘from a God’s eye perspective’ – changes people,” Clarke comments. “Many of them have epiphanies, Christian or not.(An epiphany is a ‘moment of sudden and great revelation or realisation’.)
“Irwin on Apollo 15, he found his faith strengthened and later left NASA and became an evangelist.
“Gene Cernan, (the last person on the Moon) as he looked at the Earth from space had a profound sense that the Earth was not an accident. This was not a religious experience – he felt there was some kind of mind, some kind of purpose behind the whole of existence.
“Ed Mitchell, the Apollo 14 command Module Pilot, had a mystical sense of oneness with the universe.”
Clarke points out that the overlook effect was not always positive. “Bill Anders, one of the crew of Apollo 8 and a very devout Catholic, when he came back and reflected on what they had seen, the insignificance of the Earth and the barrenness of the Moon, wondered why God should care for this tiny planet and these insignificant people on it.”
Which puts this writer in mind of Psalm 8.
O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. 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, the son of man that you care for him?
(Psalm 8: 1-4)
Which Scripture would you have carried into space?
Jonathan Clarke is an astro-geologist and a director of ISCAST an Australian organisation dedicated to exploring the interface between science and Christianity.