It’s fifty years since the first moon landing. With all the recent media coverage around this special anniversary, I’ve realised something more unusual about its significance.
The unexpected spiritual impact of those events on the astronauts, our culture and even me.
I believe the Apollo programme became much more than flying a man to the moon and back. It spoke to our human longing for transcendence and the spiritual.
After all, that’s what space travel is all about. It’s the quest to find ‘something’, ‘out there’.
I was born two years after the final Apollo lunar mission in 1972, so I grew up with echoes of the astonishing achievements of the Apollo crew. Their adventures in space drew me in through the books and magazines of my childhood.
I would pore over any picture or watch any programme about astronauts. They all fed my dreams to one day be an astronaut just like them. Space is where it’s at and where I wanted to be.
My fixation wasn’t helped by Saturday morning Star Trek repeats on TV and a thrilling new trilogy of movies called Star Wars.
We were all dreaming of travelling to the stars back then.
Then one day I saw a picture in an old National Geographic magazine. I still see it in my mind.
It was taken on Apollo 8. One of the most significant flights of the Apollo programme.
The spiritual impact of a single photo from the moon.
This voyage was the first mission to leave Earth and take humans to orbit the moon and return safely.
It’s also the first time we were able to see the totality of Earth from space. And this is the image I saw as a boy.
They called it earthrise.
We cannot underestimate its visual power. It changed the mindset of a generation.
There, standing out from the black void of space sits our deep blue planet hanging like a beautifully painted bauble. A picture like this can inspire a thousand words of meaning. We all react to it in some way.
The spiritual impact of a Christmas lunar broadcast.
Astronaut Frank Borman on Apollo 8 had the challenge of trying to find the words to express the sheer awe of what he was seeing. So he turned to Genesis 1. It’s now known as the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast.
But something more mysterious was going on in the minds of many of the astronauts. On earth, we were blown away by astonishing images while in space the astronauts were having overwhelming experiences that were ‘spiritual’.
Borman’s later reflections sum up the spiritual impact of that iconic earthrise moment. ‘I had an enormous feeling that there had to be a power greater than any of us—that there was a God, that there was indeed a beginning.‘
An Astronaut’s communion.
Within a matter of months, Apollo 11 touched down on the soft lunar soil. After an audacious ‘flying by the seat of the pants’ landing by Neil Armstrong and co-pilot Buzz Aldrin, the two men enjoyed a moment’s peace. They sat there on the lunar surface in total silence, enveloped by the cosmos all around, thankful for what they’d just done.
An unassuming former test pilot, Armstrong, would soon take the small step to be humanity’s giant leap.
How would you mark such an unprecedented moment in history?
Buzz Aldrin reached for the Bible again. He had the blessing from his home church to celebrate communion on the moon. It was the only thing that could meet the depth of the moment. He reached for the transcendent, for a personal God to be immanent.
It brings to mind the great cosmic verses of Colossians.
‘For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him, all things hold together.’ Colossians 1:16-17.
A lunar miracle; humanity united.
While the astronauts were experiencing transcendence, the world in 1968-69 wasn’t. It was in turmoil. There were cold wars and hot wars, civil disobedience and nascent counter culture. These were the early rumblings of the now dominant ‘culture wars’. Yet for all this unrest, the Apollo 11 landing was a moment that united everybody. It brought the world together as never before and never since.
The third astronaut on the crew of Apollo 11 was Michael Collins. On their triumphant return and world tour, Collins remarked on the unifying impact of Apollo 11.
‘Wherever (in the world) we went, people, said, “We did it. We Humankind, we the Human race, we, people, did it…” and I thought that was a wonderful thing. Ephemeral, but wonderful.’
The spiritual impact? I believe the one thing humans have always dreamed of is peace and unity. For that one moment, all the world looked up in awe and gratitude at what they were witnessing.
Indeed the plaque the crew left on the lunar surface says it so beautifully; ‘We came in peace for all mankind’.
A moment of unity like this brings to my mind the great verse in Revelation;
‘After this, I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.’ Revelation 7:9a
Human beings united in the worship of God.
Do religion and space mix?
Back on earth, NASA was worried. Not so much for the missions, they were, on the whole, going well (even Apollo 13 was a successful failure). It was the thorny issue of religion. They requested that the astronauts turn down the religion dial as they were facing legal action from atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair over the Genesis reading on Apollo 8.
However, the astronauts were still having profound experiences that they were willing to share after the missions.
Astronaut James Irwin, Apollo 15, had a very personal experience of God and described his moonwalk as a revelation, ‘I felt the power of God as I’d never felt it before.’
And this reflection from Astronaut Gene Cernan, Apollo 17:
‘I felt that I was literally standing on a plateau somewhere out there in space, a plateau that science and technology had allowed me to get to.
But now, what I was seeing and even more important, what I was feeling at that moment in time, science and technology had no answers for.
Literally, no answers, because there I was and there you are… the Earth, dynamic, overwhelming and I felt that the world…there’s just too much purpose, too much logic and it was just too beautiful to have happened by accident.
There has to be somebody bigger than you and bigger than me and I mean this in a spiritual sense, not a religious sense. A creator of the universe who stands above the religions that we ourselves create to govern our lives.’
The spiritual impact of the lunar landings on the astronauts.
Or Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14, who so impacted by his moon landing experience, really became a mystic for the rest of his life:
‘On the return trip home, gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious. My view of our planet was a glimpse of divinity… We went to the moon as technicians, we returned as humanitarians.’
Damn it. Science does this amazing thing by putting humans into space and then they end up coming back all mystical and spiritual!
The irony is delicious.
The spiritual impact of the lunar landings on the world.
And so here I am, still dreaming of travelling to space. But I’ve come to not only appreciate what the Apollo programme did but also the spiritual impact even till today.
Earthrise sparked the environmental movement into public debate and I would suggest, the idea of globalisation in the popular imagination. It’s inspired more dreams of travelling to the stars but I believe more importantly provoked deeper questions about what it means to share our planet.
Through the experiences of the astronauts, we can begin to appreciate the incredible beauty and blessing to live on this, ‘good earth.’
We sit on a spinning orb of blue and white beauty. Awe-inspiring in its unique beauty but vulnerable fragility. We all share one planet as one humanity and regardless of our differences share in its blessings given to us freely by our Creator.
One astronaut, Charlie Duke, describes encountering this Creator, after his space mission.
‘A friend of ours got us to go to a Bible study at a tennis club. And after that weekend, I said to Jesus, “l give you my life and if you’re real, come into my life.”And I believe and he did and I had…I had this sense of peace that was… that was hard to describe. It was so dramatic that we started sharing our story.
I say, my walk on the Moon lasted three days and it was a great adventure, but my walk with God lasts forever.’
How amazing, Duke’s testimony echoes the words of the Psalmist written all those years ago, ‘it will be established forever like the moon, the faithful witness in the sky.’ Psalm 89:37.
*Quotes from astronauts are mostly from the excellent documentary In the Shadow of the Moon. The movie transcript is here.
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© Not Only Sundays, August 2019. Images CC0 Public Domain – sourced on pixabay.com under a creative commons licence CC.
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