This Saturday, the United States will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, a magical time when people of different beliefs and backgrounds united in a cause greater than themselves.
When Neil Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon on July 20, 1969, it signaled victory over the Soviet Union in a space race with religious and cultural overtones.
Deana Weibel, an anthropologist who studies religion and space travel, wrote in The Space Review that “one of the strongest cultural contrasts between Americans and Soviets – one that was emphasized frequently in the U.S. – was that Americans were God-loving Christian people while the Soviets were ‘godless commies.’
This meant that space exploration became a competition between those who loved and feared God, and those who sought to defy God’s existence. Seen from within this framework, Americans were bound to win.”
Weibel told a story about a Soviet cosmonaut being asked if he saw God in outer space. He said no. But American astronaut John Glenn responded, “My God is not so small that I would expect to see him in outer space.”
‘In the name of national greatness’
The moon landing came in the midst of a tumultuous time: the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the riots of the Civil Rights era. Buzz Aldrin, who accompanied Armstrong on the Apollo 11 mission, said, “We needed this first moon landing to be a success . . . to reaffirm that the American dream was still possible in the midst of turmoil.”
President John F. Kennedy brought the country together in the early 1960s by appealing to its national pride and pioneering spirit.
In his book, American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, Douglas Brinkley argues that astronauts such as Alan Shepard, the first American to venture into space, would be seen as “knights of American exceptionalism.” Brinkley compared space exploration to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and noted that NASA used words such as adventure, challenge, frontier, and pioneer before introducing the original Mercury Seven astronauts.
The astronauts were explorers of Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” the overarching label for his domestic and foreign policies, as America entered what Kennedy called the “unknown opportunities and perils” of the 1960s.
“To Kennedy’s mind, Alan Shepard was the New Frontier’s John Wayne, an exemplar of American bravery and can-doism in the name of national greatness,” Brinkley wrote.
Kennedy delivered perhaps his greatest speech on the space program at Rice University on September 12, 1962. Appealing to America’s pioneering spirit, he offered this challenge: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one that we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
He closed by asking for “God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
Such references to God were common during the early days of the space program. When Gordon Cooper spoke to Congress, he delivered a prayer he composed in orbit.
Many astronauts compared looking at earth from space to a religious experience. “Wonderful as man-made art may be, it cannot compare in my mind to the sunsets and sunrises, God’s masterpieces,” Glenn wrote.
When the Atlas rocket carrying him lifted off from Cape Canaveral, fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter said, “Godspeed, John Glenn.” Walter Cronkite picked up the phrase on the CBS broadcast as Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.
Communion on the moon
While Armstrong and Aldrin waited in the lunar module before setting foot on the moon, Aldrin, an elder at his Presbyterian church just outside Houston, prepared to take communion.
Aldrin explained in an article in Guideposts magazine that each astronaut could take a few personal items on his flight, and there was “just enough gravity on the moon for liquid to pour.”
“And so, just before I partook of the elements, I read the words which I had chosen to indicate our trust that as man probes into space we are in fact acting in Christ,” Aldrin wrote. “I sensed especially strongly my unity with our church back home, and with the Church everywhere.
“I read: ‘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.’ John 15:5 (TEV)”
Some forty years later, Aldrin had second thoughts. “We had come to space in the name of all mankind – be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists,” he wrote in his book Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon. “But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”
Aldrin had wanted the communion service to be broadcast back to earth, but NASA officials decided otherwise. They reportedly feared another lawsuit from atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, called “the most hated woman in America” by Life magazine. She had sued NASA after Apollo 8 astronauts, the first men to orbit the moon, read from the creation story in the Book of Genesis—command module pilot Jim Lovell called it “a foundation of Christianity, Judaism and Islam”—during a broadcast from space on Christmas Eve 1968.
Leading the world ‘to new frontiers’
James Irwin, the lunar module pilot for Apollo 15, said that, while he was on the moon, he had a profound religious experience. “I felt the power of God like I’d never felt it before,” he said. After he retired from the Air Force as a colonel, he founded a ministry, the High Flight Foundation. “Jesus walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon,” he said.
Such stories evoke memories of a more innocent time, a time many Americans long for in an era of division and disenchantment. Fellow historian Robert Dallek, in endorsing Brinkley’s book, wrote that it “reminds us that America was and can be again a great, principled nation that leads the world on to new frontiers.”
Fifty years after the moon landing, we still live in tumultuous times. This Saturday, while we honor God and celebrate a momentous human achievement, let’s remember that together Americans can still accomplish great things.