ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–Apollo 11, NASA’s first manned mission to land on the moon, launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., 41 years ago on July 16, 1969. Four days later, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface and proclaimed, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”
While the first activities by man outside of the Apollo 11 lunar module were broadcast and publicized, one of man’s first acts on the moon’s surface — a religious act — which took place inside the lunar module was kept very private.
On July 20, approximately two-and-a-half hours after landing and prior to exiting the lunar module, Buzz Aldrin broadcast to Earth: “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.”
Aldrin, who attended a Presbyterian church, then paused and took communion. It was “a ceremony I had planned as an expression of gratitude and hope,” Aldrin wrote in his book “Magnificent Desolation.” “I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”
Aldrin intended to share his communion experience with the world, but NASA officials instructed him not to. “NASA was still smarting from a lawsuit filed by atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair after the Apollo 8 astronauts read from the biblical creation account in Genesis,” wrote Aldrin. “O’Hair contended this was a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.”
Recounting his lunar communion experience, Aldrin wrote, “I … pulled out the communion elements along with a three-by-five card on which I had written the words of Jesus: ‘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.'”
Aldrin continued, “I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon…. I silently read the Bible passage as I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given.”
To say Armstrong’s initial step on the lunar surface as well as his pronouncement were historic would be an understatement. Aldrin’s humble act of acknowledging God and thanking Him for protection and strength is inspirational.
Eleven other astronauts shared Armstrong’s experience of walking on the moon. Thus, only a dozen people in the history of the world can relate to the exhilaration of taking one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.
However, most people — especially people of faith — can relate to Aldrin’s need to rely on God in all endeavors great and small.
People of faith understand that whether a person is on the moon, or just sitting in traffic, he or she has a need for the Lord. Acknowledging God and thanking Him is simply a natural response to this reality — a response as natural as breathing.
Aldrin’s celebration of communion was his way of honoring the God on which he relied. While he wanted to share this meaningful moment with the world, the fact that NASA officials asked him not to was not a deterrent. Aldrin’s act was one of simple worship and not a political statement.
It is a mystery to me why militant atheists are so threatened by public displays of worship. If, as they maintain, there is no God, then why are they bothered if people publically blather on about a supposed non-existent being?
And how anyone can construe the reading of Bible verses by astronauts as a “law respecting an establishment of religion” is beyond me. For what it is worth, O’Hair’s suit against NASA was eventually dismissed by the Supreme Court.
O’Hair’s suit may have intimidated NASA into muting Buzz Aldrin’s celebration of communion, but it did not stop it. While the astronaut’s humble act of worship may not have been broadcast or publicized at the time, many have since learned of it — and they have been inspired.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.