Faith and the Bible in the Apollo Moon Program
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the historic first moonwalk of Apollo 11, we will take a look at the prominent role played by faith and the Bible in the Apollo Moon program.
Indeed, it can be hard to explain to a young person today the importance of Christian faith in American life in the 1960s. Though many people, then as now, were simply nominally religious churchgoers, it was nevertheless very common to hear public prayer, professions of Christian faith and expressions of thanks to God in the public square.
Such demonstrations of faith were also found throughout the Apollo program, though mainstream history today is throwing these into the "memory hole." It was in that turbulent time period of the 60s that the ACLU was beginning to remove public demonstrations of faith, as we will see.
Since the lunar module was not yet ready for testing, NASA officials made the bold decision to fly a manned crew around the Moon to test the Saturn V booster. This historic flight was the first time that humans had reached beyond the confines of the Earth's orbit. This was the first time that people had seen the Moon up close. Moreover, it was the first time people had seen the Earth from the distance of the Moon, as a small blue marble amidst the blackness of space.
Apollo 8 orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968. In a special TV report viewed by people around America and the world, the crew of Apollo 8 sent a Christmas greeting, and a special message -- a reading from the first chapter of the book of Genesis. The first message ever received by astronauts visiting another world was the Biblical account of the first three days of Creation.
For a detailed discussion of the mission of Apollo 8 and the Genesis reading, with related links, click on our newsletter article from last December, Apollo 8 40th Anniversary
Though nearly forgotten today, one of first acts performed on Apollo 11, after first landing on the Moon, was a celebration of the Lord's Supper by astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Upon landing on the Moon in the Eagle LM, Buzz made the following announcement to Mission Control:
Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, whoever or wherever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the last few hours, and to give thanks in his own individual way.
The God and Science website includes the following report
from Buzz Aldrin as to what happened next:
In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture:
I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.
I had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute Deke Slayton had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madelyn Murray O'Hair, the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly...
Eagle's metal body creaked. I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.
Buzz also gave this version of the story in his book, "Return from the Moon."
During the first idle moment in the LM before eating our snack, I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out two small packages which had been specially prepared at my request. One contained a small amount of wine, the other a small wafer. With them and a small chalice from the kit, I took communion on the moon, reading to myself from a small card I carried on which I had written the portion of the Book of John used in the traditional communion ceremony.
It is especially fitting and poignant that Buzz also read Psalm 8: 3-4:
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained, what is man that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
The actual card that Buzz carried with him to read from the Moon was up for auction in 2007. The accompanying image is from this article from USA Today
Buzz Aldrin's communion on the Moon is depicted in the excellent HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. No sources are readily available that indicate Neil Armstrong's opinion of the lunar communion, or whether Buzz had invited him to participate. Buzz Aldrin did report that "Armstrong looked on with an expression of faint disdain (as if to say, what's he up to now?)." However, I would imagine that Neil Armstrong was aware of Buzz's intentions beforehand, since Buzz had already cleared the communion celebration with the NASA authorities, and it seems unlikely that Armstrong would be unware.
In 1969, Buzz Aldrin was an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church in Houston, where he was given the communion kit that he took to Sea of Tranquility. Each year since 1969, Webster Presbyterian holds a Lunar Communion service
to commemorate Buzz Aldrin's celebration on the Moon. This article
gives more info on the 2009 service. The program for the 2008 service is found here
After the catastrophic failure of the Service Module on Apollo 13, it was miraculous that the crew made it back alive to the Earth. However, this success is usually "officially" attributed to human ingenuity and determination rather than divine intervention. While hard work on the part of the NASA crew cannot be denied, nonetheless, calls for prayer were made everywhere at the time, including the mainstream news media and in the halls of Congress. Churches everywhere offered up prayers for the crew of Apollo 13. Whatever means the LORD used, it is evident that the prayers on behalf of Apollo 13 were answered.
On the website What Really Happened to Apollo 13
, NASA engineer and Christian Jerry Woodfill gives an insider's view of the events of Apollo 13, and how an "unseen author" scripted the events so as to return the crew safely. After reading Jerry's account, one must have to be a strong believer in pure chance to think that the miracle of Apollo 13 was merely the result of human effort.
The Bible on the Moon
The Apollo Prayer League was a group of NASA engineers, scientists, administrators and astronauts. The League was headed by Rev. John Stout, a NASA Information Scientist and chaplain who worked closely with the astronauts and NASA personnel.
The Apollo Prayer League created a microfilm Bible and 300 microfilm copies were carried to the lunar surface. The microfilm is about 1.5 inches square, and yet contains all 1,245 pages of the King James Bible. These pages so small that they must be read under a microscope. This Lunar Bible is the only complete copy of the Bible to have flown to the surface of the Moon. The above image and some of the above information is from the Collect Space
The microfilm Lunar Bible was flown on three Apollo missions. It was packed onboard Apollo 12 spacecraft, but was mistakenly left on the Command Module. It was then placed onboard Apollo 13, and was with the astronauts during their perilous return to Earth after the explosion of the Service Module. The Lunar Bible copies were finally carried to the Moon in the pocket of astronaut Edgar Mitchell on Apollo 14.
The Faith of the Moonwalkers
A total of twelve men walked on the Moon from 1969 through 1972. Most of these moonwalkers were modern men of science who viewed the moonwalks as triumphs of technology and the human spirit. However, some of the moonwalking astronauts were touched on a spiritual level by their experiences on the Moon. Two astronauts in particular -- Jim Irwin of Apollo 15 and Charlie Duke of Apollo 16 -- gave their lives to Jesus Christ and one specifically credited his unique experience on the Moon to leading him to Christ.
According to Apollo 14 astronaut Ed Mitchell, the Lunar Module Pilots had less work to do on the Moon than the Mission Commanders, and had more of a chance to "look around." Here's how Mitchell describes the spiritual impact on the Lunar Module Pilots walking on the Moon:
We had more time to be introspective, gawky tourists. Virtually all of us had a profound experience out of that. The interesting thing is, we expressed it in different ways.... For example, Jim Irwin, now deceased, is well known; he became very Fundamentalist and expressed his experience in very traditional religious terms. Charlie Duke, Apollo XVI, did the same thing, relatively speaking. Alan Bean on the other hand, on Apollo XII, turned to his art and became a lunar artist. Myself, being more steeped in science and with doctoral degrees in science and engineering, turned more to philosophy and the science of it to express and find out what was going on. But we all had very similar experiences.
Actually, one might not agree that the distinguished Dr. Mitchell's response was entirely scientific. Even though he was the one who carried the microfilm Bible to the Moon, Mitchell turned to mysticism and UFO-ology following his return from the Moon. Alan Bean from Apollo 13 has indeed made some wonderful paintings in which he attempts to convey the sense he had while walking on the Moon.
Jim Irwin of Apollo 15 felt the presence of the LORD during his 67 hours on the Moon's surface. In his autobiography Destination Moon he wrote:
Before the flight, I was really not a religious man. I believed in God, but I really had nothing to share. But when I came back from the moon, I felt so strongly that I had something that I wanted to share with others, that I established High Flight, in order to tell all men everywhere that God is alive, not only on earth but also on the moon.
In describing seeing the Earth from the Moon, Irwin wrote:
The earth was very small, the size of a marble. I thought it the earth is that small, how small am I? Just a speck in the universe, but yet significant enough that God would love me and create me and love me enough to touch my life....I felt privileged like an angel to get God's view of the earth.
Following his return from the Moon, Jim Irwin became an inspirational speaker. In 1982, he led an expedition to Turkey and climbed Mount Ararat in a search for Noah's Ark. Jim Irwin died in 1991.
Like many of the Apollo astronauts, Charlie Duke of Apollo 16 found his personal life in a wreck following his return from the Moon. Charlie was not directly moved by his experience on the Moon, as he describes in this article:
Though I had gone to church all my life, I had all of God I needed in that one hour every Sunday morning. Even the moon had not been a spiritual experience. I wasn't looking for God. I knew Jesus the way you know the United States presidents--in name only.
Though his relationship with his family was on the rocks, Charlie Duke and his marriage and family were restored through a personal relationship with Jesus. His famous quote:
It cost the government $400 million for me to walk three days on the moon and its over. But to walk with Jesus is free, and it lasts forever.
Charlie Duke also gives a powerful personal testimony of Jesus in the secular documentary of the Apollo program, In the Shadow of the Moon
, produced by Ron Howard. In addition to Charlie Duke's contributions, this is the best retrospective documentary about the Apollo program that I've seen. Charlie Duke's website is at http://www.charlieduke.net/
Though we may not hear specific reports in the news media, we can be confident that the LORD's people are still active in NASA and that the LORD is still moving His hand through the lives of many in the space program.