WASHINGTON. As most Americans celebrate the 50th anniversary of mankind’s greatest achievement – Apollo 11’s “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth” – we should also remember the men of previous NASA missions who paved the way. For Michael Collins, who flew the command capsule to return Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin back to earth. Following their historic walk on the lunar surface. There was also Frank Borman.
Apollo, the Bible, and the angry atheist
Borman was Commander of Apollo 8. In 1968, his tiny capsule was the first manned vessel to orbit the moon, famously photographing the Earth as it rose over the bleak and cratered lunar horizon. They also gave a dramatic Christmas Eve reading from the Bible’s book of Genesis.
Each crew member took turns reading the first ten verses of the Bible’s first book regarding our planet’s creation.
This, however, did not sit well with one particular earthling – America’s preeminent atheist, Madalyn Murry O’Hair. The woman Life magazine called “the most hated woman in America.” (Madalyn Murray O’Hair: The Founder Of The American Atheists Who Was Gruesomely Murdered)
This ball of secular, perpetual outrage vowed to prevent NASA “from further directing or permitting religious activities or ceremonies and especially reading of the sectarian Christian religion’s Bible, and from prayer recitation in space and in relation to all future space-flight activity.”
And so, O’Hair filed a lawsuit against NASA to uphold the so-called “separation of church and state” in an effort to spread the angry evangel of atheism to every spiral arm of our Milky Way Galaxy.
One small step for atheism
In O’Hair v. Paine, the District Court ruled that if O’Hair’s draconian hostility toward religion became accepted federal policy,
“Municipalities would not be permitted to render police or fire protection to religious groups. Policemen who helped parishioners into their places of worship would violate the Constitution… A fastidious atheist or agnostic could even object to the supplication with which the Court opens each session: ‘God save the United States and this honorable Court.’”
Needless to say, the court threw out the case. And the US Supreme Court refused to take it up on appeal. But the lawsuit achieved O’Hair’s desired end: it became NASA policy to nix all mention of God in future space missions for fear of nuisance lawsuits.
Astronauts and God – A Christian on the moon
A year later, as Apollo 11 prepared for launch in late July, astronaut Buzz Aldrin told NASA of his plan to perform a Christian ritual once he was safely settled on the lunar surface.
NASA would have none of that after the O’Hair lawsuit.
“Keep your comments more general,” a NASA executive told Aldrin.
In the hours before Neil Armstrong descended the ladder affixed to one of the forward landing pods to plant his boot on the dead lunar surface, Aldrin spoke to mission control in Houston and the millions of souls listening on TV and radio:
“I would like to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.”
That said, and outside the watchful eye of the television lens, Aldrin reached for a small, white sack.
In his book “Return to Earth,” Aldrin recalled:
“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.”
According to the Book of John:
“Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
In the hours before Neil Armstrong took his “one giant leap for mankind,” Buzz Aldrin commemorated the sacrifice of the one who redeemed all mankind to himself.
A debate in NASA’s early years was whether scientists or US military combat and test pilots would be the first to land on the moon. But NASA chose the latter due to their experience making quick decisions under difficult circumstances.
It seems appropriate, therefore, that a combat pilot who had fought in the skies over Korea took holy communion as his first act on the moon. Carved on the marble sarcophagi on the tombs of the Unknown Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery are words that also come from the Gospel of John:
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
In a letter to Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, legendary flyer Charles Lindbergh, who flew nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927, wrote:
“There is a quality of aloneness that those who have not experienced it cannot know – to be alone and then to return to one’s fellow men once more. You have experienced an aloneness unknow to man before. I believe you will find that it lets you think and sense with greater clarity.”
But Buzz Aldrin’s act of devotion, remembering the Galilean’s sacrifice for the small, blue world rising above him, proved he was never alone amid the moon’s “magnificent desolation.”
Top Image: Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on the moon. Photo: NASA.
(Inset) Aldrin’s holy communion set. Photo: David Frohman, President of Peachstate Historical Consulting, Inc.