Fr Kevin Hegarty
THE 50th anniversary of the landing on the Moon dominated the airwaves on the third weekend of July. Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon spoke words that have become famous: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The Apollo II spaceship, nicknamed The Eagle, touched down on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Six hours later Armstrong emerged to take the first step, followed by Buzz Aldrin. The third astronaut, Michael Collins, remained on the spaceship and did not do a Moon walk.
Before Aldrin set foot, he sent the following message to space headquarters:
“Houston, this is ‘Eagle’. This is the landing module Hilton speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. 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.”
A recent article in ‘The Tablet’ magazine by Joanna Moorhead, reveals how Aldrin gave thanks. Aldrin is a Presbyterian who then worshipped at the Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas. A few days before he embarked on his perilous journey he joined some friends at a Eucharistic service in the church.
At the end of the service, the pastor, Dean Woodruff, gave Aldrin a small piece of the Communion bread, a little bottle of wine and a tiny chalice. Aldrin put them in a pouch that he was allowed to take with him on the flight. He wanted to express his feeling that what man was doing in this mission transcended electronics, computers and rockets! He placed his faith, not only in science but also in a higher power.
After they landed on the ‘Sea of Tranquillity’ on the Moon, Aldrin unwrapped the bread, opened the wine and poured the contents into the chalice. As he consumed the bread and wine, he spoke the words of John’s Gospel:
“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.” So the first words spoken on the Moon directly recalled the life of Christ, almost 2,000 years earlier. His celebration coincided with one in his parish church in Houston, Texas, 239,000 miles away, where parishioners gathered to give thanks for the spaceship’s safe arrival. Aldrin later spoke of how close he felt with his friends and neighbours at that time.
News of Aldrin’s response to the Moon landing did not emerge on the grapevine for some time. NASA, the US space agency, had to defend itself against a legal action taken by an atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair. She had objected to the crew of Apollo 8, who, on a previous space mission had quoted from the ‘Book of Genesis’. She asserted that this had violated the US constitutional separation between Church and State. Though her action had fallen into abeyance by July 1969, NASA feared that news of Aldrin’s thanksgiving might incite her or other atheists to take a new case. Aldrin, himself, did wonder later whether he was right to make his worship explicitly Christian:
“Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the Moon in the name of all mankind – be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics or atheists.”