My childhood hero has gone. Last Saturday, Neil Armstrong died from complications following heart surgery. Maybe it is because we share the same name, or maybe that was every 1970s schoolboy’s ambition, but for several years an astronaut was definitely what I was going to be when I grew up. If I didn’t make it as a footballer, that is.
Many my age – about 600 million were said to be watching – will probably still remember being woken up in the early hours of the morning of July 21st 1969 to watch the grainy black-and-white retransmission of Armstrong’s “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”. (For those interested in this kind of detail, the picture was of such poor quality not because this was all that was available; the signal sent from the moon was incompatible with any commercial format at that time so what was transmitted around the world was simply a camera filming the direct lunar transmission displayed on a monitor in Houston. In “one great blunder for mankind”, a shortage of suitable tapes led to the original recordings being accidentally erased some time later so we will never now get to see it “as it was”.)
Whilst a product of the intense Soviet-US rivalry that motivated the space race, the event was nevertheless a huge achievement. Pushing technology and human ingenuity to its limits, the moon landings captured the imagination of a generation the world over and made Armstrong into a reluctant hero. The photo of Edwin Aldrin taken on that trip, with Armstong reflected in his visor, remains one of the world’s most viewed images.
The space race was also an ideological race. Although Gagarin himself never said the words attributed to him, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God”, Nikita Khrushchev did use the occasion to support the officially atheistic state’s anti-religious policy: a speech to the central committee of the communist party stated that “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there”. On the other side, NASA found itself embroiled in a court case filed by atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair objecting to the Apollo 8 Bible reading of the creation account from Genesis, so there was nothing of any religious nature to mark the moon landing. Nothing “official”, that is.
“Buzz” Aldrin was the most overtly Christian of the two men who stepped on the moon that day. (Armstrong’s final words in the televised broadcast the night before splashdown were: “God bless you. Good night from Apollo 11”, but there were no other public indications of any faith he may have held.) An elder in a Presbyterian church in Webster, Texas, before they began preparations for the moonwalk Aldrin asked “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”. He then took communion,
much as Christopher Columbus and other explorers had done when they first landed in their “new world”. … So, during those first hours on the moon, before the planned eating and rest periods, I reached into my personal preference kit and 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.” 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. (From Aldrin’s 2009 book Magnificent Desolation.)
This has been far more than three men on a mission to the Moon; more, still, than the efforts of a government and industry team; more, even, than the efforts of one nation. We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown … Personally, in reflecting on the events of the past several days, a verse from Psalms comes to mind. “When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the Moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”
The skies, of which the moon is a part, remain a powerful testimony to the reality of our creator, reaching both into the emotional side of our beings – the wonder or awe that we can feel when contemplating the heavens – as well as the rational – the “fine-tuning” of the universe that enables it to exist and support life is beyond the realms of chance. More on that another day, perhaps. Whilst my own journey to faith did not start with that early interest in astronomy and space, it has certainly been confirmed and strengthened as I have delved deeper into the mysteries of the created universe. I cannot say that it all started on that July morning 43 years ago, but that moment certainly played its part. Thank-you, Neil.