Bless Thou the Astronauts
In December 1968, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to orbit the moon and see the Earth “rise” over the lunar surface. To celebrate, the three Apollo 8 astronauts delivered a simple Christmas Eve message for everyone back home, taking turns reading the first ten verses of Genesis 1 from the King James Bible: “And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. … And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.”
Borman concluded the broadcast with a brief farewell: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas—and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
From a distance or nearly 240,000 miles, the astronauts reached an estimated one billion TV viewers—the biggest audience ever at the time.
I felt thrilled to see astronauts praising God on TV. My passion to become an astronomer grew even stronger that summer. And my parents were glad to see good news about America after years of coverage of the bloody Vietnam War and violent student protests. Everybody seemed completely over the moon.
Except for Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the activist atheist whose lawsuit before the US Supreme Court had ended the widespread practice of mandatory Bible reading in public schools. After hearing taxpayer-supported astronauts reciting the Bible from space, she sued the US government for violating the First Amendment. The case was dismissed, but from now on, most Christian astronauts would find quieter ways to express their faith.
Fast-forward to July 1969. Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had safely landed their lunar module on the moon’s dusty surface. The next day Armstrong would take his incredible “giant leap for mankind.” But first, Aldrin paused to privately thank God for extraterrestrial travel mercies.
Like many astronauts and their families, the Aldrins were committed churchgoers. Buzz served as an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church in Clear Lake, Texas, a congregation known as the “Church of the Astronauts” for its long association with some of NASA’s biggest and brightest celebrities, including John Glenn, Jerry Carr, Charlie Bassett, and Roger Chaffee.
Before Aldrin left for the moon, his congregation provided him with an in-flight communion kit. As he rested in the lunar module that sat upon the moon’s surface, he poured out a few drops of wine. In the moon’s low gravity, the red liquid gracefully curled into the small silver chalice. As Aldrin swallowed the wine and chewed a small piece of bread, he read a passage from the Gospel of John that affirmed his complete dependence on God: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
As Aldrin took Communion on the moon, members of Webster Presbyterian stood together in their church to celebrate the sacrament with their distant brother.
The public remained in the dark about Aldrin’s brief lunar liturgy, but he described his feelings about the moment years later. “It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were Communion elements,” he said.
Some churches teach their members to reach out and help people in their local communities. Some focus on service and missionary efforts that reach around the globe. Members of Webster Presbyterian developed a more cosmic conception of their faith.
Decades after one of its members walked on the moon, the church still celebrates Lunar Communion Sunday every July. Its sanctuary is still beautifully decorated with astronomical improvisations on the standard church furnishings. Stained glass windows portray nebulae, the gigantic clouds of stellar dust and gas that the Hubble Space Telescope is examining. The cross features slices of a Mexican meteorite that NASA astronauts used while training to handle moon rocks.
Webster Presbyterian is one of a handful of churches in and around Clear Lake, the Houston suburb that was home to NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center. Many NASA scientists, engineers, astronauts, and their families attended these churches, hearing sermons that wrestled with some of the new theological questions raised by the space race of the 1960s and ’70s:
- Do astronauts travel through heaven?
- Are angels extraterrestrial beings?
- What would the discovery of alien life mean for Christianity?
- Did Jesus Christ die to save life on other worlds?
- Could space travel be a sign of the approaching end times?
After the sermons, Clear Lake believers sang hymns like “Bless Thou the Astronauts”:
When first upon the moon man trod,
How excellent thy name, O God.
The heavens thy glory doth declare;
Where-e’r we are, Lo! thou are there.
The Clear Lake–area churches formed a close-knit community. Members comforted loved ones of the three Apollo 1 astronauts who were killed by a fire in their command module during a prelaunch test. They calmed family members of the Apollo 13 astronauts who issued this emergency message: “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”
Christian fellowship was more than just a Sunday routine for the many NASA workers who regularly attended one of the many informal Bible studies and prayer groups held at the Manned Spacecraft Center throughout the week.
“Religious faith was shared through small groups and interpersonal interactions,” says Princeton doctoral student William J. Schultz. “The faith of people involved in the space race was a regular background presence that was never dominant but certainly never absent.” NASA employees attending one of these Manned Spacecraft Center prayer groups founded Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, which once videotaped its Christmas service so NASA could transmit the program to astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
Priests from St. Paul’s Catholic Church were among local clergy participating in prayer breakfasts held at the center every Tuesday morning.
The Clear Lake churches continue to serve the NASA community today, long after the glory days of the space race have passed. In 2009, one local congregation reaffirmed its calling: “We at University Baptist Church consider it a privilege to serve Christ in the midst of a community of science and technology.”
A Lasting Lunar Legacy
The space race slowed down after NASA successfully met JFK’s audacious challenge. Manned missions to space continued, but none generated the same kinds of excitement we all felt when we witnessed the first men land on the moon. By the time of the Challenger space shuttle disaster of 1986, TV networks no longer did live broadcasts of NASA launches and landings.
The Apollo program ended in the 1970s, but not before twelve men had visited the moon during six separate lunar missions. Astronaut James Irwin was the eighth human to walk on the moon’s surface. “I felt an overwhelming sense of the presence of God on the moon,” wrote Irwin. “I cannot imagine a holier place.”
Irwin and the pastor of one Clear Lake church, Nassau Bay Baptist, cofounded High Flight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supported Irwin’s evangelistic ministry until his death in 1991. “God walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon,” he told his audiences.
The exciting stories of the space race and humanity’s first journeys to the moon have been told and retold in numerous books and movies, but the faith factor remains largely overlooked, despite the powerful role Christianity played in the lives of astronauts, scientists, and their families.
As Buzz Aldrin wrote at the time, “There are many of us in the NASA program who trust that what we are doing is part of God’s eternal plan for man.”
David Bradstreet is professor of physics and the director of the planetarium and observatory at Eastern University. Steve Rabey is a writer based in Colorado Springs.
This article is excerpted from their book, Star Struck: Seeing the Creator in the Wonders of Our Cosmos (Copyright © 2016). Used by permission of Zondervan (www.zondervan.com). The book comes out in September but is available for pre-order.
- Editor's Note from July 07, 2016
Issue 52: Dreams, animal GPS, and astronaut churches. /
- What Dreams Are Really Made Of
Why we’ve always tried to find transcendent meaning in an ordinary, everynight event. /
- What Color Is North?
How birds and other animals travel so far so accurately. /
- A Dream Song (II)
“The stars are spinning their threads.” /
- Wonder on the Web
Issue 52: Links to amazing stuff.