Norman Mailer, describing Apollo 11 landing on the moon in his book A Fire on the Moon, observes, “The notion that man voyaged out to fulfill the desire of God was either the heart of the vision, or an anathema to that true angel in Heaven they would violate by the fires of their ascent.” Religious reflection has never been considered Mailer’s forte, yet these words suggest a perception that has escaped many theologians. Events today tend to support the view that God’s plan for man included space exploration.
President Nixon sounded a somewhat similar note when he tried to place the Apollo 11 landing in historical context by stating in his welcome to the returning astronauts that the week of July 20, 1969, was “the greatest … since the beginning of the world, the Creation.” If the manned lunar landing does indeed support opinions like these, then by now the significance of that event should have been felt throughout our society. The two years since then should have given us the chance to observe any change in our lives that might be traceable to the moon landing. I’d like to discuss just one aspect of this—the spiritual changes that I think have their origin in the space program or have evolved from the lunar landing and exploration by man.
At the time a manned landing on the moon was first proposed, some thinking persons, including a few theologians, were firmly opposed to the idea. There was a feeling that for man to go to the moon would be to challenge God, to attempt to usurp his authority. These persons believed that earth was the realm of man, that space was God’s domain, and that these boundaries were fixed for all time. They cited Genesis 11:1–9, the account of the Tower of Babel experience. They also quoted Obadiah, “Though thou shalt exalt thyself as the eagle, and though thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the LORD” (Obad. 1:4).
I would like to suggest that this “God will not permit it” attitude was much too narrow—that God not only permitted man to go to the moon and explore it but gave the venture his blessing. This was indeed, to quote Mailer again, the “heart of the vision.” I propose that God permitted man to land on the moon in order to demonstrate not only the incorrectness of the view that he would not approve of it but also another important truth for mankind: That man is a divinely created being in a universe ordered by God.
There is still much about man that is immature. For example, we often ascribe to God qualities that are more man-like than God-like. Thus we are able to imagine him challenged by the almost infinitesimal move into space that a lunar landing represents in God’s vast universe.
I first became impressed with a spiritual element in the space program with the flight of Apollo 8. The thrill of hearing the first ten verses of Genesis one read by astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968, from lunar orbit was beyond description. NASA estimated later that over two-thirds of the world’s population or some two billion people heard the Bible read, not in their own language in every case, but read nonetheless. NASA couldn’t have programmed this—God had to do it! The Washington Post expressed some understanding of this in an editorial on December 26, 1968:
At some point in the history of the world, someone may have read the first ten verses of the Book of Genesis under conditions that gave them greater meaning than they had on Christmas Eve. But it seems unlikely. Three men, the first to break free of the earth’s grasp and venture into the ocean of space, chose the biblical story of the Creation as their Christmas message to their fellow men. Their choice no doubt had something to do with the insignificance they must have felt, despite their own magnificent achievement, in their unique personal confrontation with the universe. And it also reflected a feeling that the more we learn about the universe—and Astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders are adding substantially to that knowledge—the more awesome it becomes.
A New York Times editorial writer, too, detected a spiritual note:
There was more than narrow religious significance in the emotional high point of their fantastic odyssey, their reading of the Biblical story of creation while this world watched live pictures of the moon televised by the astronauts from within a few dozen miles of the lunar surface. One of the most powerful forces impelling men to try to break away from this, humanity’s birth planet, is precisely burning curiosity to unravel the mysteries of creation. How were this world and the solar system to which it belongs formed? How did life originate? Are there other living beings in the vast universe of which the sun men know and its planets are but an infinitesimal portion [December 26, 1968]?
Perhaps the Washington Star in a December 29 editorial came closest to expressing the true significance:
The essential thing that man has gained as a result of Apollo 8 is a new vision of himself. There is no revelation, it is true, in the knowledge that the earth is a small planet, a speck of dust in the vastness of space. That is an intellectual concept that man has accepted, or tried to accept, since Galileo glimpsed infinity more than 300 years ago. But never before has the earth seemed so fragile or so precious as it looked from the edge of that boundless night.
Already there is evidence that men of differing views have reacted to what Pope Paul has called this millennial event with a realization that human life and the earth itself are vulnerable to man’s widely accelerated technical progress, and that they are, taken together, eminently worthy of preservation.
We saw this spiritual emphasis again with the flight of Apollo 11 and the first landing on the moon. Astronaut Aldrin, in attempting to express his attitude at that time, chose to celebrate the sacrament of communion on the surface of the moon. He said later: “The symbolism of the flight, of what we were looking for, seemed to transcend modern times. I searched for some words or some symbol to be representative of man’s expanding search.”
These spiritual threads in the space program are indicative of the way God has been speaking to us, reminding us that we were serving his purposes in our journey to the moon.
There are other important considerations. The space program has been heavily oriented toward research and experimentation in the life sciences, such as medicine. A fundamental objective of space research, articulated at the beginning of the space program, was to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Scientists and laymen alike are eager to know whether any kind of life form exists or has existed on another body in the universe. This is why extreme care has been taken to avoid contamination of the moon and the possible contamination of earth from life forms that might exist on the moon. This search, of course, has been governed by what we know about life and the forms it may take. We cannot search for life forms vastly foreign to our research equipment and current knowledge.
This motivation led very early to heavy emphasis on planetary probes to Mars. The first of these to return photographs to earth was Mariner IV. I remember well my surprise when I first saw these photographs on TV in July, 1965. The similarity of the cratered surface of Mars to that of the moon was striking. Further supporting clues were provided by the Mariner VI and VII spacecraft. Better photographs covering a larger area confirmed the Mariner IV findings: Mars is much like the moon!
Adding to these data has been research on rock samples from the moon. No evidence of any form of life, past or present, can be found in them. The moon appears to be devoid of life. So does Mars, based on what we can infer about its similarity to the moon. I believe God is speaking to man in this situation. He is demonstrating the truth of the biblical account of creation and confirming the uniqueness of man and our divine origin. Man is not a cosmological accident but a part of a great divine plan. I feel I can say with some 99 per cent probability that we have no predecessors or counterparts in space. Man must come to realize that he is essentially alone in the universe.
The search for life and the test of the evolution theory, and a growing realization of who we are as humans having a divine origin, are converging ideas that stimulate the search for spiritual meaning.
Looking back over the first decade of the space program and the recent years of our lunar exploration program, we can see also several important social and cultural developments. Is there any connection? Let’s take a look.
We have seen greatly heightened concern for our environment. Pollution is a very present danger, not just an extremist’s idea. Depletion of the earth’s natural resources is a potential danger to our future economy and way of life. Yet it seems that the God of the Universe has decreed that we make it on earth—or not at all!
We have also seen the growth both of our involvement in Southeast Asia and of the people’s rejection of this approach to solving international differences. To me, it is not surprising that war has become so unpopular today. How can the technical achievements of space exploration be reconciled with the taking of human life? This grating contrast between our lofty aspirations in space and our wretched solutions to certain problems on earth is too vivid to be lost on thinking persons today.
Another concern has to do with problems of racial discrimination and the inequities of opportunity for education, employment, and housing. This has led to greatly accelerated efforts to formulate programs, laws, and policies to eliminate discrimination. Attitudes on the part of both blacks and whites, though slower to change, have also become more tolerant and human. This recognition of our humanity, the special qualities all men share, shows a recognition of our divine origin and thus our uniqueness. Regardless of our racial and cultural differences, we all reflect a common, “created” origin. We are beginning to appreciate one another more as we sense that this spiritual quality, this divine nature, is indeed a common thread that binds us together.
William H. Creevey, writing in Presbyterian Life(December 1, 1969), showed appreciation of this fact when he said:
The strange thing about our recent voyage to the moon is that whereas we thought we were exploring outer space and searching out more pastures across a fence of ether beyond our atmosphere, it all turned out as if it were a discovery of the earth. That is the real trophy of the moon trip—a new view of the turning earth with its spiralling veils of weather and a new sense of the human family. The lasting legacy of Apollo 11 is a new sense of all mankind.
These changes in our social and cultural spheres have been accompanied by deeper change in our spiritual mores and religious beliefs over the past decade. In commenting on these changes Time magazine said,
The most significant trend of the ’70s may well be a religious revival. This does not necessarily mean that there will be a massive return to existing institutional churches, although they will continue to modernize in form and structure (by the end of the decade, it is muttered in Rome, even the Pope may appear publicly in coat and tie rather than ecclesiastical garb). In reaction against the trend toward secularization, there may well be a sweeping revival of fundamentalism, particularly in its fervent, Pentecostal variety. The decade will also see the proliferation of small, home-centered worship groups with their own rituals, perhaps even their own theologies. Many people will reject traditional Western religions, finding inspiration and solace in the mystery cults of the East or in eclectic spiritual systems of their own devising [December 19, 1969].
This trend was developing long before Time commented on it. The beginnings of home Bible-study and prayer groups, the modern-day equivalent of the first-century cell group, date to the early sixties. In addition, the wild proliferation of T-groups, sensitivity groups, and other forms of interpersonal experiments on the secular scene all testify to the fact that people are searching for a more meaningful interpersonal experience than they have yet encountered, and for a spiritual reality that transcends the tedium of their daily lives. Most thinking persons sense that there is more to life than what they have experienced. Our findings in space underscore the fact of a “Someone” who guides our universe—and our lives.
This may be the reason why drugs, once the realm in which our young people saw great hope, have lost much of their appeal. Many young Americans are turning instead to Christ as the only one who can meet their needs. This dawning realization on the part of both old and young can to some degree be seen as an indirect benefit of the space program, and it could well eclipse in significance all other benefits.
Writing about these matters during the early days of the space program, I observed that man is moving out into space as part of a spiritual deficiency, a spiritual immaturity. He seeks authentication of his divine nature. Verification of this heritage could be the most significant benefit of the space program. I now believe this more than ever, and believe that this is why God has blessed our space program. Through it, he is directing man’s attention to himself and reminding man of his relation to the Father, his Creator. Man’s recognition of who he is and what he can become as a child of God could lead this nation and the world to a new plateau of spirituality in this day.
In expressing these opinions I run the risk of being labeled an apologist for the space agency. Worse, the logician is likely to charge me with the common fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc: the mere fact that our space program (particularly the first lunar landing) preceded this new spiritual awakening and the so-called Jesus movement cannot be taken to show a direct relation. On the other hand, this conclusion cannot be lightly dismissed, nor can it be assuredly claimed that these two events are merely accidents of time and place. I venture to say that within three to five years, the relation will become more sharply focused.
Some years ago I suggested that man may have to go to the moon to prove he has no purpose in space. Today I would say that the manned landing and exploration of the moon has helped man define more sharply his purpose on earth. It has emphasized our great strengths, such as technological capability and national will. It also has helped us identify areas of weakness in our society, our relation to our environment, the quality of our life. But even more importantly, it has identified the weakness of our spiritual beliefs and reinforced our need for a deeper spiritual life. Many people have felt a new determination to find God. That this is happening is an encouraging omen that could point to a world-wide renewal of Christian faith.
Rodney W. Johnson is technical assistant for shuttle payloads in the Office of Space Science and Applications, NASA, Washington, D.C. He has the M.S. from the University of Minnesota and the Ph.D. from Purdue.
Exposed To Light
Once you’re exposed to light
the half-truths blur. Oh,
we can stare in space or shut
our eyes (martyrs are few),
genuflect to the Church
on science, Hitler on race,
tradition on war, touch
our caps, poor self-abasing
toadies. At dawn each heart
will stir in its sleep to press
the memory of light.
“And yet it moves,” we whisper.