Bill Federer recounts little-known religious observation during lunar landing
“One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” stated Astronaut Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969, as he became the first man to walk on the moon, almost 238,900 miles away from the Earth.
The second man on the moon was Colonel Buzz Aldrin. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent a total of 21 hours and 37 minutes on the moon’s surface before redocking their lunar module Eagle with the command ship Columbia, which was orbiting 57 miles above the moon’s surface.
Buzz Aldrin earned a Ph.D. from M.I.T. and helped develop the technology necessary for the mission, especially the complicated lunar module rendezvous with the command module.
Buzz Aldrin shared a story, “An Astronaut Tells of a little-known but Significant Event on the Moon,” printed in Guideposts Magazine, October 1970), and in his book, “Return to Earth,” published by Random House, 1973.
Before the two astronauts stepped out of the Lunar Module onto the moon’s surface, there was a planned time of rest. Buzz Aldrin asked for radio silence because NASA was fighting a lawsuit brought by an intolerant atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair. She objected to the previous Apollo 8 crew reading the first chapter of the Book of Genesis in their Christmas radio transmission in 1968.
During the radio silence, Buzz Aldrin then privately partook of communion, stating:
For several weeks prior to the scheduled lift-off of Apollo 11 back in July, 1969, the pastor of our church, Dean Woodruff, and I had been struggling to find the right symbol for the first lunar landing. We wanted to express our feeling that what man was doing in this mission transcended electronics and computers and rockets. … Dean often speaks at our church, Webster Presbyterian, just outside of Houston, about the many meanings of the communion service.
“One of the principal symbols,” Dean says, “is that God reveals Himself in the common elements of everyday life.” Traditionally, these elements are bread and wine-common foods in Bible days and typical products of man’s labor.
One day while I was at Cape Kennedy working with the sophisticated tools of the space effort, it occurred to me that these tools were the typical elements of life today. I wondered if it might be possible to take communion on the moon, symbolizing the thought that God was revealing Himself there too, as man reached out into the universe.
For there are many of us in the NASA program who do trust that what we are doing is part of God’s eternal plan for man.
Webster Presbyterian Church is located at 201 W. NASA Road 1, Webster, Texas, and is known nationally as the Church of the Astronauts as John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin, Jerry Carr, Charlie Bassett and Roger Chaffee were active members during their time at NASA. The flag Buzz Aldrin left on the Moon was designed and built by a member of Webster Presbyterian Church, Jack Kinzler.
Buzz Aldrin continued:
I spoke with Dean about the idea as soon as I returned home, and he was enthusiastic. “I could carry the bread in a plastic packet, the way regular inflight food is wrapped. And the wine also-there will be just enough gravity on the moon for liquid to pour. I’ll be able to drink normally from a cup. Dean, I wonder if you could look around for a little chalice that I could take with me as coming from the church?”
The next week Dean showed me a graceful silver cup. I hefted it and was pleased to find that it was light enough to take along. Each astronaut is allowed a few personal items on a flight; the wine chalice would be in my personal-preference kit.
Dean made special plans for two special communion services at Webster Presbyterian Church. One would be held just prior to my leaving Houston for Cape Kennedy, when I would join the other members in a dedication service.
The second would take place two weeks later, Sunday, July 20, when Neil Armstrong and I were scheduled to be on the surface of the moon. On that Sunday the church back home would gather for communion, while I joined them as close as possible to the same hour, taking communion inside the lunar module, all of us meaning to represent in this small way not only our local church but the Church as a whole.
The Houston Chronicle and the Huffington Post have published articles about Buzz Aldrin’s communion on the moon.
Right away question came up. Was it theologically correct for a layman to serve himself communion under these circumstances? Dean thought so, but to make sure he decided to write the stated clerk of the Presbyterian church’s General Assembly and got back a quick reply that this was permissible.
And how much should we talk about our plans? I am naturally rather reticent, but on the other hand I was becoming increasingly convinced that having religious convictions carried with it the responsibility of witnessing to them. Finally we decided we would say nothing about the communion service until after the moonshot. …
I had a question about which scriptural passage to use. Which reading would best capture what this enterprise meant to us? I thought long about this and came up at last with John 15:5.
It seemed to fit perfectly. I wrote the passage on a slip of paper to be carried aboard Eagle along with the communion elements. Dean would read the same passage at the full congregation service held back home that same day.
So at last we were set. And then trouble appeared. It was Saturday, just prior to the first of the two communion services. The next day, Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and I were to depart Houston for Cape Kennedy. We were scheduled for a pre-mission press conference when the flight physician arrived and set up elaborate precautions against crew contamination. … We had to wear sterile masks and to talk to the reporters from within a special partition. The doctor was taking no chances. A cold germ, a flu virus, and the whole shot might have to be aborted.
I felt I had to tell him about the big church service scheduled for the next morning. When I did, he wasn’t at all happy. I called Dean with the news late Saturday night. “It doesn’t look real good, Dean.”
“What about a private service? Without the whole congregation?”
It was a possibility. I called the doctor about the smaller service and he agreed, provided there were only a handful of people present.
So the next day, Sunday, shortly after the end of the 11 o’clock service my wife, Joan and our oldest boy Mike (the only one of our three children who is as yet a communicant), went to the church. There we met Dean, his wife, Floy, and our close family friend Tom Manison, elder of the church and his wife.
The seven of us went in to the now-empty sanctuary. On the communion table were two loaves of bread, one for now, the other for two weeks from now. Beside the two loaves were two chalices, one of them the small cup the church was giving me for the service on the moon.
We took communion. At the end of the service Dean tore off a corner of the second loaf of bread and handed it to me along with the tiny chalice. Within a few hours I was on my way to Cape Kennedy. What happened there, of course, the whole world knows.
The Saturn 5 rocket gave us a rough ride at first, but the rest of the trip was smooth. On the day of the moon landing, we awoke at 5:30 a.m., Houston time. Neil and I separated from Mike Collins in the command module. Our powered descent was right on schedule, and perfect except for one unforeseeable difficulty. The automatic guidance system would have taken Eagle to an area with huge boulders. Neil had to steer Eagle to a more suitable terrain. With only seconds worth of fuel left, we touched down at 3:30 p.m.
Mission Control was nervous, as they were descending faster than anticipated and the guidance system computer was sending off an alarm.
It was later discovered that a switch was on causing the radar to also look up to locate the Columbia in case the landing had to be quickly aborted, and the computer was dithering between the upward and downward signals. Neil switched to manually land the craft, with Buzz relaying instrument readings, while the rockets were kicking up a cloud of blinding moon dust, obscuring vision of the boulders below.
At Mission Control in Houston, Charles Duke, who was later on Apollo 16, was NASA’s CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator). Acknowledging the successful landing, Duke replied: “Roger, Twank. … Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot!”
Buzz Aldrin continued: “Now Neil and I were sitting inside Eagle, while Mike circled in lunar orbit unseen in the black sky above us.”
Mike Collins snapped the photo of the Eagle separating from the command module Columbia and drifting down toward the Moon. Collins was alone in the Columbia, circling the dark side of the Moon. He wrote that “not since Adam has any human known such solitude,” and that he was “sweating like a nervous as a bride” till the Eagle returned (The Guardian, July 18, 2009): “Collins’ deepest fear: that he would be the only survivor of an Apollo 11 disaster. … Despite their apparent calm … no one was more stressed than Collins. … (He) was obsessed with the reliability of the ascent engine of Armstrong and Aldrin’s lander, Eagle. It had never been fired on the Moon’s surface before. … Should the engine fail to ignite, Armstrong and Aldrin would be stranded on the Moon – where they would die when their oxygen ran out. Or if it failed to burn for at least seven minutes, then the two astronauts would either crash back on to the Moon or be stranded in low orbit around it, beyond the reach of Collins in his mothership, Columbia.”
On the moon’s surface, Buzz Aldrin recounted:
In a little while after our scheduled meal period, Neil would give the signal to step down the ladder onto the powdery surface of the moon. Now was the moment for communion. So I unstowed the elements in their flight packets. I put them and the scripture reading on the little table in front of the abort guidance system computer. … Then I called back to Houston. “Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM Pilot 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 invite each person listening, 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.” …
Chalice used in lunar communion
On World Communion Sunday … many Christians through the world will unite in spirit as they – each in his own church, according to his own tradition – participate in celebrating the Lord’s Supper. … For me this meant taking communion. In the radio blackout I opened the little plastic packages which contained bread and wine.
I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements. And so, just before I partook of the elements, I read the words, which I had chosen to indicate our trust that as man probes into space we are in fact acting in Christ. … I sensed especially strongly my unity with our church back home, and with the Church everywhere.
I read: “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.”
Webster Presbyterian Church on NASA Parkway near Houston, Texas, keeps the chalice used on the moon and commemorates the event each year on the Sunday closest to July 20.
While Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were on the moon, Mike Collins orbited behind the moon, becoming the most distant solo human traveler, completely out of radio contact from Earth, nearly a quarter of a million miles away.
Isolated in space in the command module Columbia, Mike Collins wrote: “This venture has been structured for three men, and I consider my third to be as necessary as either of the other two. I don’t mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side.”
A little known event in the USA-USSR Space Race was that two hours before Armstrong and Aldrin blasted off from the moon, an unmanned Russian lunar spacecraft, Luna 15, crashed-landed in the nearby Mare Crisium.
After their moon walk, Armstrong and Aldrin climbed back into the Eagle. Their large spacesuits, which included life support backpacks, made maneuvering difficult and the circuit breaker was broken which controlled ignition for the life-off rockets. This potentially serious accident was fixed with the tip of a felt pen. To reduce weight, they threw out unnecessary moon walk equipment, then re-compressed the Eagle. They lifted off, successfully re-docked with the Columbia, and headed back to earth.
Buzz Aldrin stated via television, July 23, 1969: “This has been far more than three men on a mission to the moon. … 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?’”
Armstrong added: “To all the other people that are listening and watching tonight, God bless you. Good night from Apollo 11.”
Buzz Aldrin’s popularity was the inspiration for the character “Buzz Lightyear” in Pixar’s animated movie Toy Story (1995).
Charles Duke later flew to the moon as an astronaut on the Apollo 16 mission. On April 21, 1972, Duke and John Young explored the moon’s rugged Descartes region. Years later, Charles Duke spoke at a prayer rally during the Texas State’s Republican Convention in San Antonio’s Lila Cockrell Theatre, June 22, 1996.
His remarks were printed in the book “Charles Duke: Moonwalker” (Rose Petal Press, 2nd edition, 2011, p. 256-261): “I have been before kings and prime ministers, junta leaders and dictators, businessmen and beggars, rich and poor, black and white. … One of the most touching times was in the office of one of the cabinet ministers in Israel. … After the introduction I was asked to share my walk on the moon with the Israeli minister. ‘Mr. Minister,’ I began, ‘I was able to look back at the earth from the moon and hold up my hand and underneath this hand was the earth. The thought occurred to me that underneath my hand were four billion people. I couldn’t see Europe, America, the Middle East. I couldn’t see blacks or whites, Jews or Orientals, just spaceship earth. I realized we needed to learn to love one another, and I believed that with that love and our technical expertise, we could solve all of mankind’s problems. …’ The promises of the Bible are true and, I believe, speak the truth in every area – whether it be in spiritual matters, nutrition, history, or even science …”
Charles Duke added: “In 1972 aboard Apollo 16, I saw with my own eyes what is written in the Scriptures. In Isaiah 40:22 it says ‘It is He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth.” And in Job 26:7, it is written ‘He hangeth the earth upon nothing.’ Who told Isaiah that the earth was a circle? … And how did the writer of Job know that the earth hung upon nothing? … This is the Lord I love and serve. This is the Lord who transformed by life. This is the Lord who transformed my marriage. I used to say I could live ten thousand years and never have an experience as thrilling as walking on the moon. But the excitement and satisfaction of that walk doesn’t begin to compare with my walk with Jesus, a walk that lasts forever. I thought Apollo 16 would be my crowning glory, but the crown that Jesus gives will not tarnish or fade away. His crown will last throughout all eternity. …”
Charles Duke concluded: “Not everyone has the opportunity to walk on the moon, but everybody has the opportunity to walk with the Son. It costs billions of dollars to send someone to the moon, but walking with Jesus is free, the Gift of God. ‘For by Grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.’ You don’t need to go to the moon to find God. I didn’t find God in space – I found him in the front seat of my car on Highway 46 in New Braunfels, Texas, when I opened my heart to Jesus. And my life hasn’t been the same since. Now I can truly look up at the moon and the stars and with the prophets of old exclaim, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork.’”
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