Christmas Eve 2018 marks 50 years from time of the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon. There are a lot of interesting background stories behind the early years of NASA and the Apollo missions. One of those stories happening in the background is about the role that Christian faith had in the mission. Apollo 8 in particular has a special place for the role of faith because while orbiting the Moon the astronauts read from the book of Genesis. So the effort to go to the Moon was more than a scientific effort, more than just exploration, for those open to it, it was also man finding a part of God’s glory. In going to the Moon, orbiting it, and returning to Earth, human beings experienced a number of things they hadn’t done before. People had never left Earth and entered orbit around another body in space. People had never seen the dark side of the Moon before. People had never orbited the Moon and returned to Earth. The experience of the astronauts had a major influence on people back on Earth. To see the Moon in the sky from Earth is routine. But to see the Moon from lunar orbit and look back on the Earth from there was an awesome experience that we should not forget. (This lead to the famous picture called “Earthrise,” which was taken while the astronauts were in orbit around the Moon.)
Today many do not remember those events, so it is worth taking time to remember. In 1968, I was 10 years old and like everyone else, I was watching the Apollo mission on TV. The Apollo program was an answer to John F. Kennedy’s challenge to America during the time of what has been called the “space race.” The “race” was with Russia because Russia had made it to space before America. So the challenge from President Kennedy was to deliver men to the Moon and return them safely to the Earth before the decade of the 1960’s ended. At the time he issued this challenge, the United States was behind Russia in the space race. So, NASA was endeavoring to catch up with and surpass the Russians.
In September 1968, the Russian spacecraft called Zond 5 traveled to the Moon, orbited it, and returned safely to the Earth. But Zond 5 did not carry cosmonauts, instead it carried other life forms to find out what the effect of the radiation of space would be to them. Zond 5 carried bacteria, meal worms, flies, plants, seeds, and two tortoises. Zond 5 followed a couple of failed attempts to orbit the Moon and return to the Earth. But Zond 5 did successfully return and it splashed down in the Indian ocean. The tortoises survived. The tortoises may have had a rough ride on the way back because the spacecraft lost its attitude control, which probably made it spin out of control some.
In December of 1968 the lunar lander module was not yet ready and NASA wanted to catch up with the Russians. So NASA advanced the schedule and made the mission for the astronauts to orbit the Moon with just the “command module” and return to the Earth. The Russians sent several spacecraft to the Moon in the late 1960’s and early 70’s but they never sent men. The Russians never sent cosmonauts to the Moon. It really was a very dangerous thing to do. The Apollo 8 spacecraft had to travel about 234,000 miles from Earth orbit to get to the Moon. Then they had to change their trajectory to get into orbit around the Moon. Traveling to the Moon they were moving at about 2,300 miles per hour and they had to slow down but not too much. It took them 68 hours to travel to the Moon. If they went to slow they could crash into the Moon. If they were not close enough to the Moon or they were moving too fast they could miss the Moon or maybe get into the wrong kind of orbit and then not be able to make it back to Earth. They orbited the Moon 10 times over a period of 20 hours.
Two memorable parts of the Apollo 8 mission were the picture taken of Earth while orbiting the Moon and the astronauts reading from the book of Genesis. The picture was a beautiful picture showing the blue Earth in the black background of space. This came to be called “Earthrise.” It was a very inspiring picture and made people talk about how good our planet was. It motivated people to want to take care of Earth. Reading Genesis was a surprise to many people. NASA only told the astronauts “say something appropriate.” But the astronauts couldn’t decide what to say, so they started asking others to come up with an idea of what to say. To hear the story, listen to the podcast below. But I think it was a wonderful reminder of God and a beautiful thing to read from Genesis.
It took many people to make the Apollo 8 mission a success. Someone estimated it took 400,000 people. Over the years it has become evident that many people connected to the space program are Christians. During the Apollo years there was a group of people who voluntarily set out to pray for NASA’s missions. They called themselves the Apollo Prayer League. It was not “sponsored by NASA” but a behind the scenes effort from people of faith. There are a lot of quiet behind the scenes efforts of people of faith. They don’t do it for recognition or fame.
There were other expressions of faith during the Apollo years as well. There was James Irwin for example. He was a geologist and he collected lunar rocks on the Apollo 15 mission. After his Apollo years he became an outspoken Christian and a creationist. He wrote a book called More Than Earthlings: An Astronaut’s Thoughts for Christ-Centered Living. In that book he makes this statement:
“I am now more than an earthling, because I have walked on the moon. Being on the moon had a profound spiritual impact upon my life. Before I entered space with the Apollo 15 mission in July of 1971, I was…[a] silent Christian, but I feel the Lord sent me to the moon so I could return to the earth and share his Son, Jesus Christ.”
Other astronauts expressed their faith in other ways. Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 took communion on the Moon. Edgar Mitchell went to special effort to take the Bible to the Moon, in microfilm form. There is a book about this effort called The Apostles of Apollo. Another astronaut who is a Christian is Shannon Lucid, a woman. She was on five space flights during the years of the Space Shuttle. One of these included spending some time on the Russian Mir space station. She has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and for a time she held the record for a non-Russian spending the most hours in space. She was part of a special conference in China where some Christian scholars and others went to China to present information to the Chinese government on Christianity. It was called “The Future Impact of Christianity on China.” I knew about this event because another person who is a friend of mine, Dr. Paul Ackerman, was also involved with the trip. Dr. Ackerman is a retired Psychology professor. Shannon Lucid was one of the people on this trip who spoke at this conference. She has a connection to China because she was actually born there as a child of Christian missionaries. Paul Ackerman was not allowed to present the paper he wrote for this conference but he was able to hand out some copies of it. I made a webpage for it on my website, called Christian Principles in Human Affairs. It is very worth reading.
The Apollo program was an example of a major project in which many people, some people of faith and some not, worked together to achieve something great. Christians and nonchristians can work together and respect each other. We can learn from these examples as we continue to explore God’s creation.