Thursday, July 11, 2019

Reaching for the Moon

"We stood knee-deep in garbage while reaching for the moon." So said Walter Cronkite in a retrospective on the tumultuous decade that was the 1960s. (The garbage he referred to was the famous 1968 New York City garbage strike.) The decade of the 1960s was not only a tumultuous time but also a terribly divisive time, in which so much that had seemed settled became unsettled and society became unglued as a result. Yet the decade ended on a spectacularly happy note with one of the most exciting, exhilarating events in all of human history, the landing of a man on the moon 50 years ago this month on July 20, 1969. (The NY Times photo above shows New York's Ticker Tape Parade for the Apollo 11 Astronauts on August 13, 1969.)

For those of us above a certain age, the story of space exploration and the moon landing is familiar, well remembered for the exciting event it was. I was 21 in 1969 and had spent that summer Sunday afternoon at the beach at Far Rockaway with some friends. But we got back on the "A" train and got home just in time to watch the TV coverage of the actual touchdown by the lunar module on the moon's surface. Later that evening we watched as Astronaut Neil Armstrong took his famous "giant leap for mankind." 

It is perhaps hard to explain to a post-modern world, which has lost a sense of excitement or engagement with great public purposes, the excitement that space exploration had for my generation, but exciting it most certainly was - and not just because we were beating the Russians (although that too was very important to us at the time).

This week PBS American Experience has helped Americans to relive not just that unique historical moment but the decade and more of effort that led up to it. Robert Stone's Chasing the Moon retells the familiar (but forgotten by many) story of scientific and technological innovation, political conflicts, and popular media showmanship that combined to create that complex decade's one great shining moment. It does so using a treasury of old footage from the period that began with the frightening news that the Soviets had beat the U.S into space with the launching of Sputnik in 1957 and interviews with witnesses to those dramatic events (including Sergei Khrushchev, son of the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet side in the decisive early years of the space race).

Stone's Chasing the Moon relives the dual challenge of the project - the scientific and technological challenge of figuring out how to get to the moon and back and the social and political challenge of building support for it among the American people and the political establishment. Among other things, it illuminates Kennedy's early ambivalence, the failed effort to include a non-white astronaut, the role of the first woman to work in MIssion Control, the traumatic effect of the tragic fire that killed Astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee in 1967, and the drama around Apollo 8's lunar orbit at Christmas 1968 (when Astronaut Frank Borman famously read from the Genesis creation story, and the world got to see the now famous image of the earth, what President Nixon at his Inauguration a few weeks later called "the world as God sees it as a single sphere reflecting light in the darkness" ). All this was prelude, of course, to the final drama of the actual July 1969 moon landing and its aftermath and its as yet unfulfilled promise.

Not mentioned in Chasing the Moon (and, I suspect, largely unknown to many, as it certainly was to me until recently) is the story of Astronaut "Buzz" Aldrin's Holy Communion on the Moon, the subject of a post by Richard Ostling on Get Religion. (To read the article go to: )

At that time a lay elder of the Webster Presbyterian Church in Texas, Aldrin arranged with his Pastor to receive Holy Communion in a private service two Sundays before liftoff, then was given some of the Elements to take with him to the moon. After the Eagle had landed on the moon, and before Neil Armstrong and then Aldrin stepped out onto the lunar surface, Aldrin read John 15:5 and then gave himself Communion. He later recalled how "the first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there were the Christian Communion." Each year, his former church recalls the event with a "Lunar Communion" service, using a replica of the small silver chalice Aldrin had used on the moon.

Waiting patiently that summer Sunday evening 50 years ago for Neil Armstrong to open the hatch and take his famous "one step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," I doubt I gave much thought to what the astronauts were doing inside. Certainly I never suspected one of them was receiving Communion! Yet how right that was! How fitting a response to what the heavens were proclaiming all around him! 

Pope Saint Paul VI sent one of 73 Goodwill Messages to the moon on Apollo 11. The message, still presumably on the lunar surface, includes the Latin text of Psalm 8 and the Pope's prayer, To the Glory of the name of God who gives such power to men, we ardently pray for this wonderful beginning.

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