"That's one small step..."
Most Americans alive on July 20, 1969 recall those stirring words, spoken by Neil Armstrong as he became the first man on the moon. It was one small step for man and "a giant leap for mankind." While the space race was all about beating the Soviets, it also provided countless technological benefits and was a source of inspiration for millions. Along the way many lives were changed for eternity.
There are different ways to look at America's space experience. Is it something quaint, just long ago and far away? Or is it also a glimpse into endless possibilities, and having a sense that the program allows us to get closer to God?
In 1957 the Soviet Union's successful launch of the tiny Sputnik satellite frightened the West. Nikita Khrushchev, premier of the USSR, was saying "We will bury you" at the height of the Cold War. The clock was ticking and the Russians were in a big hurry, already ahead of us in space. America got serious about rockets and space exploration, creating Project Mercury, then Gemini and Apollo. In 1962 when President John F. Kennedy boldly set forth the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth, (before the end of the decade) no one really knew how it would be accomplished. There had only been four short manned flights. JFK's plan was audacious and dangerous. But Americans were clearly captivated by it, and the need to win.
There's also evidence that the space race provided plenty of spiritual inspiration. It was something our nation needed in those days of continuous bad news (Vietnam and race riots, for example). Spiritual growth wasn't part of the JFK goal, but it took plenty of faith to believe the country could accomplish what it had set out to do.
We can choose to believe technology triumphs because of man's ability. Or, we can credit God for giving man the talent in the first place. As the NASA missions went deeper into space (and the cameras got better) we began to see what the astronauts saw: The amazing expanse of creation, making it difficult to avoid the sense of God's handiwork on display.
In one of the most memorable flights, Apollo 8 capped the tumultuous year of 1968 with a Christmas flight around the moon. On live TV, the crew read from the book of Genesis: "In the beginning, God created..." Some early church-state complainers cried foul, but there was no doubt the moment opened hearts around the world. Apollo 8 also gave us Bill Anders' iconic "earth rise" photo, further capturing the world's imagination. In more recent days, images from the Hubble telescope give us more spectacular views of the far reaches of the universe.
Not every participant in the NASA programs is vocal about their spiritual insights, but some openly share their perspective. My friend Gene Cernan (Apollo 10 & 17) is the last man to walk the lunar surface. He says standing on the moon is "like being on God's front porch." Cernan adds that seeing the earth from that vantage point makes it clear that it's all "too perfect to have happened by accident. There has to be a Creator."
At last December's Apollo 8 40th anniversary event at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, a member of the audience asked Jim Lovell if he felt closer to God as he circled the moon. Lovell replied, "We were no closer to God on the moon than we are here on earth. God is with us today and he was with the three of us on that first flight." As moderator of the event, I then asked Cmdr. Frank Borman for his take on the issue. Borman responded with a crisp, "I agree." No nonsense, just the way it is.
Charlie Duke was "CapCom" (Capsule Communicator) at Mission Control when Apollo 11 touched down four decades ago this month. It's his voice you hear talking with Armstrong and Aldrin as the Eagle has landed. Charlie later became the 10th man to walk on the moon, spending three days there on Apollo 16. He is probably the most evangelical of the astronauts, giving speeches across the country about how he came to faith in Christ through the process. Even though he's the most transparent about the issue, he's not alone. Even the acclaimed Dr. Wernher von Braun, father of the U.S. space program, was a devout Christian.
Still, for all the big goals, success and anniversaries, it's easy to discount it all as old news. After the first couple of moon landings, America became complacent about things and wondered, "What else is on TV?" Awe and wonder too often turn into taking things for granted. As Duke notes in the excellent film, "In the Shadow of the Moon:" "My father was born shortly after the Wright brothers. He could barely believe that I went to the moon. But my son who was 5 didn't think it was any big deal." Later he adds, "But we did what we said we were gonna do."
With God's help, Americans did it.
But as we reach each anniversary of space triumphs, may we always look for new ways to remember what such milestones really mean to our nation … and ourselves.
Larson is a veteran Southern California radio/television personality and media consultant. He can be heard daily in San Diego on KCBQ 1170AM from 7-9AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published, July 2009