In July of 1969 Americans everywhere had the sense that what was happening was of historic importance. Our astronauts had landed their spacecraft on the moon! Connie and I, in our first year of marriage, were working that summer in upstate New York. I purchased a copy of the New York Times to commemorate the event. I have kept that newspaper all these years. (I have learned that millions of other collectors saved that issue of the Times as well.)
This week, remembering that historic event has the nation pondering the space program and what it represents. We have been admiring the fortitude of those first brave men who risked their lives in the great pioneering experiment of space exploration. They relied on their equipment, their training, their preparation, and raw courage.
There have always been those who questioned the value of sending men and women to outer space. They have said that the billions of dollars spent on space exploration could have been put to better use combating social ills like poverty, hunger, war, and racism.
Advocates of space research respond by pointing to beneficial results to society. The space program has increased the sum of human scientific knowledge. This has pushed the boundaries of understanding of our planet, our solar system, and the universe.
They speak of technological advancements such as the rapid development of computer technology, miniaturization, satellite communication, robotics, materials science, weather science, and countless industrial innovations and consumer products. Every scientific advance multiplied applications in many directions.
At the time of the moon landing, our nation was engaged in a “space race” with the Soviet Union. This was intense competition for the hearts and minds of the peoples of the world. Which system of government was superior? Totalitarian communism or a free and open society based on democratic values? The moon landing enhanced America’s prestige and international standing.
It is also important to remember the national security implications. The space program spurred the rapid development of advanced missile technology, delivery systems for nuclear warheads, tactical and strategic. Many believe that winning the race to the moon contributed to America’s winning the Cold War.
There is a wonder and an intense curiosity about outer space. The impulse to explore ever deeper into the universe can lead one to admire the majesty and wisdom of the Creator. It is a way of looking at his creation from a different perspective than that of earth. Contemplation of the heavens inspires worship.
Perhaps that is why the astronauts who first flew around the moon on the Apollo 8 mission, on Christmas Eve, 1968, read from the Bible, Genesis chapter one: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” They said later that they were aware as they did that, they were speaking to more people all over the world at one time, than ever before in history. And they read the Bible.
Some complained that this was an unwarranted intrusion of religion into a government enterprise. Others said that this was not a religious expression at all, but merely an attempt to find words of poetic grandeur to match the occasion.
Astronaut Frank Borman, commander of the mission, when asked about it, said, “I had an enormous feeling that there had to be a power greater than any of us — that there was a God, that there was indeed a beginning.”
John Glenn, the first American to circumnavigate the globe in outer space, later said, “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me, impossible.” James Irwin, who walked on the moon in 1971, often described the lunar mission as a revelation. “I felt the power of God as I’d never felt it before. I heard astronaut Charles Duke say something similar in a speech he gave here in Oklahoma City a few years ago.
The late Charles Colson wrote that the exploration of space sparks an innate religious sense. He quoted philosopher Immanuel Kant who famously said there are two things that “fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
Colson commented: “Reflections about these things…lead our minds to contemplate God himself — the moral law, revealing his goodness, the heavens revealing his power.”
As we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing, let’s agree that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).