“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
With those words, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, the first human ever to set foot on another world.
Back on Earth, an estimated 650 million people – nearly 20 per cent of the world’s population at the time – watched the event on television, while millions more around the globe listened on radio or followed the news as best they could. Walter Cronkite, the veteran TV news anchor covering the Apollo 11 mission, was left speechless in the moment. “Man on the moon . . . oh, boy . . . whew, boy!” was all he could muster.
To this day, the Apollo 11 moon landing remains the mother of all “Where were you?” moments, one of the few remembered for triumph rather than tragedy. Despite the political motives behind the venture, there was near-universal awe at the magnitude of the achievement and a feeling that this was a defining event in human history.
More than that, Apollo 11 awakened a humble sense of wonder as humanity took its first steps into a new frontier of God’s cosmos – a perception that still lingers half a century on.
The Cold War goes into space
Eight years before Apollo 11, on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech calling for the United States to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. His address reflected the optimistic, adventurous spirit of the era, but also the priorities of the Cold War. For years, the U.S. had been engaged in a geopolitical rivalry with the Soviet Union, each side trying to prove its ideological and technological superiority over the other.
This rivalry led to the Space Race of the 1950’s and 60’s, with early rounds going to the Soviets, who were first to launch a satellite (Sputnik 1) and then a human being (cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin) into space. The Americans, desperate to catch up, poured their technological and economic resources into beating the Russians to the moon.
Not everyone was on board with the plan. Critics pointed to the danger and expense of a venture conducted less for scientific research than for political bragging rights. They suggested the money and effort involved in sending a man to the moon would be better spent on problems back on earth. Poet Gil Scott-Heron wrote a song called “Whitey on the Moon,” contrasting the lavishly funded Apollo program with the plight of African American families living in poverty.
Yet for all that, there was an intoxicating mood of adventure and discovery sparked by the Space Race. It would be hard to imagine otherwise. From the beginning, God had wired humanity with imagination and curiosity, with a desire to explore, to see what’s over the next hill or across the ocean or beyond the clouds. This desire, rather than Cold War concerns, is what drove most of the men and women who worked on the Apollo program, and fuelled public interest in it. On the eve of the moon landing, even critics found themselves in awe at the spectacular accomplishment.
Peril and disaster along the way
This is not to say the Apollo program suffered no setbacks. The most disastrous came on January 27, 1967, when the command module of Apollo 1 caught fire during a launch rehearsal at Cape Canaveral (then called Cape Kennedy). In the oxygen-rich environment of the capsule, the three astronauts, Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, burned to death in a matter of seconds. The program was put on hold for over a year and a half, while NASA worked to determine what went wrong, and to ensure it would never happen again.
The manned missions resumed on October 11, 1968, with Apollo 7, followed over the next few months by Apollo 8, 9 and 10. Each mission served as a dry run for some portion of the main event, Apollo 11. Yet by their very nature, all of these flights carried a degree of extreme risk. At every step, any number of things could go wrong, many of them catastrophically so. If they did, there would be no Plan B, no way to fix the problem inflight, no hope of rescue.
Leading up to Apollo 11, President Richard Nixon’s speech writer, William Safire, prepared an address for the president to read on television in the event the astronauts were stranded on the moon. Along with the speech were instructions for the president to phone the wives of the doomed men. At a certain point, NASA was to shut down communications with the astronauts, and a clergyman would perform a service similar to a burial at sea, concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.
Even during the final moments before Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, there was drama that caused Mission Control in Houston to hold its collective breath. The Eagle Lunar Module’s guidance system had trouble finding a safe spot to land, forcing Armstrong to take partial control and guide the vehicle to the best available location, with less than a minute of usable fuel remaining. The relief at Mission Control was palpable when they finally heard Armstrong’s voice: “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
A giant leap for humankind
Less than a decade before the moon landing, in the early days of the space program, there were no computers at NASA – at least not the electronic kind. The complex math needed to calculate thrust and trajectories for sending men into space was done by hand, on slide rules and chalkboards, mostly by women, many of them African American. These women, known as “computers,” were virtually invisible in the cultural climate of their day. It was only decades later that their story came to public attention, thanks to Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures, and the film of the same name that it inspired.
By the time of Apollo 11, NASA had computers, of course, but they were primitive by modern standards. The average iPhone has millions of times the processing speed and storage capacity of the computers that helped send men to the moon in 1969. In light of the era’s technological limitations, the ingenuity and courage of the thousands of men and women behind the space program cannot be overstated. Nor can that of the three astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, who rode a cramped metal shell through 400,000 kilometres of dark, forbidding space to land on an unknown world.
All told, Armstrong and Aldrin spent about 21 hours on the moon, including two and a half outside their vehicle, while Collins remained in orbit with the Command Module, awaiting their return. The two men on the surface collected 21 kilograms of moon rocks and set up a pair of experiments designed to run autonomously after they had left. These were early small steps toward better understanding the nature of the cosmos beyond the earth.
The giant leaps would come in the years that followed, in the form of technological innovations that were born because of the space program. Advances in medicine, communications, food processing, home appliances, new fabrics, construction materials, and of course, computers, all came about from the concerted efforts to put human beings on the moon. Beyond that, generations of young women and men were inspired to pursue careers in science and engineering, or to continue the exploration of space. All of these developments have contributed invaluably to human thriving by the providence of God.
Communion on the moon
In December of 1968, Apollo 8 flew a test mission into lunar orbit, paving the way for the actual landing seven months later. The crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders, were the first humans to escape earth’s gravity and view our planet from a distance, as it rose above the moon’s horizon. On Christmas Eve, while orbiting the moon and looking back at earth, they took turns reading the creation account from Genesis 1 for the world to hear.
This experience of wonder and worship in the face of God’s cosmos was not rare among the astronauts in the space program. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, had expressed a similar sentiment: “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible. It just strengthens my faith.”
And right before Buzz Aldrin became the second man to set foot on the moon, he celebrated the Lord’s Supper with a small communion kit prepared for him by Webster Presbyterian Church in Houston, where he served as an elder. Aldrin described the moment in his 2009 memoir, Magnificent Desolation:
“I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out the communion elements along with a three-by-five card on which I had written the words of Jesus: ‘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.’ I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth earth gravity of the moon. . . . I silently read the Bible passage as I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given.”
On the return flight to earth, Aldrin read a portion of Psalm 8 from the King James Version over the radio broadcast: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?”
The creation mandate among the stars
Apollo 11 effectively ended the Space Race. The Americans had won, successfully landing men on the moon and bringing them safely back to earth, before the 1960’s had ended. And in a display of political sour grapes, the Soviets claimed they’d never been interested in such a venture anyway.
In the aftermath of the historic flight, public interest and support for the moon missions also began to evaporate. The early 70’s were a time of political disillusion, social unrest, economic downturn and energy shortages. It felt like a bad time to keep sending men to the moon, even in the name of scientific research. Besides, after the euphoria of Apollo 11, further trips to the moon seemed anticlimactic. After six more missions, including the near-disaster of Apollo 13, NASA ended the program with Apollo 17 in 1972. No one has returned to the moon since then.
In the ensuing decades, NASA shifted its focus to near-earth missions, including Skylab, the Space Shuttle program, and the International Space Station, in cooperation with several other countries. NASA also built the Hubble Space Telescope and continued to send unmanned probes into deep space, which have returned spectacular images of our solar system and far beyond.
Even so, none of these efforts has captured the public’s attention the way the Apollo missions did, half a century ago. In fact, popular opinion of those missions has eroded over time, focusing on the unsavoury political and social aspects rather than on the boldness and creativity that landed men on the moon in under a decade. Critics have continued to insist that space exploration is a waste of time and money better spent elsewhere, despite the fact that NASA accounts for a mere 0.5 per cent of the U.S. federal budget, roughly the same amount that Americans spend on pet food each year.
According to the first chapter of Genesis, God created men and women in his own image and appointed us to exercise wise, caring, creative dominion over the earth and everything in it. Theologians call this the creation mandate, and when taken together with passages such as Psalm 19 and Aldrin’s Psalm 8, it surely extends beyond our planet to the stars, as God may give us opportunity to explore.
God has placed curiosity and imagination in the human heart, a desire to see what’s out there. It’s our privilege to discover the wonders of his cosmos as he may see fit to reveal them – to enjoy them, be awed by them, harness them for our thriving, and see his glory reflected in them.
As of 2017, NASA has begun to plan the Artemis program – named for Apollo’s twin sister – with the goal of sending “the first woman and the next man” to the moon by 2024. The long view is to create a permanent presence on the moon and build a lunar economy that will eventually send people to Mars. One can only hope.
Sources and further reading
Buzz Aldrin with Ken Abraham, Magnificent Desolation: The long journey home from the moon, Crown Publishing, 2009.
Catherine Baldwin, editor, “Apollo 11 in real time, 50 years later,” NASA,July 12, 2019.
Amy Charles and Victor Dos Santos, “The most beautiful photos taken on the Apollo 11 mission,” BBC Future, July 16, 2019.
Wendy Whitman Cobb, “Women are less supportive of space exploration – getting a woman on the moon might change that,” The Conversation, July 9, 2019.
Charles Fishman, “What you didn’t know about the Apollo 11 mission,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 2019.
Enjoli Francis, Esther Castillejo and Eric Noll, “Revisiting the heart-stopping moments before Apollo 11 landed on the moon with the world watching,” ABC News, July 15, 2019.
Chelsea Gohd, “Apollo 11 at 50: A complete guide to the historic moon landing,” Space, July 16, 2019.
Graham Kendall, “Would your mobile phone be powerful enough to get you to the moon?” The Conversation, July 1, 2019.
Marina Koren, “The moment that made Neil Armstrong’s heart rate spike,” The Atlantic, July 15, 2019.
Sarah Loff, editor, “Apollo 11 mission overview,” NASA, May 15, 2019.
Brett McCracken, “‘First Man’ omits something important – and it’s not the American flag,” The Gospel Coalition, October 13, 2018.
Brett McCracken, “Where were you? ‘Apollo 11’ takes us back to 1969,” The Gospel Coalition, March 16, 2019.
Clara Moskowitz, “One small step back in time: Relive the wonder of Apollo 11,” Scientific American, accessed July 16, 2019.
Norah O’Donnell, “Meet the women behind NASA’s historic Apollo 11 launch,” CBS News, July 16, 2019.
Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American dream and the untold story of the black women mathematicians who helped win the space race, William Morrow Publishers, 2016.
Olivia B. Waxman, “Meet Poppy Northcutt, the woman who helped bring the Apollo 11 astronauts home safely,” Time, July 8, 2019.
“1969 moon landing,” History, January 30, 2019.
“50 facts about the Apollo 11 moon landing for its 50th anniversary,” Mental Floss, July 9, 2019.