This Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, July 20, 1969. Those of us old enough to remember watched on a grainy black-and-white TVs when Armstrong made his “giant leap” from the bottom rung of the ladder to the moon’s surface.
It was a turbulent time on earth. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been gunned down the year before. Vietnam was at its height. 11,616 American GIs died in Vietnam in 1969. Protests were spreading across the country. Four unarmed students were killed by the National Guard at Kent State in 1970. We were 4 years away from the oil embargo that quadrupled the price of gas and 5 year away from Nixon’s resignation over Watergate.
But, in the midst of the chaos, we left a human footprint on the moon. For most of my life that moment has remained a symbol of the indomitable human spirit, our aspiration and determination to do the impossible, to literally reach for the stars. Most of us assumed that we would return. When the movie 2001 debuted, it seemed entirely plausible that we would have a base on the moon by the end of the century. But, 50 years later, the Apollo footprints remain undisturbed.
There was another human element at play when we left earth’s orbit and pointed our rockets toward the moon. Many of us felt humbled in the face of our fragile yet beautiful existence. The astronauts not only taught us courage and discipline, they inspired us with awe and faith.
John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth. When asked about his experience, Glenn said, “To look at this kind of creation out here and not to believe in God to me is impossible.”
On Christmas Eve, 1968, with the desolate lunar landscape beneath and the earth rising like a marvelous marble of life on the lunar horizon, Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders took turns reading the Genesis account of creation. (Genesis 1:1-10). Prior to exiting the lunar lander 18 months later, Armstrong and Aldrin paused while Buzz Aldrin, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, took communion and prayed.
Thomas Friedman includes an account about Neil Armstrong’s visit to Jerusalem years later. According to Friedman, when Armstrong visited the Temple in Jerusalem in 2007 he asked his guide if these were the very steps where Jesus stepped. When his guide confirmed they were, Armstrong reportedly said, “I have to tell you, I am more excited stepping on these steps than I was stepping on the moon.”
Fifty years after the Apollo 11 landing, we can appreciate even more the words of David, “When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained; what is man that you take thought of him, and the son of man, that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than God, and you crown him with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet” (Psalm 8:3-6).