S. Joseph Scott
Special for News Talk Florida
There are moments when as a nation we stand together and cheer for “our team.” 1962 was one of those rare moments. The nation’s coach-in-chief, John F. Kennedy, delivered one of the greatest unifying locker-room speeches of all time when he confidently thundered from the fifty yard line at Rice University Stadium, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” and he assured the team, “we intend to win!” The victory came on June 20, 1969, just a few years later when Neil Armstrong took his “one small step for man” and the nation cheered in unison.
We can’t stop cheering. Think of all the films: “The Right Stuff”, “Apollo 13”, “First Man”, and “Hidden Figures.” It is right up there with the Miracle on Ice. We beat the Russians! Again! It is a high mark in the American canon of inspirational history, and the fiftieth anniversary has been justifiably memorialized this month.
But, too often the first moon meal is confined to the dark silence of the lunar module.
It is a great trivia question. What was it? Hint, it didn’t include Orange Tang. It was a special meal arranged weeks prior by Armstrong’s fellow astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. Bread and wine. For Aldrin it was a deeply symbolic, even a ritual meal known in the Christian tradition as the “Lord’s Supper.” That’s right, the first meal on the moon was a Communion meal. In his words, “the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.” For Aldrin and others on the team there was more to winning this race than flexing American technological muscle. This was a moment for hushed pause, for reverence, for worship. “At the time,” he explained later, “I could think of no better way to acknowledge the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”
The great conqueror of worlds, risker of life, hero of scientific advance paused and read an ancient Poem: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him” (Psalm 8:3,4). And, 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” (Gospel of John 15:5).
And, just as historically important as that brief ceremony, is the fact you have never heard it. You see, a recent lawsuit at the time from the atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair over a reading from the Biblical account of creation by the Apollo 8 crew had left NASA skittish, and as Aldrin uttered those hushed words, NASA ordered radio silence. Sadly, in his 2009 autobiography, even Aldrin expressed regret at the sectarian nature of his choice of actions. Nonetheless, at that moment, starstruck by having shaken off the shackles of earth, landing in the midst of undeniable wonder, this scientist’s personal instinct was to genuflect in humility.
His intuition was inescapable. Science, technology and God are intersecting realities. Aldrin articulated this himself explaining that his choice of action captured “the thought that God was revealing Himself there too, as man reached out into the universe.” At the climax of the greatest technological and scientific achievement of the day, there was an impulse to worship- a sense of the transcendent- poetry from an ancient Psalm and words from Jesus. Mystery deepens the further we go up and out, down and in.
The first meal on the moon united more than the nation, it united all of humanity in our common, created instinct for worship. We hear a transcendent carol from the awesome grandeur of star dusted space and instinctively we reply. As the first chairman of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Committee put it, “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” Thank you Buzz Aldrin for representing homo religiosus in that first moon meal.
S. Joseph Scott has a Ph.D. in theology and has served in leadership positions in both higher education and religious institutions. He has published in both academic and popular journals and has a special interest in the intersection of faith and culture.