I was just a toddler at the time, but many older people vividly remember huddling expectantly around a flickering black-and-white television as Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon 50 years ago. It was a remarkable accomplishment, spurring many new developments to reduce the weight and power consumption of computers and paving the way for modern personal computers.
Although the space race was motivated by many things, including nationalism and military power, it also provided an opportunity to reflect on our place and on our planet. On Christmas eve of 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 each recited a portion of the Genesis 1 creation story. During that same voyage the astronauts captured an image of the earth coming into view above the moon’s surface. The result was the compelling and iconic “Earthrise” image depicting the delicate Earth rising above the moon’s horizon, with its beautiful blue contrasted with the moon’s barren landscape amid the black backdrop of space. One of the astronauts commented that “we’d come 240,000 miles to see the moon and it was the Earth that was really worth looking at.” It was this iconic image of our fragile and beautiful planet that captured the beauty of our shared home and the need to care for it. In many ways, the image helped spur the environmental movement.
The Apollo program also inspired other expressions of faith. A little known fact is that when Apollo 11 first landed on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian elder, took communion. Aldrin had received special permission to take a little bread and wine with him. The first meal on the moon was a communion meal, a fact that has been absent in many of the recent films about the first moon landing.
In his Institutes, John Calvin wrote about how creation is a “dazzling theater” displaying God’s glorious works. Psalm 19 also describes creation as an active proclaimer of God’s glory, one which has no speech but whose voice is universal, travelling to the ends of the world. The famous “Earthrise” image taken on Apollo 8 spoke to all humanity, proclaiming God’s glory and also serving as a reminder that we live here together on this delicate blue ball in the vastness of space.
Many have criticized the space program as a waste of money that could be better spent on helping the poor. My sense is that exploring space and helping the poor are not mutually exclusive. We are called to do both. Besides advancing scientific knowledge, there have been many side-benefits of space exploration, such as the international co-operation of over a dozen nations that have worked together on the space station. Another benefit has been the many spin-offs that have come out of the space program, including technologies like digital image sensors, solar cells, various advances in computing, and everyday technologies like portable cordless vacuums.
Nevertheless, there ought to be thoughtful debate on future space efforts such as the relative merits of colonizing Mars or further planetary exploration. Some ideas, like the development of “space tourism,” seem less worthy since they expend tremendous resources while only serving the wealthy. While the moon landing was a “giant leap for mankind,” I think that much of what we have yet to discover can be accomplished with less-costly and less-risky unmanned vehicles and robots, like the Mars rover.
Regardless of future directions, the fantastic technical advances in space exploration enable us to glimpse even further into a magnificent cosmos. These remarkable human achievements often serve to open our eyes to an even more compelling creation, one which reminds us of our place in the universe while presenting a dazzling theatre of God’s glory.