Vicki Nunn

by Vicki Nunn

From issue 10 (Sep-Nov 2017) Buy a copy to help support this ministry

Introduction

It was sixty years ago on 4 October in 1957 that the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made object placed into orbit around the earth.

While our Inspirational People segment usually concentrates on an individual or a couple, this time we’ll be looking at several astronauts and whether we know if their travel into space had an impact on their beliefs if any, about God, or if those who had a faith were affected by their venture into that mysterious territory.

I imagine that it must be a humbling experience to see oneself in that huge, cold emptiness and to recognise for the first time, one’s utter insignificance in the face of it. For those astronauts who founded their belief and sense of self on evolutionary theories, it would surely have made them feel not only infinitesimally small, but possibly completely irrelevant.

For the Christian adventurer though, their realisation would possibly have been a complete contrast. While realising their insignificance, there might an acknowledgement of the magnificence of our Creator and a astonishment and wonder as to why He should care for them.

Christian Today journalist Harriet Campbell said:

“There is something quite spectacular about realising how insignificant you are. Coming to understand that you are a speck of dust in this vast universe is nothing short of terrifying, humbling, and joyful.”

For Christian astronauts who saw themselves for the speck they truly are in the face of God and His incredible creation, that knowledge might enable them to more fully comprehend how extraordinary it is that God should still choose to bestow His love on us and desire to forge an intimate relationship with us.

Astronaut Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon for the first time in 1969, from Apollo II

Astronaut Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon for the first time in 1969, from Apollo II

Neil Armstrong on the moon

 

The Beginning of the Space Race

By the 1950s, the antagonism between the Soviet Union and the USA resulted in an unofficial ‘space-race’ with each striving to achieve ‘firsts’ and thus prove they were superior to the other.

The successful launch of Russia’s Sputnik and its orbit around the earth in 1957, caused escalating fervour in the USA. The government placed increasing pressure on its engineers and scientists to not only match the Soviet’s accomplishment, but to exceed it.

Around one year later on 1 October 1958, NASA first began its operations, but it was to be another eleven years before man would walk on the moon for the first time.

Aerospace technology in those early years was crude and particularly dangerous for the early astronauts, with engineers and scientists having to develop completely new concepts and technologies to meet the rigorous requirements of space-travel and to ensure the safety of its astronauts.

Since its inception, NASA has had around 320 of its astronauts spend time in space, though the number of Russian astronauts (cosmonauts) are as yet unavailable.
While there have been suggestions that the number of Christians in the American space program over the years, was significant, the statistics tell us otherwise. While there have been around seventeen Christian astronauts, if we compare that against the total number of NASA astronauts who have spent time in space, that makes it a total of 17 out of 320, which is just over five percent.

What is significant though is that there have been a number of non-Christians and non-religious people, who have shared that they had a spiritual experience while in space.

If we consider the era in which the first American astronauts grew up who were sent into space (from 1940s to 1970s), it’s not surprising that so many of them had a Christian faith or had their faith renewed by their space-faring excursions. More people went to church in those eras then they do in the present day, and Christianity was recognised and embraced as one of the cornerstones of western society.

Buzz Aldrin’s footprint on the moon

Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin outside of the Gemini 12 in 1966. He was the first person to prove that we could work in space (EVA – extra-vehicular activity)

The First Christian on the Moon

On 21 July 1969, the second man to walk on the moon was Buzz Aldrin. Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr, was a committed Christian.

A former US Air Force officer, he held a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering, Aldrin had flown as a jet fighter in the Korean war.

By 1963, he’d gained a Sc.D. degree in astronautics. In his doctoral thesis, his dedication was:

”In the hopes that this work may in some way contribute to their exploration of space, this is dedicated to the crew members of this country’s present and future manned space programs. If only I could join them in their exciting endeavors!”

Buzz Aldrin in 1969, was the second man to walk on the moon, and the first Christian to set foot on soil other than earth’s.

Aldrin’s Space Flights

In 1966, while training, Aldrin was confirmed as an astronaut on Gemini XXII (12), which was to be the last of the Gemini missions. Gemini XXII was the tenth manned flight and the eighteenth manned space-flight.

It was during that space flight that Aldrin first proved it was possible to work outside the space-craft (EVA – extravehicular activity).

NASA began the next space-crafts, beginning with Apollo 1 which was a much more complex and advanced craft than the earlier Geminis.

Unfortunately all three crew members died from a cabin fire onboard the Apollo 1, during a launch rehearsal test. The heat and dense smoke from the fire hindered all efforts to rescue the three men. Manned flights were suspended for around twenty months while NASA looked into the hazard problems.

There was no Apollo 2 or 3 launch, though later the Apollo 4, 5 and 6 were successful unmanned test flights to determine the craft’s viability. This gave NASA the confidence to continue using a similar vehicle.

In October 1968, Apollo 7 took a crew into outer space. This successful mission, encouraged NASA to undertake Apollo 8 in December 1968 which was to orbit around the moon and return to earth.

On Christmas eve, while in space, the crew members of Apollo 8 read the first ten verses from the chapter one of Genesis which was broadcast to a then record TV viewing audience.

The following extract is the ©Voice version of that passage:

“In the beginning, God created everything: the heavens above and the earth below. Here’s what happened: at first the earth lacked shape and was totally empty, and a dark fog draped over the deep while God’s spirit-wind hovered over the surface of the empty waters. Then there was the voice of God.

God: Let there be light.

And light flashed into being. God saw that the light was beautiful and good, and He separated the light from the darkness. God named the light “day” and the darkness “night.” Evening gave way to morning. That was day one.

God: Let there be a vast expanse in the middle of the waters. Let the waters above part from the waters below.

So God parted the waters and formed this expanse, separating the waters above from the waters below. It happened just as God said. And God called the vast expanse “sky.” Evening gave way to morning. That was day two.

God: Let the waters below the heavens be collected into one place and congregate into one vast sea, so that dry land may appear.

It happened just as God said. God called the dry land “earth” and the waters congregated below “seas.” And God saw that His new creation was beautiful and good.”

It was that Bible reading on Apollo 8, which led to NASA being sued by atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair for NASA’s religious use of the space program because they had allowed the astronauts to read the Bible during a space flight.

While O’Hair lost the case, from that time on, NASA sought to distance itself from promoting any particular religion, and specifically requested that the crews not make any religious quotes.

Apollo 9 and 10 did further tests in space to determine the viability of a moon landing, its engines, life support backpacks, docking man-oeuvres, navigation systems and more. Then it was time for the real thing – Apollo 11.

Docking of the Gemini 12 spacecraft

 

Buzz Aldrin undertaking EVA outside of the Gemini 12 in 1966

Buzz Aldrin and James A Lovell after Gemini 12 spacecraft splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean

Buzz Aldrin and James A Lovell after Gemini 12 spacecraft successfully splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean

Walking on the Moon

The rocket was successfully launched, and three days later, while Michael Collins waited in the Apollo 11 command module, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong (commander) and Buzz Aldrin (pilot) became the first two human beings to land atop and set foot on earth’s moon.

While Buzz had initially desired to be the first out of the craft, NASA determined that it would be much easier for Armstrong to go first, due to their physical positioning within the craft, and also as Mission Commander, it was Armstrong’s privilege to be the first.

What few people know (and certainly NASA doesn’t promote it) is the fact that Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian, held the first ever communion on the surface of the moon.

When he radioed back to earth he said,

“I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.”

He’d brought with him a tiny communion kit that had been given to him by his pastor Rev Dean Woodruff.

In the silence of outer space, Buzz read the passage from John 1 and took communion. Later he said:

“It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the Moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.”

At a later time Aldrin said:

“Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion. Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the Moon in the name of all mankind – be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”

Despite NASA’s earlier request to avoid making any religious comments, on Apollo 11’s final TV broadcast as they returned home, Buzz Aldrin quoted from Psalm eight, verses three and four:

“I’ve been reflecting the events of the past several days and a verse from the Psalms comes to mind to me. ‘When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained, what is man that thou art mindful of him?'”

[KJV]

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin

The Apollo 11 team: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin

Buzz’s Later Years

After he left NASA in 1971, Buzz retired in 1972, but struggled with depression and alcoholism and eventually sought treatment which helped him tremendously. He continues to promote the exploration of space.

In 2016, at the age of 86, he gained the world record for being the oldest person to ever reach the South Pole. Additionally, Aldrin has co-authored around nine books.

Thunderbirds pilots pose for a photo with retired Air Force Col. and astronaut Buzz Aldrin in 2017

Other Christian Astronauts

A number of astronauts had religious or spiritual experiences when on the moon or in outer space:

1. John Glenn (1921 – 2016)

Glenn was not only the first man to orbit the earth, and later, the oldest astronaut in space after he travelled on the space shuttle; he was also a Presbyterian Elder. He said:

“To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible. It just strengthens my faith.”

Glenn in 1962 in his silver pressure suit in preparation for the launch of Mercury Atlas 6 rocket

John Glenn

John Glenn in 1988 was one of STS-95 crew and at 77 was the oldest person to fly in space.

2. Jeffrey Williams (born 1958) 

Jeffrey is a committed Christian. His first space flight was in 2000, and he has taken four space flights.

He holds the USA record for the most time spent in space and has taken more photographs in space than any other astronaut.

Jeffrey wrote the book “The Work of His Hands: A View Of God’s Creation From Space” in which he shared about his experiences. The:

“…vivid lessons about the meticulous goodness of divine providence, God’s care for His creation, and His wisdom in ordering the universe.”

Jeffrey Williams

3. Jim (James) Irwin (1930 – 1991)

Irwin was a lapsed Christian before he went into space and was on the fourth manned ship to reach the moon. His wife was a believer.

It was while he was on the moon that he encountered God in such a way, that it changed his life forever. After that, Jim felt God calling him to tell people about Jesus.

“I felt the power of God as I’d never felt it before…”

Irwin said of his experience while on the Apollo 15 lunar mission.

One year later he quit his aerospace job and founded the High Flight Foundation (an interdenominational evangelical organisation) and later became an evangelical minister.

With his pastor, he set up “High Flight,” a non-profit organisation which provides religious retreats as well as tours to the Holy Land.
He spent the next 20 years as a “Goodwill Ambassador for the Prince of Peace”, stating:

“Jesus walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon.”

He frequently spoke about how his experiences in space had made God more real to him than before.

Beginning in 1973, Irwin was the leader of a couple of expeditions to Mount Ararat, Turkey, in an attempt to find the remains of Noah’s Ark. In his book, “More Than Earthlings,” Irwin shared that he believed the Genesis creation was real, literal history.

James Irwin saluting the American Flag on the moon in 1971

Jim Irwin

James Irwin and the lunar rover during Apollo 15 in 1971

4. William Alison “Bill” Anders (born 1933).

During the Apollo 8 lunar orbit, on Christmas eve in 1968, the crew took turns reading the first ten verses of chapter one of Genesis, and Anders was the first to begin the recitation. It had been his choice to do that, not out of a sense of piety but because he thought it was a universal idea, that we were all created.

The reading of the Bible verses was recorded by NASA, but wasn’t something that the space agency promoted. Anders was touched deeply by his space experience, coming to recognise mankind’s insignificance in the vast expanse of space.

Bill Anders on left of the Apollo 8 Crew

Bill Anders on left of the Apollo 8 Crew

William Anders

5. Frank Borman (born 1928)

The commander of the first crew to fly beyond the earth’s orbit, was Frank Borman. As he looked down towards the earth some 250,000 miles away (402,000km), he quoted Genesis chapter one on the radio.

Later he 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.”

Frank Borman & James A Lovell Jr, walking up the ramp to the elevator prior to their Gemini VII flight

Frank F. Borman II, Commander of Apollo 8, the first mission to fly around the Moon

6. Charles Moss “Charlie” Duke Jr. (born 1935)

Duke was the youngest astronaut ever on the moon, and in later life he took on work as a missionary. As he explained:

“I make speeches about walking on the moon and walking with the Son (of God.)”

Charles Duke left behind his family’s photo on the moon in 1972. He’d taken it on board despite NASA’s strict requirements on extraneous items.

 

Charles Duke in 1971 was the tenth and youngest person to walk on the moon (in 1972)

Charles Duke on lunar EVA during the Apollo 16 mission in April 1972

7. Guy Gardner (born 1948)

Guy is a former astronaut who shares a testimony in different churches about the reality of God.

Guy Gardner, flew as pilot on two Space Shuttle missions from 1988 – 1990

 

8. Col. Michael Good (born 1962)

A Catholic man who through his experiences in space, and the remarkable views that he saw, had his faith in God further cemented.

Mike T. Good flew aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis for its STS-125 mission. STS-125 was the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. Good flew as Mission Specialist 2 on STS-132

Mike T. Good flew aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis for its STS-125 mission. STS-125 was the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. Good flew as Mission Specialist 2 on STS-132

 

9. Ronald Garan Jr. (born 1961)

Ronald teaches Sunday School and is a Catholic.

Prior to his space flight, he asked a group of Carmelite nuns to pray for him. He asked if they had an item he could take into space with him, so the sisters provided a relic of St Thérèse of Lisieux.

Ronald is also the founder of the Manna Energy Foundation, which finds ways to assists villages in Rwanda to make potable water.

Ronald J. Garan Jr first flew in space on the STS-124 mission to the International Space Station and later spent six months there in 2011.

10. Gerald P. Carr (born 1932)

Commander of Skylab 4 from 1973 to 1974, Carr has been a regular church attendee.

Gerald P Carr was Commander of Skylab 4, from 1973 – 1974

11. Charles Arthur “Charlie” Bassett II (1931-1966)

Charlie was a regular church attendee before his death.

He was assigned to Gemini 9 in 1963 but died in an airplane crash in 1966 during training for his first spaceflight.

Charles Bassett II 

12. Roger Bruce Chaffee (1935-1967)

Chaffee was a regular attendant at his church before his death in a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission.

Roger Chaffee on far right, Gus Grissom left and Ed White middle in front of Launch Complex 34 which housed their Saturn 1 launch. All three died in a cabin fire in the rocket in 1967.

Roger B. Chaffee died in a fire along with fellow astronauts Virgil (Gus) Grissom and Edward H. White II during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission in 1967

13. William R Pogue (1930 – 2014)

A Christian man, not much is mentioned in the media about Pogue’s faith. He listed studying Biblical history as one of his hobbies and in 2011 released his autobiography “But for the Grace of God: An Autobiography of an Aviator and Astronaut.”

He was the Pilot of Skylab 4, the third and final manned visit to the Skylab Orbital Workshop, 1973-1974.

William R. Pogue Pogue

14. Michael P. Anderson (1959-2003)

A conservative Christian, Anderson died in the Columbia shuttle disaster.

Michael P. Anderson was killed in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster when the craft disintegrated during its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003

 

15. A Christian Episcopalian, David M. Brown (1956-2003)

David also died in the Columbia shuttle disaster, and had been a lay volunteer at his church.

David M Brown

 

16. Rick Husband (1957-2003)

An active Christian in his church at Clear Lake, Husband died in the Columbia shuttle disaster.

Husband travelled into space twice:

  • as Pilot of STS-96; and

  • Commander of STS-107

Rick (Richard) Husband

17. William C. McCool (1961-2003)

After growing up in the Methodist church, William later became a Catholic and a devout Christian. While in space he said,

“From our orbital vantage point, we observe an earth without borders, full of peace, beauty and magnificence, and we pray that humanity as a whole can imagine a borderless world as we see it and strive to live as one in peace.”

McCool died in the Columbia shuttle disaster.

[Isn’t it fascinating that out of seven crew members on board the Columbia shuttle who perished in the disaster, four of them were Christians!]

William C. McCool was the pilot of Space Shuttle Columbia mission STS-107.

Other Astronauts

According to Jomar Teves of iTechPosts, Russian astronauts (Cosmonauts) have been known to take along a Russian Bible into space with them, as well as stone relics that were claimed to have come from Mt Thabor, where Jesus appeared to some of his apostles just before being taken to heaven.

Several other astronauts have had spiritual experiences when in space though not necessarily Christian, including Gene Cernan, Anousheh Ansari, Nicole Stott, Jeff Hoffman, Shane Kimbrough as well as Edgar Mitchell, who was part of the Apollo 16 expedition.

Mitchell saw the earth and said:

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”

Later Mitchell said:

“What I do remember is the awesome experience of recognising the universe was not simply random happenstance …that there was something more operating than just chance.”

A navy diver helps Ed Mitchell into the recovery raft in 1971

Edgar Mitchell was, the sixth person to walk on the moon (1970)

Edgar Mitchell on the moon in 1971

According to Huffington Post’s Dominique Mosbergen, Canada’s astronaut Chris Hadfield had such an intense spiritual experience that it changed his perspective on life.

Ilan Ramon, an Israeli astronaut, took a copy of the Torah on microfiche aboard the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia. According to the Jerusalem Post he also took his diary into which he’d recorded the Jewish blessing ‘Shabbat Kiddush’ so he could broadcast the blessing back to earth.

Astonishingly, after the shuttle disaster, almost forty pages from Ramon’s diary were found to have survived the fiery explosion, and there’s no logical explanation for it, and later the pages were passed onto his wife.

Llan Ramon was the space shuttle payload specialist of the fatal mission of Columbia in which he was killed in 2003

 Conclusion

When it came time for man to take a small step from earth into the heavens, God was already there.

He used opportunities not only for believers to share His message to the world, but to speak of Himself on a personal basis to many who ventured out there into the cold, unwelcoming endlessness of space. There He shared with them, the warm, loving embrace of His arms, particularly those who never made it back to earth, those who went from being in outer space one moment, and far beyond it in the next.

[End]

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Neil Armstrong with then President Barack Obama 20 July 2009, on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing

Note:
To view the recording of the first landing on the moon, go to: www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/video11.html#Landing.
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