On the night of July 15, 1969, no 24-hour news channels broadcast continuous live coverage of the next morning’s Apollo 11 launch. We had no internet, no cable. Television stations signed off at midnight with the National Anthem. To get hourly news, you had to listen to the radio. With little or no talk radio in those days, that meant tuning into a music station with a short news broadcast at the top off the hour.
My friend Warren Ballard and I were 11-year-old space freaks that summer. We read books about the moon and the planets. I had a poster of the Saturn V rocket on the wall of the bedroom I shared with my younger brother Robbie and plastic models that I had meticulously assembled with glue that would make you dizzy if you sniffed it.
So, on that night of July 15, Robbie and I camped out in Warren’s backyard, listening to the #1 radio station in Memphis, WHBQ, waiting for those hourly updates. We didn’t get a lot of news that night, mostly just an hourly report saying that everything was on schedule and that “all systems were go.”
But I can tell you that Kenny Rogers’ first big hit, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” was popular that summer. A dystopian song about the future, “In The Year 2525,” by a duo called Evans and Zager, was the number one song of the summer. The song I remember most is a trippy, psychedelic song by Tommy James and the Shondells called “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”
I wanted to be an astronaut, or at least to work for NASA, like millions of other kids of that era. The Apollo story has been told so often and so well that it seems superfluous to re-tell it here. But it is worth noting a few aspects of the story that often get omitted from the account of Apollo, a story that often stresses the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union and how stepping onto the moon in 1969 was a national catharsis after the riots and assassinations of 1968.
First, it is worth noting that my boyhood fascination with space, and our national obsession with space, was driven by much more than fear of the Soviet Union. It was driven by a sense of wonder about the universe. Indeed, while my own desire to become an astronaut faded, my sense of wonder about the universe never did. A couple of years later, I became a Christian and eventually came to understand that God built into us that sense of wonder. We look toward the heavens with awe, as we should. And that sense of awe causes us to wonder about how such a magnificent universe came into being. The Psalmist puts it simply: “The heavens proclaim the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).
Further, when God made the world, He called it “good,” and though it has been marred by our rebellion against God, He made it so good that even in its broken state we still find much to call “good,” much to inspire awe. So, we humans are hard-wired to explore God’s creation, and to the extent we see and acknowledge God’s fingerprints on His creation, we grow in our knowledge of God. Apollo was an expression of that longing, even if that motivation rarely made it into mainstream media accounts.
Secondly, the Apollo program is also a secular example of the biblical principle that all humans have value, and all work is important. Charles Fishman’s new book One Giant Leap reminds us that it took hundreds of thousands of people to get us to the moon. The spacesuits worn by the astronauts were sewn by hand by skilled seamstresses. So were the parachutes that brought the command module safely back to earth. Some of the janitors who worked at NASA did not have high school educations, but they diligently kept “clean rooms” clean, and made material contributions to the Apollo effort.
If any one of these thousands of people had failed to do their jobs, and failed to do them in an excellent manner, the entire mission to the moon could have failed. Work, no matter how seemingly menial, has value. All people matter. These ideas are Christianity’s gift to the world, and to Apollo.
It is perhaps, then, not surprising that at key moments during the space program, our nation paused to acknowledge God in ways that were most appropriate but also hard to imagine happening in today’s politically correct world, a world that tends to sweep spiritual concerns into a dark corner.
For example, one of the iconic moments of our journey to the moon came during Apollo 8, which launched on Dec. 21, 1968. Apollo 8 captured the world’s attention during the Christmas holiday, when many were off from work and could follow the mission on television. That was the first mission to orbit the moon, and it produced the iconic photo of the earth rising over the moon’s surface (taken Christmas Eve by astronaut Bill Anders and often called “one of the photos of the century”).
That Christmas Eve the crew read the creation account from Genesis, broadcast live from space to hundreds of millions of people here on earth. Anders’ photo, and the words “In the beginning God…” ultimately became a popular postage stamp that remains highly collectible today.
Another great moment came when Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a committed Christian, celebrated communion, the Lord’s Supper, on the moon soon after Aldrin and Armstrong touched down. Already, though, the secularization of space was settling in. After the Apollo 8 crew had read Genesis 1 from the orbit of the moon, atheist Madelyn Murray O’Hair sued NASA. The Supreme Court ultimately rejected the case, but it caused NASA to become skittish about any public expressions of religion. NASA commanded Aldrin to celebrate the Eucharist privately, and he did not mention it until many years later.
Nonetheless, these two incidents are just two of many that highlight the role of spirituality and spaceflight in the Apollo era. (For a more complete discussion, see this fascinating article from WIRED Magazine.)
Now, 50 years later, we live in a different world in many ways. I know it seems different to me. It is rare these days that I experience the wonder I felt 50 years ago as a little boy staring up at the sky the night before the launch of Apollo 11.
The boy my brother and I camped with that night, Warren Ballard, did not come from a churchgoing family, so he would occasionally attend church with me. One Sunday morning, he walked down the aisle to give his young heart to Jesus. My family moved away from Memphis, and his did too. We stayed in touch for a few years, but in the pre-internet days, I lost track of him altogether. I found out recently he passed away more than a decade ago.
And one of the songs we listened to that night, “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” turned out not to be a song about the blue methamphetamine pills popular in the late sixties, pills on which Tommy James himself was for a while addicted. In fact, James – now a committed Christian — said the song came from the biblical books of Revelation and Ezekiel. The song, he said, is meant to describe what he took to be the blue “Shekhinah light” that represents the Glory of God.
And now that you know a fuller story of mankind’s passion for exploration, and the relationship between spirituality and spaceflight, you can see that it is perhaps an unintentionally appropriate song for shooting three guys off into the Great Unknown.
Warren Cole Smith is the Vice-President of Mission Advancement for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
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