On Christmas Eve, 1968, nearly a billion people sat glued to their radios and television sets as the crew of Apollo 8 entered orbit around the moon. For three days the world had followed the pioneering mission three live television broadcasts, and they now waited eagerly to hear the historic words of the first humans to reach another world. Then, as the spacecraft emerged from the shadow of the moon, the voice of astronaut Bill Anders crackled over the airwaves:
“We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters…”
Over the next few minutes, Anders and his crewmates Jim Lovell and Frank Borman took turns reading verses 1-10 of the Book of Genesis, signing off with the words:
“And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
The Apollo 8 Genesis reading immediately became an iconic episode of the Space Race, and a much-needed moment of catharsis and hope at the end of a year rocked by violence and unrest – including the escalation of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. But not everyone was pleased with the broadcast. In 1969, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder and president of American Atheists, filed a lawsuit against the United States Government alleging that the open reading of religious texts by astronauts – who are Federal employees – was a violation of the First Amendment right to the separation of Church and State. But despite O’Hair’s best efforts, her suit was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 1971.
In retrospect, Madalyn O’Hair’s failure should come as little surprise, for religion has been an integral part of the U.S. Space Program from the very beginning. As with the United States population at large in the 1960s, a large proportion of early NASA personnel were practicing Christians. Indeed, in the case of the first astronauts, this was all but mandated. In addition to their skills as test pilots, the “Mercury Seven” were selected based on how well they conformed to the American ideal of clean-cut, church-attending family men – to the extent that astronaut Leroy Gordon Cooper was pressured into reuniting with his estranged wife Trudy in order to complete his public image – and for more on the absolute badass that was “Gordo” Cooper, please check out our previous video “I’ll Do It Myself” – The Greatest Feat of Piloting in Space.
The religious community at large also broadly embraced the space program. Pope Paul IV reportedly followed the Apollo program with avid interest, while in a 1969 interview Cardinal Terrence Cook of New York commented on the religious significance of the upcoming Apollo 11 mission, stating:
“From the viewpoint of the moon, it will immediately become apparent to man that we on Earth are really only one family; and I think if this only sinks in, it will have tremendous spiritual significance in terms of lasting peace, understanding and brotherhood.”
Similarly, New York Rabbi Aryeh Lev described the lunar mission as another example of God revealing new things about his creation, while John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth and an ordained Presbyterian Elder, stated:
“To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible.”
Consequently, at Cape Canaveral abundant resources were made available to cater to the spiritual needs of NASA personnel. For Catholic parishioners, the main spiritual hub was the Church of Our Saviour in nearby Cocoa Beach, overseen by Father Richard Walsh. Particularly faithful parishioners were Walter Kapyran, director of launch operations for manned missions, and Robert Gray, director of launch operations – both of whom made that Walsh and other parish priests always had prime seats to watch any launch they wanted. Astronauts were also frequent visitors to the Church of Our Saviour, including Jack Swigert, Command Module Pilot on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission:
“[Swigert] wasn’t supposed to fly, he just took [Ken Mattingly’s] place at the last moment. Three days before the actual launch he showed up at the church and wanted to go to Confession and Communion before he went up into space.”
But perhaps the most famous – and controversial – act of faith by an astronaut took place shortly after touchdown on the historic Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Lunar Module Pilot and second man to walk on the moon, was a devout Presbyterian, and in the lead-up to the mission he and Dean Woodruff, pastor of Webster Presbyterian Church outside Houston, struggled to find an appropriate way to express and affirm their faith and what the mission meant for all mankind:
“We wanted to express our feeling that what man was doing in this mission transcended electronics and computers and rockets.
“One of the principal symbols,” Dean says, “is that God reveals Himself in the common elements of everyday life.” Traditionally, these elements are bread and wine—common foods in Bible days and typical products of man’s labor.
One day while I was at Cape Kennedy working with the sophisticated tools of the space effort, it occurred to me that these tools were the typical elements of life today.
I wondered if it might be possible to take communion on the moon, symbolizing the thought that God was revealing Himself there too, as man reached out into the universe. For there are many of us in the NASA program who do trust that what we are doing is part of God’s eternal plan for man.”
Woodruff was enthusiastic about the idea, so both men set about sorting out the peculiar logistics of taking communion on the moon. Consulting with NASA engineers, Aldrin confirmed that the wine and communion wafers could be easily packaged in sealed plastic wrappers like the rest of the astronauts’ food, and that there was enough gravity on the moon to pour the wine normally. To hold the wine, Woodruff provided a tiny silver chalice light and compact enough to fit in Aldrin’s personal-preference kit – the small bag of personal items every astronaut was allowed to bring on a mission. Woodruff also confirmed with the Clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly that, given the circumstances, a layman serving themselves communion was permissible, and provided Aldrin with a two hand-written cards of scripture from John 15:5, to be read aloud during the ceremony.
Aldrin originally planned to broadcast his lunar communion ceremony to the world, but as Madalyn O’Hair’s lawsuit over the Apollo 8 Genesis reading was still ongoing, Chief of the Astronaut Office Donald “Deke” Slayton advised him against it. Instead, Aldrin and Woodruff scheduled a communion service at Webster Presbyterian for the evening of Saturday, July 12 – the day before the Apollo 11 crew were to depart Houston for Cape Canaveral. But once again they ran into problems. As exposure to a cold or flu virus could potentially ruin the mission, in the last few days leading up to the launch the Apollo 11 astronauts were made to wear surgical masks during press conferences and avoid contact with others as much as possible. Thus, when the mission flight surgeon learned about the planned ceremony, he was less than pleased. As Aldrin later recalled:
“I called Dean with the news late Saturday night. “It doesn’t look real good, Dean.”
“What about a private service? Without the whole congregation?”
It was a possibility. I called the doctor about the smaller service, and he agreed, provided there were only a handful of people present.
So the next day, Sunday, shortly after the end of the 11 o’clock service my wife, Joan, and our oldest boy, Mike (the only one of our three children who was as yet a communicant), went to the church. There we met Dean, his wife, Floy, and our close family friend Tom Manison, elder of the church, and his wife.”
The following morning Aldrin and his crewmates Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins departed for Cape Canaveral, and on July 16, 1969, they blasted off on their historic mission. Four days later on July 20 at 3:17 Eastern Standard Time, Aldrin and Armstrong touched down on the lunar surface near the Sea of Tranquility, Armstrong announcing their success with the iconic words “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.” Shortly thereafter, Aldrin appeared on the radio and made his own broadcast to the world:
“Houston, this is Eagle. This is the LM pilot speaking. I would like to request a few moments of silence. I would like to invite each person listening in, whoever or wherever he may be, to contemplate for a moment the events of the last few hours, and to give thanks in his own individual way.”
Then, as Armstrong looked respectfully on, Aldrin performed his private communion ceremony:
“In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, [John 15:5]‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.’ [and Psalm 8: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; What is man that thou art mindful of him? And the Son of Man, that thou visitest Him?” ] Eagle’s metal body creaked. I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.”
While it is often reported that Aldrin and NASA kept the lunar communion secret for decades, in reality Aldrin openly spoke about the ceremony on numerous occasions, including in an August 1969 interview in LIFE magazine and his 1973 autobiography Return to Earth. But while by this time Madalyn O’Hair’s lawsuit had been dismissed and the controversy over open displays of faith in space had died down, Aldrin soon came to regret his choice of commemoration for the first moon landing:
“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.”
Yet Aldrin’s historic ceremony lives on at Webster Presbyterian, which celebrates Lunar Communion Sunday every July on the anniversary of Apollo 11. During the ceremony, parishioners listen to a recording of Aldrin’s words broadcast from the moon and decide Psalm 8, just as Aldrin did. The church even holds the small silver chalice that Aldrin used on the moon.
But Aldrin’s lunar communion was far from the strangest intersection of religion and space travel to occur during Apollo 11, for the mission had another, rather unexpected effect: it inadvertently created a Bishop of the Moon. Created in 1968, the diocese of Orlando encompasses nine counties and over 24,000 square kilometres of Central Florida and serves nearly 401,000 Catholic residents. The first appointed Bishop of Orlando was William Donald Borders, who held the position until 1974. Borders took an active interest in the Space Program, and along with Cardinal Cook toured the launch site at Cape Canaveral on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch. Later that evening at a prelaunch banquet honouring the Apollo astronauts, Bishop Borders jokingly claimed that according to official Catholic doctrine, he was about to become Bishop of the Moon. The doctrine he was referring to was the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which stated that any newly discovered territory fell under the jurisdiction of the diocese from which the expedition had left. As Brevard County, where Cape Canaveral is located, falls within the Diocese of Orlando, a successful lunar landing would make the moon an extension of that diocese and Borders its Bishop. At 14.5 million square kilometres, this added territory would make the Diocese of Orlando the largest in the world – or, technically off of it – by a sizeable margin.
Later that year, during his quinquennial ad limina meeting with Pope Paul IV in Rome, Bishop Borders could not help but repeat his claim about being Bishop of the Moon. Reportedly the Pope was initially baffled until Borders explained his reasoning. There is no record as to whether the Pontiff affirmed Borders’s claim. However, Father John Giel, Chancellor for Canonical Affairs for the Diocese of Orlando, points out that while amusing, Borders’ claim was ultimately meaningless, as:
“[it]means nothing if there is no one to have jurisdiction over.”
Still, Father Giel commends Borders for his entertaining reading of Catholic Canon Law, stating:
“Since we have yet to find any life on the moon, the story only emphasizes Bishop Border’s good and humorous nature that allowed him to be such a good first bishop for central Florida.”
Sadly, in 1983 Catholic Canon Law was amended so that newly-discovered territory now falls under the jurisdiction of the Pope himself, meaning there is no longer a Bishop of the Moon. But if humans eventually colonize the moon and there are any Catholics among the colonists, they can rest easy knowing their new home is officially covered by the Holy See.
But moon bishop or no, Buzz Aldrin would be far from the last astronaut to perform a religious ritual in space. In 1994, Catholic astronauts Thomas Jones, Sid Gutierrez and Kevin Chilton received holy communion aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, as Jones later recalled:
“I thanked God each night before falling asleep for these glorious views of Earth and for the success of our mission thus far. I asked for the continued safety of our crew and a joyful reunion with our families. I was conscious of the special gift of each day in space, aware of the unique privilege I had been granted. And I remembered Father Tom Bevan’s words on the beach back in Florida. When Sunday rolled around again, two weeks after Easter, it seemed particularly appropriate to share our thanks and thoughts on what we had seen. Sid, Kevin, and I — all Catholics — gathered on the flight deck one orbital night for a short Communion service.
Kevin, a Eucharistic minister, carried the Blessed Sacrament with him, the hosts protected within a simple golden pyx. The three of us thanked God for the views of His universe, for good companions, and for the success granted our crew so far. Then Kevin shared the Body of Christ with Sid and me, and we floated weightless on the flight deck, silently reflecting on this moment of peace and true communion with Christ.
As we meditated quietly in the darkened cockpit, a dazzling white light burst through space and into the cabin. Pure radiance from the risen sun streamed through Endeavour’s forward cockpit windows and bathed us in its warmth. What else could this be but a sign? — God’s gentle affirmation of our union with Him. Drifting parallel to the floor, I rolled away from my crewmates, embarrassed at my reaction to that singular sunrise. Through tears I looked instead through the overhead windows at the Pacific below, the dawn painting its surface with a rich, limitless blue.
“Look at that,” I called out almost unconsciously to my friends. From the living water below, we drank in hues unmatched by the palette of any human artist. After a moment, Kevin said simply, “It’s the blue of the Virgin’s veil, Tom.” He was right. He had found the perfect way to express the vision we were seeing out the window.”
Further, in 2003, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon recited the Jewish Shabbat Kiddush prayer aboard the space shuttle Columbia shortly before its fatal reentry, while in 2017 Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryzhikov took a relic of Saint Serafim of Sarov with him to the International Space Station in 2016.
And as astronauts of increasingly diverse faiths make their way into space, ever-more unique challenges to performing one’s religious duties are likely to arise. For example, in 2007, Malaysia launched its first astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, to the International Space Station. As a devout Muslim, Shukor announced his intention to adhere to the tenets of his faith even while in orbit, including praying five times a day and fasting during Ramadan. However, there was a bit of a problem: in Islam, prayer is typically performed facing the Qibla, the direction of the holy city of Mecca. But in orbit, circling the world at 8 kilometres per second, the Qibla changes from second to second, making this a potentially impossible exercise. Furthermore, the Quran instructs the faithful to:
“Prostrate yourselves not to the sun nor to the moon, but prostrate yourselves to Allah Who created them, if you (really) worship Him.”
…the idea being to avoid worshiping these celestial objects as a pagan might. However, from 350 kilometres above the earth’s surface, it is possible for the straightest line to Mecca to intersect with the sun and the moon, potentially rendering a prayer invalid.
Thankfully, in 2006 the Malaysian Space Agency, Angkasa, convened a conference of 150 islamic scholars to tackle this very question. Their report, titled A Guideline [for] Performing Ibadah at the International Space Station, granted Shukor and future muslim astronauts a great deal of leniency in the performance of acts of devotion, arguing that the focus should be on the prayers themselves and not the minutiae of orientation. In other words, the faithful are to do the best they can given their unique circumstances. For example, while prayer is typically performed while kneeling on a prayer rug, this is all but impossible in microgravity. Thus, the guide advises that prayer can be performed in any convenient position. Indeed, in the Islamic world such exceptions are often made for those with disabilities or other mobility issues, with prayer while sitting in a chair, for example, being acceptable if kneeling is not possible.
So, will future astronauts face even more unexpected challenges to accommodating their faith in the heavens? Will space Scientologists struggle with performing Thetan audits in orbits, or Pastafarians with fitting collanders into their personal preference bags? Well, as residents of the 30th Century might say: Is the Space Pope Reptilian?
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