Friday, July 17, 2009

To the Moon and Back

Where were you at the moment humans first walked on the moon? The 40th anniversary of this event has given us an opportunity for recall. I was traveling the western states with relatives on July 20, 1969, listening to the events on radio. Suddenly, on the New Mexico desert, we had the idea to forego our camping tent trailer and rent a motel room so we could watch on television. We entered the motel around 9:00 PM. When we clicked on our room set, the screen flickered to life showing Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin in their bulky space suits standing and walking on the moon’s surface--live. It was a special, unforgettable moment!

Most school children today may not understand or care about the physics of space travel. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, with the first orbital flights, mission achievements, and finally manned flights to the moon and back, interest in science was produced and sustained by the achievements of NASA’s space program. Today, interest in space exploration among our citizenry, and especially our young people, takes a back seat to fascination with the newest applied technologies. As a teacher during the last four decades of the 20th century, I watched interest in NASA’s achievements and goals wax, and then wane significantly.

How many school children can explain the earth-orbiting prelude to a moon visit at 18,000 mph and the subsequent escape from earth’s gravity at 25,000 mph? Or the precision placement of the orbiting moon vehicle in preparation for the later controlled descent to the surface?

My grandfather, born in 1880, proclaimed that it would not be God’s will for man to break loose from earth and visit the moon. His death in 1960, however, was sandwiched between man’s first orbital flight in 1957 and our manned moon landing and exploration in 1969. I’ve wondered if, in the last three years of his life, he ever changed his mind about the possibility of man’s visit to an extra-terrestrial world. And if he did, was that change of heart accompanied by his exultation that God permitted our scientists to acquire previously unimagined knowledge and achievement, or did he view that knowledge and achievement as spiritually dangerous?

Some early astronauts have experienced firsthand the spiritual dimension of looking back on Planet Earth from space. Just a few months before man’s first steps on the moon, there was a riveting television broadcast to earth from the moon. On Christmas Eve, 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders, while in moon orbit, took turns reading the first ten verses of Genesis 1 while transmitting images of the earth. Included in the reading were verses 9-10, a most explicit desription of earth as seen from space: And God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear." And it was so. God called the dry ground "land," and the gathered waters he called "seas." And God saw that it was good. That live broadcast had a stunning impact on me and many others.