Tuesday, 21 July 2009

You can't please everyone...

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Unless you've been asleep for the last 41 years (and that sleep would have to have been on Mars or something), you'll know that 40 years ago yesterday Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the moon, an event I'm sure I'm not alone in being intensely disappointed to have missed, on account of being entirely unconceived at the time. I've thoroughly made up for it in recent weeks, though, by watching a multitude of space/moon documentaries and getting into countless Wikipedia loops concerning the Apollo programme and all things space-related (I recommend the Wikipedia approach, but be warned – once you start, you won't be stopping for a while).

While carrying out my "research", I came across the thorny issue of religious references and the Apollo space programme. I was reminded of this again yesterday when I paid a visit to Times religious correspondent Ruth Gledhill's Articles of Faith blog. The issue initially arose in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission, which saw Frank Borman, James Lovell and Wlliam Anders become the first men to orbit the moon, and in the process witness an "Earthrise" – the view of the Earth rising from behind the moon. Broadcasting footage of this back to Earth live on Christmas Eve (the mission took place from 21-27 December 1968), the astronauts each read in turn from the first ten verses from the Book of Genesis, with Anders opening with the words "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," and Borman closing 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." (You can see the broadcast on YouTube). At the time, this became the most viewed television broadcast in history.

Not everyone was inspired by this, though. Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the founder of American Atheists who was once referred to as "the most hated woman in America", filed a lawsuit against NASA for violating the First Amendment separation of church and state, with the aim of having astronauts, as government employees, banned from making religious prouncements from space. The case was eventually thrown out by the Supreme Court on account of a lack of jurisdiction in space, but it had a knock-on effect for astronauts in future Apollo missions. On landing on the moon on 20 July 1969, Buzz Aldrin performed communion using bread and wine given to him back on Earth (thereby making communion bread and wine the first food and drink to be consumed on the moon). But, as the Aldrin quote from this Christian blog shows, NASA requested that he keep this act a secret, which Aldrin later revealed was due to Murray O'Hair's Apollo 8 lawsuit:
“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, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit.’ I had intended to read my communion passage back to earth, but at the last minute Deke Slayton had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly…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.”
I'd be interested to hear what readers of this blog make of this story. Personally, reading about this recently, I was a little disappointed to hear that the standard Earthly squabbles over religion and state had ended up playing a small part in the story of the Apollo programme. I actually saw the Apollo 8 Genesis reading for the first time as part of a documentary the other week, and I have to say it struck me as immensely inspiring, whether you view Genesis as fact or allegory. Surely it would take an incredibly cold form of rationalism not to be moved by the first three men to orbit the moon relaying such a message to everyone back on Earth on Christmas Eve? Besides, in that instance surely Genesis is far more powerful as allegory, since a literal interpretation would be somewhat undermined by the wider events of the Apollo programme?

As for Buzz Aldrin's communion on the moon, it is perhaps best that he wasn't allowed to broadcast that to the whole world, but it's hard to object to what he did in private. If ever someone should be allowed the opporunity to take a moment to carry out their own personal religious observances, surely it's when they've just landed on the moon? As such, his words back to mission control just before he carried out the communion strike me as far more inclusive and inspiring than they would have been had he been allowed to broadcast his own Christian ritual:
"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."
For those of you who are feeling, as I did, somewhat unimpressed by the story of Murray O'Hair's humbug response to the Apollo 8 mission (a mission which gave us the first pictures like this, after all), here's a little something to show you that it wasn't only organised atheists who were unimpressed by the Apollo programme. A cutting from a North Carolina newspaper, the Daily Times, which is on the Space Programme Archive (PDF), shows that some fundamentalist Christians were unhappy with the moon landing, with one man telling the paper:
"Man ain't supposed to be there. I've been to shopping centers and everybody is scared because God didn't intend the moon landing. God didn't intend man to set foot on the heavenly bodies."
Anyway, given the fascinating coverage there's been on the Apollo 11 anniversary, I think that's enough from me on the matter. Do share your thoughts on this issue though – were atheists right to stand up to the religious messages of Apollo astronauts, or was it a step too far? Here's the Apollo 8 Genesis clip to help you decide:

14 comments:

Roger Davidson said...

The atheist response was at least technically justified, if rather piffling - as was the superimposition of Christian meaning onto the achievement. Science, discovery, the cold reality of the moon, and the black enormity of the universe dwarfed all. The biblical readings sound hollow and small before the cosmic expanse - any other message would have been as moving, if not more... "Ma, I'm on top of the..." It was one giant leap for mankind, regardless of metaphysical sentiment, but only a negligible step for God.

Andrew said...

I find it hard to fault O'Hair here. Nasa shouldn't endorse or broadcast any form of religious message. All I know about her is that she stood up for that ideal. Granted, it makes her appear cold and unmoved by the spectacle of the first Earthrise, but to assume that that's actually how she felt the first time she saw that footage is to make the kind of arbitrary and superficial judgement of a secularist which is conventionally the preserve of fundamentalists.

Eddie said...

Just because an experience is 'awesome' doesn't mean it's OK to attach superstition to it. That's how we got religion in the first place.

Nick Murray said...

Wow. One giant leap for mankind... two giant leaps back.

Tom Rees said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Rees said...

Look on the Bible as a fascinating piece of literature, telling myths that are familiar to everyone living in countries with a Christian tradition.

From that perspective, if there's a good quote from the Bible that's evocative, then why not read it out and broadcast it? You don't have to believe in god to find that poignant.

The only bit that's slightly iffy is the line 'god bless you all', but that's clearly from 'the crew of Apollo 8', speaking in their own capacity and not as government representatives.

Fiona said...

The "God Bless you all"? is that really that different to anyone who's won an award thanking god etc? Such as athletes, who get government funding...

Anonymous said...

Why spoil such a wonderful event with superstition. Tax payer's money from many different religioninsts and atheists was used for the moon so why read anything that may cause divisiveness?

If individuals want to pray to their own deity, then so be it, but there is no need to spread the superstition.

Joe Hayhurst said...

Hmm. I can't help feeling its a bit churlish to moan too much, anyone would be a bit emotional up there and if religion is your bag, so be it. It's not like NASA sent the up there with instructions to convert the world to Christianity, or claim the moon for Jesus.

Personally I'm more offended about the Stars and Stripes being planted up there but again, there's no point moaning about it.

I think us atheists have to be careful about what battles we choose to fight otherwise the religious will end up ignoring everything we say, whether its a good point or not.

AT said...

Fully agreed with Joe. I think it's disappointing so many people choose to have a go at reciting what is, at bottom, just a book. And I agree with Paul that the passage is stirring. However irrational the belief system is, the King James Bible has some damned good writing in it.

Although as a Yank I'm fully supportive of the stars and stripes on the moon. Brits tend to get their backs up about the immense hubris; I say, America, fuck yeah.

Paul Sims said...

The problem people have with the US flag planting has always puzzled me. After all, it was hundreds of billions of US taxpayer dollars that put men on the moon. Hell, if I'd paid that much to put myself on the moon, the least I'd expect to be able to do is put a flag there, preferably showing my face with a s**t-eating "I've been to the moon" grin all over it. And in fairness to NASA, they did also put a plaque there saying they "came in peace for all mankind".

thiskey said...

I might have seen the same documentary. I thought the Genesis recital was a bit... well, embarrassing, not to mention cringe-worthy. It would have been inspiring if he'd not mentioned his (Christian) religion, which excluded most people on the planet, even though he said it was for everyone on the planet.

In fact, it would have been fine if he'd said nothing. What an awe-inspiring, incredible feat it was just to orbit the earth.

Ennui Anonymous said...

I can't really fault O'Hair either. What a way to sully a universal moment of human accomplishment by then offering the sight to God... haven't we made enough sacrifices to him ?

However, I think that's less offensive, Cold War politics aside, than the astronauts planting an American flag on the moon, when they come for "all mankind". Is it time for an Earth flag ? I grimace when I think of the short-sightedness displayed by placing a banner of stars and stripes on the moon, freezing for any future visitors there a small, irrelevant moment in the cosmos.

God and country, right ?

Amadán said...

Saw a documentary the other day on Discovery in which Aldrin says that, in hindsight, he was sorry to have taken Communion. He says he the landing should have been marked n a way that showed it was done for all humanity, not just Christians. He seems a reasonable chap.

As regards the Stars and Stripes being there, ferchrissakes, they paid billions to fly their men there, how can you object if they do something to show it?