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: