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The Earth Gazers by Christopher Potter

24 November 2017

Stephen Fay relates the religious side of the US space project


ALMOST 50 years after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, Christopher Potter has found something new and interesting to say about the 26 human beings who got to the moon, how they did so, and what they thought about it when they got back.

The space race, starting in Germany during the Second World War, settled down into a Cold War contest that climaxed in a remarkably brief time between 1959, when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth, and the moon landing in 1969.

It was a breathtaking engineering achievement: building a rocket to take men to the moon which required 43 tons of kerosene plus 24,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen, converted into 6.4 million lbs of thrust. But Potter is more interesting about what was going on in the minds of the spacemen, which is how God comes into the story.

The first humans to see the whole of the earth, “In its majestic totality”, were the three-man crew who travelled in Apollo 8, an earlier exploratory journey to the moon. The module commander, Frank Borman, said: “This must be what God sees.” As they came to earth, the three men each recited a verse from the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning . . .”. The flight controller in Houston said later: “I felt the presence of creation and the Creator.”

NASAFirst US spacewalk: Ed White on the Gemini IV mission. From the book

The New York Times wondered whether Apollo 8 had made synthesis between the sacred and the secular. But synthesis never really got on the agenda. The Bible-reading from space erupted into conflict. Evangelicals, especially, were enthusiastic about the idea of God’s being exposed in space. Atheists were enraged — more so when the US Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp with the words “In the Beginning God”.

Borman said that he had received 100,000 letters supporting the Genesis reading: four times more letters than the atheists said. An intense correspondence was eventually numbered in millions. In 1970 alone, NASA received 901,810 letters about the propriety of Genesis in space.

An unrelenting atheist, Madalyn O’Hair, who had persuaded the Supreme Court to agree that daily prayer in schools was unconstitutional (because it did not separate Church and State), declared that Genesis-reading by employees of the state was also unconstitutional, even if they were in space. She proposed to sue NASA, the Space Administration, which took fright. Consequently, religious readings were banned from upcoming missions.

The ruling did not, however, prevent Buzz Aldrin, who landed on the moon on Apollo 11, from holding a eucharistic service in space. He had pre-consecrated wafers and wine, together with a flat-pack chalice, on a small fold-down table lying underneath the keyboard of the abort guidance system.

Bill Anders voiced the opinion of many of his fellow astronauts when he remarked: “Man in space seemed to highlight the need for religion, or something like it.” None went as far as Jim Irwin, who claimed that he had heard the voice of God speaking to him as he walked on the moon. On earth, Irwin founded a Baptist ministry, High Flight.

Religion, and Potter’s fascinated absorption with the details of photographing earth from the moon, add depth and colour to the politics and engineering in the familiar, but still astonishing, story of the landing on the moon. Since the last rocket flew to the moon in 1972, the story is now told as history. Rockets are used now for launching communications and spy satellites into space. Otherwise, the best-known relic is Teflon.


Stephen Fay is a former member of the editorial staff of The Sunday Times.


The Earth Gazers
Christopher Potter
Head of Zeus £25
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