Lunar landing memories

by
19 July 2019

We asked for recollections of 20 July 1969

ALAMY

The astronaut Buzz Aldrin beside the United States flag during the first lunar landing mission, 20 July 1969.

The astronaut Buzz Aldrin beside the United States flag during the first lunar landing mission, 20 July 1969.

‘It made me a citizen of the cosmos’

I WAS 19 in July 1969, when the first men walked on the Moon. As I look back, I remember it as if we stood at the threshold of a new era in history. I echoed Wordsworth: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”

But my clearest memory is not the day of the Moon walk itself. We didn’t have a TV; so I followed it on the radio and in the papers (which made it an oddly aural and literary experience, while it was the video footage that everyone else was talking about). What I recall as if it were yesterday is walking along a north-London street one evening. The full moon hung in the darkening sky. My companion nudged me and pointed to it. “Isn’t it amazing that we have walked there?” he said. I distinctly remember the pronoun. We, not other people. This was about us.

I gazed up with a kind of religious awe, experiencing a youthful version of what Freud calls “that vast oceanic feeling”. I echoed the psalmist’s ecstasy at the sight of the starry skies above: “O Lord our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8.1).

Memory plays tricks. Until writing this, I assumed that I’d remembered the night of the Moon walk itself, but I can’t have done. My 1969 diary tells me that the Moon was only in its first quarter. It must have been the following week. Does it matter?

What did matter was this mystic sense of wonder which took me by surprise. As a student reading maths, I was bound to be moonstruck by equations that laid the foundations for this dazzling achievement of science and technology. But it was more than that. I was gazing at the most familiar object in the night sky, but it looked different. I was connected to it in a new way because we had walked there. That made me a citizen of the cosmos.

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“What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” the psalmist asks. As a recently baptised Christian, I was pondering what my life should be for. Among the lights shed on the path I would follow was moonlight. A few months afterwards, the age of majority was lowered from 21 to 18, and I became an adult. The Moon walk felt part of growing up: an unforgettable moment in a key rite of passage.

The Very Revd Michael Sadgrove is a former Dean of Durham.

 

‘It seemed bewilderingly irrelevant’

I KNOW exactly where I was. I was a grass widower in rural Bengal. It was the hottest of the hot weather and the rains were late, but in the hills, where, for six weeks, my wife and small daughter has been sharing the hospitality of the Mennonites, an unusually heavy monsoon had brought down vital roads, houses, and telegraph lines.

I was working as the Leprosy Mission’s education secretary for India, busy writing, printing, and distributing the annual report and materials for Leprosy Sunday, which went to all the Indian churches with which the Mission had contact. I was travelling, preaching in Hindi and in English, as well as organising the distribution of clothing and blankets sent from the UK and New Zealand.

I was also doubling as temporary acting superintendent of the hospital while the splendid superintendent, who had been brought out of retirement for the job, took a break. At the time, the position of missionaries was precarious, the future completely unknown. After preaching in Delhi Cathedral, I was hoping to join the family for a couple of weeks, having already missed my daughter’s second birthday.

So, when I was told by a rather excited American missionary that they “they” had landed a man on the Moon, I was somewhat underwhelmed. It seemed bewilderingly irrelevant. “Whatever for?” was the first thought that came unbidden into my mind. Then I wondered at the immense cost which must have been incurred, just a fraction of which would have dealt such a blow against leprosy, which, despite massive advances in treatment, was still on the increase.

ALAMYThe landing on the Moon seen on period television, 20 July 1969

Did it shape my faith? The world was rapidly changing. India was changing. The Church of North India came into being, and the world of mission was certainly changing. By the end of 1970, we were back in the UK. After six years away, our re-encounter with the pomposity of the Church of England seemed to be prompting the same questions as did 25 July 1969. But Horace Dammers was the new Dean of Bristol Cathedral. His compassionate “Live simply that others may simply live” doesn’t leave much space for a Moon landing. By God’s good grace, via the Bristol School of Ministry, I was led to ordination and total commitment to the newly emerging “worker-priest” ministry.

Canon John Ayers is a retired priest in the diocese of Bristol.

 

‘Even there thy hand shall lead me. . .’

THUNDERBIRDS were “go”, and Star Trek had started, but the Apollo 11 mission was science fact, not fantasy. Like many 11-year-old boys, my eyes were glued to the screen of our small black-and-white TV for the lunar landing. Later that year, my Crusader (now renamed Urban Saints) text card for 1970 arrived: an A4 colour photo of the lunar module and astronauts with the words of Psalm 139.10: “Even there thy hand shall lead me. . .”

Dad had been made redundant, and we were moving — not to the Moon, but to run a Christian guest house, along with my aunt, on the south-Cornish coast. Cliffs and coves, ships and lighthouses, the Moon and many stars were all in view. I reminded my parents of their promise to buy me a telescope if I passed the 11-plus. We got a secondhand one in Falmouth.

Twenty guests a week, an acre of garden, and mum teaching full-time that first season ended with everyone weary, Dad unwell, and my being bullied at school. “Even there thy hand shall lead me” were words and a picture to hold on to. Reality bit: the dreams of the business died, and we had to sell up. Within the next couple of Cornish years, Dad was diagnosed with cancer, I developed type-1 diabetes, and our most supportive Christian friend was killed in a car accident. There was no Crusader group to join, but we discovered occasional Youth for Christ events further down the county, and I kept the text card for many years: “Even there thy hand shall lead me. . .”

The Revd Jonathan Watkins is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Knutton.

 

‘The wine danced’
DURING the first Moon landing, something remarkable happened: a largely forgotten incident that had a deep and lasting effect on my understanding of the eucharist and of Christ’s ongoing presence with us. The astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin had completed the final stages of their momentous journey in the Apollo 11 space capsule, which would make them the first human beings to walk on the Moon.

Before they went down the steps to the Moon’s surface, Aldrin took out some consecrated communion bread and wine that had been given to him by his home church. He placed the containers on a small shelf, and contacted ground control at Houston, Texas, inviting all who were listening to keep a moment of silence and contemplate the wonder of this unfolding event. He read some words of Jesus from John 15: “I am the vine, you are the branches . . .” and poured the wine into a chalice. Because the gravity on the Moon is significantly less than that on Earth, the wine swirled and curled its way gracefully up the sides of the cup. In other words, as these men looked at our planet Earth, suspended in space like an exquisite jewel, the wine danced!

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This image of communion wine moving mysteriously in the chalice has become, for me, a symbol of Christ’s love always flowing towards us. In 2002, I wrote a book around this theme, The Wine Danced (Eagle). In the epilogue, I wrote: “The wine still dances. You can’t keep Jesus down! His unquenchable, irrepressible life inspires us still, as he invites us to take the risk of joining the dance of love, which is the dance of God. As friends of Jesus we are taken up into his ongoing work of creating and redeeming the world. All that is asked of us is our consent. Everything else is gift and grace.”

And now, years later, it seems to me that Christ is reaching out to us all the more urgently and saying, “Gaze at your planet Earth; look at it in all its fragile beauty, as it appeared to the astronauts from the Moon on that day. And look after it, for life’s sake, for love’s sake, for heaven’s sake.”

 

Angela Ashwin is a writer on spirituality. Her The Wine Danced is now out of print. Copies are available via www.angelaashwin.com.

 

‘I see the spark of excitement’

SOMETHING amazing happened around the world when astronauts first stepped on the Moon, 50 years ago. Nations around the globe rejoiced in an amazing accomplishment for all humanity. Many issued postage stamps commemorating the first steps of human beings on another heavenly body.

For at least these precious days in a world otherwise facing international and civil tensions, nearly everyone looked up and felt a sense of humility, awe, pride, happiness, and joy in our unity as earth citizens reaching new heights together.

I was a young child, and have hazy memories of watching fuzzy television coverage of the astronauts stepping on to the moon for the first time — too young to reflect on the bigger impacts of this accomplishment.

But I was certainly influenced by the worldwide enthusiasm for space exploration that ensued. After Apollo, my generation was simply soaked in the vision that we humans could explore an amazing universe as an uplifting curiosity-driven quest, and that we would be doing this together, as earth-citizens.

As the years went on, I lived out part of this vision by learning everything I could about space, studying science, and eventually becoming an astrophysicist, working with colleagues from many nations to uncover the activity and order and beauty of the universe far beyond our solar system.

Where is the place of faith in this human quest? I see space exploration (in fact, all exploration) as a natural God-given drive. Science can be seen as a divine gift to help us understand the details of creation more fully, thereby glorifying God.

Of course whether this really glorifies God depends on why and how we use our technology and scientific knowledge, and how we conduct our quests. Science and exploration are not immune from the fallenness and selfishness of human nature.

But I do know that people from every culture are curious about our universe, and excited about what we, as unified human citizens of planet Earth, can achieve if we work together.

I see the spark of excitement in the eyes of children everywhere. I share the joy of older adults as we look at the latest telescope image of a beautiful nebula in space where new stars are still forming. When the excitement is shared among people of all cultures and economic classes, then the quest can truly be one that unifies humanity in a way that lifts our spirits and draws us, together, closer to God.

And as a Christian believer I am continually humbled that we humans can, through Christ, connect personally every day with the God of an unimaginable universe. Space, curiosity, and awe can unite us all, and lift our spirits for great good.
 

Dr Jennifer Wiseman is an American astronomer, author, and speaker.

 

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