For this new space law article on Space Legal Issues, let us have a look at the Apollo missions and religion. Astronauts and cosmonauts, and spaceflight participants have observed their religions while in outer space; sometimes publicly, sometimes privately. Religious adherence in outer space poses unique challenges and opportunities for practitioners. Space travellers have reported profound changes in the way they view their faith related to the overview effect, while some secular groups have criticised the use of government spacecraft for religious activities by astronauts.
Apollo 8 and religion: Genesis reading
On December 24, 1968, in what was the most watched television broadcast at the time, the crew of Apollo 8, at the suggestion of Christine Laitin, read in turn from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the Moon. The Bible used was provided by Gideons International. Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman recited Genesis chapter 1, verses 1 through 10 verbatim, using the King James Version text. Anders read verses 1–4, Lovell read verses 5–8, and Borman read verses 9–10, concluding the transmission.
“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. In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness”.
“And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day”.
“And God said, let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good. 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”.
First Atheist Offensive
Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists, responded by suing the United States government, alleging violations of the First Amendment. The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. It was submitted to a three-judge panel, which concluded that the case was not a three-judge matter, and dismissed the case for failure to state a cause of action. The direct appeal to the Supreme Court was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Another appeal was heard before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s dismissal per curiam. The Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Apollo 11 and religion
On Sunday July 20, 1969, moments before Neil Armstrong set foot on the surface of the Moon, his team-mate Buzz Aldrin took the initiative in a sober and rapid ceremony to combine reading of the Gospel and Presbyterian communion. Under pressure from atheist organizations, NASA did everything to conceal this act of faith.
8:17 p.m. (universal time). The Eagle lunar module has just landed on the Sea of Tranquility. On board, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin must not be overwhelmed by emotion. Their gestures are numbered and timed, while their comrade Michael Collins, aboard the command module, remained in orbit while waiting to recover them. However, despite the intensity of the moment, Buzz Aldrin suspended the proceedings for a few moments. The former U.S. Air Force ace, now an astronaut, grabs a plastic bag from which he extracts a container containing wine, a piece of bread and a small chalice supplied to him by the church. Presbyterian of Webster, located near Houston.
In the microphone that connects him to the NASA command post, he then says a few words: “I ask you for a few moments of silence and I would like to invite people who are listening, who and wherever they are, to stop instant to consider the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his own way”. Then he reads an excerpt from chapter 15 of the Gospel of St. John: “I am the vine, and you branch them…” which he had copied by hand on a piece of paper before embarking.
Once these words were spoken, under the gaze of Neil Armstrong, who remained silent, Buzz Aldrin administered himself Presbyterian Communion under a special authorisation issued to him by the Church of Webster. “I poured the wine into a chalice that our church gave me. With a gravity six times less than on Earth, the wine made curves gently and gracefully on the walls of the cup. It was striking to think that the first liquid poured on the Moon, and that the first food absorbed, were the substances of the communion” he will write later. It was, he will also say, his own way of giving thanks and expressing that by exploring space, he was acting in the name of Christ.
No doubt Buzz Aldrin would have liked to give much more impact to his approach, and to repeat on the Moon the gesture of Christopher Columbus, planting a Cross on the sand of the unexplored beaches he was tackling. But political correctness was already at work at the time and NASA had asked it to act discreetly for fear of attracting the wrath of atheist organizations. “Go for it. Communion. But be content with generalist comments” said Deke Slayton, head of the office of astronauts. This is how only the ground crews heard Aldrin’s religious words, and not the general public who was eager for the slightest actions of the three heroes of the lunar conquest.
Second Atheist Offensive
Concerning Apollo missions and religion, it must be said that NASA had been scalded by the actions brought by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, activist of the association American Atheists, who called herself “America’s most hated woman”. She had indeed brought a lawsuit against the state, in the name of the First Amendment, after the three astronauts of the Apollo 8 mission, on December 24, 1968, had read an extract from Genesis during the rotation around the Moon. Previously, this activist had made herself known for her challenge to the compulsory nature of prayers and religious readings in public establishments, and in schools in particular. Now, forbidding astronauts on duty from expressing their faith on Earth, in space and on the Moon was her new workhorse.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s offensive in no way reduces the symbolic significance of Buzz Aldrin’s gesture (unlike Catholics, Presbyterians do not believe in transubstantiation: communion is above all a rite which expresses the spiritual presence of God in an assembly, even a reduced one). So every year again in July, Webster’s Presbyterian Church commemorates Buzz Aldrin’s ceremony on “Lunar Communion Sunday”. By invoking Christ by his words and his gestures, the astronaut knew how to restore to the world event that was the first step of man on the Moon its real dimension: a feat without common measure, but which could not make man forget his rank as a creature. That is what can be said concerning Apollo and religion.