50th anniversary of the moon landing

July 16th, 2019

“Man in the moon” and man on the moon

Scientists call it pareidolia (par-i-DOH-lee-a): the human tendency to see significant images or patterns where none actually exist. In Western cultures, one of the most common examples of this phenomenon is “the man in the moon.” Obviously we know that the cratered, shadowy lunar surface doesn’t have human facial features, but we still make out eyes, a nose and a mouth because we’re hardwired to hunt for meaning.

While the man in the moon may only be a trick on the eyes, a man on the moon became a reality on July 20, 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down on the moon’s surface. As Armstrong and Aldrin exited the lunar lander and fellow astronaut Michael Collins orbited above them, millions around the world stopped to take in this world-defining event.

The moon landing obviously meant something, but even at the time, not everyone agreed on exactly what that was.

Mobilized for the moon

Whenever people say, “We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t . . . ,” they’re paying tacit tribute to the Apollo program’s audacious goal and massive scale.

Writing in The New York Times three days before the landing, John Noble Wilford called the Apollo program “the greatest mobilization of men and resources ever undertaken for a peaceful project of science and exploration.” The Planetary Society calculates that between 1960 and 1973, “the United States spent the [adjusted] equivalent of $288 billion to build a human lunar program from scratch.” More than 400,000 engineers, scientists and technicians from the public and private sectors contributed to the realization of the program’s goal.

In his famous “moon speech” at Rice University in 1962, President John F. Kennedy framed the undertaking in terms of unified national resolve: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Many celebrate the anniversary of the moon landing because they see the mission the same way Kennedy did, as a praiseworthy milestone of American accomplishment. “It was a moment of time when we all came together, achieved something monumental and experienced it together,” Amy Entelis, a CNN executive, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “In the very tumultuous time we’re living in now, I think people are . . . saying, ‘I’m nostalgic for a time when that was possible.’ ”

Facing earthbound realities

Others, however, look back on the manned lunar program and remember that not everyone shared Kennedy’s enthusiasm. In a 2012 Atlantic article, Smithsonian space historian Roger Launius was quoted as saying that based on public-opinion polls at the time, “a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost, with the one exception to this a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 lunar landing in July 1969.”

Kennedy, NASA, and the national media painted Apollo 11 as an epic adventure and voyage of discovery, but according to an article on the NASA website, Kennedy privately told NASA administrator James Webb, who wanted broader goals for the program, “Everything we do [in space] ought to be tied into getting to the moon ahead of the Russians.” The desire to establish the United States as the world’s preeminent technological and economic superpower drove Apollo far more than any urge for scientific discovery. Yes, the program brought scientific insight and technological advancement, but as Paul Spudis, senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, told a symposium in 2011, “science was added in the margins” of the Apollo flights, and “we ended up learning a lot more than we set out to find.”

Many Americans questioned the cost, both monetarily and in resolve, required to go to the moon when so many pressing social problems remained unsolved on earth. The Reverend Ralph Abernathy, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led a rally at Kennedy Space Center the day before the 36-story-tall Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11 was launched at a cost, in today’s dollars, of over $41 billion. “On the eve of man’s noblest venture,” said Abernathy, “I am profoundly moved by the nation’s achievements in space. . . . We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty and hunger and war prevail on the Earth we as a civilized nation have failed.”

For some, the Apollo program’s promises of a bright future seem unfulfilled at best. When Neil Armstrong died in 2012, journalist Paul Harris wrote in The Guardian, “At the time it had seemed the beginning of a remarkable new journey. But . . . Armstrong’s amazing step did not, in the end, lead America anywhere.”

A Psalm 8 perspective on Apollo 11

Christians can find as much or as little meaning in the moon landing as anyone else, but our tradition tells us that looking heavenward can show us not only God’s face but also our own — and the sight can do us good.

The singer of Psalm 8 gazes at God’s celestial handiwork and is awed that the Maker of the moon and stars would crown comparatively small, humble humanity with godlike responsibility over the world. A moment of transcendence grounds the psalm-singer in greater awareness of the place and purpose of humans.

As we look back at Apollo 11, we can appreciate both the “glory and grandeur” God has given us (verse 5) — the intellect, ingenuity and intrepid spirit that made Apollo possible — as well as our weighty vocation to “rule over” God’s world (verse 6), not capriciously but carefully, not thoughtlessly but thankfully, truly using its riches and resources for the good of all.

Apollo 11 proves we’re capable of reaching great heights. Since we can land a man on the moon, surely we can love the men, women, and children with whom we live on earth as we love ourselves. Surely we can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

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