President John F. Kennedy’s audacious goal was dramatically realized in 1969 when Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon and returned safely home, his journey broadcast on live television for all to see. Science fiction had become science fact. America declared victory in the space race, thanks to the billions of dollars NASA spent developing the cutting-edge technologies needed for dozens of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.
But more than money and national pride were involved. Another hidden factor served as a major motivator of the many men who risked their lives so we could reach the Moon.
“Many historians have examined the cultural and social impact of the space program, but few have explored the important role of the faith factor,” says Princeton doctoral student William J. Schultz. “This faith factor is the untold story of the space race.”
I felt an overwhelming sense of the presence of God on the moon. I cannot imagine a holier place.
In December 1968, Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders became the first humans to orbit the Moon and see the Earth “rise” over the lunar surface. To celebrate, the three Apollo 8 astronauts delivered a simple Christmas Eve message for everyone back home, taking turns reading the first ten verses of Genesis 1 from the King James Bible. Borman concluded the broadcast with a brief farewell: “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.”
From a distance of nearly 240,000 miles, the astronauts reached an estimated one billion TV viewers—the biggest audience ever at the time.
Fast-forward to July 1969. Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had safely landed their lunar module on the Moon’s dusty surface. The next day Armstrong would take his incredible “giant leap for mankind.” But first, Aldrin paused to privately thank God for extraterrestrial travel mercies.
Buzz served as an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church in Clear Lake, Texas, a congregation known as the “Church of the Astronauts” for its long association with some of NASA’s biggest and brightest celebrities, including John Glenn, Jerry Carr, Charlie Bassett, and Roger Chaffee.
Before Aldrin left for the Moon, his congregation provided him with an in-flight communion kit. As he rested in the lunar module that sat upon the Moon’s surface, he poured out a few drops of wine. In the Moon’s low gravity, the red liquid gracefully curled into the small silver chalice. As Aldrin swallowed the wine and chewed a small piece of bread, he read a passage from the gospel of John that affirmed his complete dependence on God: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
As Aldrin took Communion on the Moon, back on Earth members of Webster Presbyterian stood together in their church to celebrate the sacrament with their distant brother.
Some churches teach their members to reach out and help people in their local communities. Some focus on service and missionary efforts that reach around the globe. Members of Webster Presbyterian developed a more cosmic conception of their faith.
Decades after one of its members walked on the Moon, the church still celebrates Lunar Communion Sunday every July. Its sanctuary is still beautifully decorated with astronomical improvisations on the standard church furnishings. Stained glass windows portray nebulae, the gigantic clouds of stellar dust and gas that the Hubble Space Telescope is examining.
Webster Presbyterian is one of a handful of churches in and around Clear Lake, the Houston suburb that was home to NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center. Many NASA scientists, engineers, astronauts, and their families attended these churches, hearing sermons that wrestled with some of the new theological questions raised by the space race of the 1960s and 1970s:
- Do astronauts travel through heaven?
- Are angels extraterrestrial beings?
- What would the discovery of alien life mean for Christianity?
- Did Jesus Christ die to save life on other worlds?
- Could space travel be a sign of the approaching end times?
After the sermons, Clear Lake believers sang hymns like “Bless Thou the Astronauts”:
When first upon the moon man trod,
How excellent thy name, O God.
The heavens thy glory doth declare;
Where-e’r we are, Lo! thou are there.
Christian fellowship was more than just a Sunday routine for the many NASA workers who regularly attended one of the many informal Bible studies and prayer groups held at the Manned Spacecraft Center throughout the week.
NASA employees attending one of these Manned Spacecraft Center prayer groups founded Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, which once videotaped its Christmas service so NASA could transmit the program to astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
The Clear Lake churches continue to serve the NASA community today, long after the glory days of the space race have passed. In 2009, one local congregation reaffirmed its calling: “We at University Baptist Church consider it a privilege to serve Christ in the midst of a community of science and technology.”
The Apollo program ended in the 1970s, but not before twelve men had visited the Moon during six separate lunar missions. Astronaut James Irwin was the eighth human to walk on the Moon’s surface. “I felt an overwhelming sense of the presence of God on the moon,” wrote Irwin. “I cannot imagine a holier place.”
The exciting stories of the space race and humanity’s first journeys to the Moon have been told and retold in numerous books and movies, but the faith factor remains largely overlooked, despite the powerful role Christianity played in the lives of astronauts, scientists, and their families.
As Buzz Aldrin wrote at the time, “There are many of us in the NASA program who trust that what we are doing is part of God’s eternal plan for man.”