WASHINGTON (RNS) – Sometimes the deepest truths about humanity – and God – are revealed as we step back a little. Or even fly about 238,000 miles into space.
The astronaut James Lovell had this epiphany 50 years ago, when he became one of the first astronauts orbiting the moon.
"I remembered a phrase that I had often heard:" I hope I will go to heaven when I die. "I suddenly realized that I was going to heaven when I was born," said Lovell.
Lovell spoke on Tuesday night (December 11) at the Washington National Cathedral as part of a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 Apollo 8 mission to Lovell and his fellow astronauts William Anders and Frank Borman Space was sent to orbit the Earth's gray satellite.
The mission, which lasted from December 21 to December 27, 1968, contained an unusual religious element: when the astronaut trio circled the moon on Christmas Eve, they paused to read the first ten verses from the book Genesis.
"From the crew of Apollo 8, we conclude with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless you all – all of you on the good earth," said Borman. In the then most watched program of history.
The topics of religion, space, and the care of the "good earth" were narrated again and again on Tuesday night when religious leaders and NASA officials addressed a crowd projecting under a canopy swirling stars onto the vaulted ceiling of the Cathedral.
Randy Hollerith, Dean of the Cathedral, opened the celebrations by reflecting on the unique way in which Apollo 8 influenced life here on Earth – especially the famous photo "Earthrise".
I would call a pilgrimage that not only revealed the dark side of the moon, but also gave us the most powerful images of our small and fragile world – God's precious gift flooded in an unimaginably vast universe, "said Hollerith. "I consider it a sacred journey, not only for what it has accomplished, but also for what it has revealed to us about our place in God's great creation."
Hollerith's sentiment was repeated by Michael Curry, chairman of the episcopal church bishop. drawing parallels between the experience of space flight and encounters with the divine mystery.
"The exploration of space is part of the human pursuit of knowledge, and the pursuit of knowledge is to know the creation of God," Curry told the religious service before the ceremony. "There is something awe-inspiring about (space) that must be comparable to the reverence for the mystics who looked at this world from a different angle and looked at it from within."
In his address, Curry discussed how cosmic awe can fuel activism on Earth. He said that many claimed that Apollo 8's famous photo "Earthrise" had advanced the modern environmental movement and urged those present to continue that tradition by taking action against climate change.
"This is God's world. We are here because the great God Almighty looked back and said, "I am lonely; I make myself a world. "Deep down in the fabric of this creation, we're part of it – not the grand total," said Curry during his lecture broadcast live on NASA's television.
He hoped that Tuesday's memorial service would be "a moment of renewed consecration and devotion" to the mission NASA and others "In order to explore new worlds, seek comprehensive knowledge and then mobilize the great knowledge of science and technology and the wisdom of humanity, mobilize it now to save this oasis, our island home."
To bring his point home Curry led the crowd in a slow, gentle rendition of "He has the whole world in his hands".
The news from Curry's environmentalist probably ringed with the next speaker, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Earlier this year, the former Republican Oklahoma Congressman was one of the few high-ranking Trump commissioners to back up the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change and said people would help.
Bridenstein's comments in the cathedral focused on the sheer boldness of the Apollo 8 mission. He noted that the Christmas message of the astronauts reached those in Soviet Russia, where religious celebrations were rejected by the official atheist government.
He then quoted the Genesis passage as phrasing NASA's plans to return to the moon. He explained that ice found there could provide resources and even rocket fuel for future space missions to Mars, the moons of Jupiter and beyond.
This scripture says that "God has separated the water, the water under the firmament … and the water over the firmament," he said. "We now know that there are hundreds of billions of tons of water ice on the moon's pole."
Religion played a perhaps surprising role in the space program from the start.
Several months after reading the Apollo 8 script, Apollo 11-astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian, had Communion on the Moon – complete with bread and a small bottle of wine – just hours before joining Neil Armstrong kick the lunar surface. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell wore microfilmed copies of the King James Bible on Apollo 14.
In 1996, Jewish astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman read Genesis' opening verses from a Torah scroll while in orbit.
The Malaysian Space Agency convened a group of more than 150 Islamic scholars to find out how Muslim astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor can pray while orbiting the planet in the International Space Station.
Controversy has also been sparked by space and faith fusions The reading of Apollo 8 Genesis sparked a lawsuit by famed atheist activist Madalyn Murray O & # 39; Hair, who argued that the actions of the crew violated the Establishment's Clause of the First Amendment , The case went to the Supreme Court, which dismissed him, citing lack of jurisdiction.
On Tuesday night, Hollerith mentioned that the National Cathedral preserves a piece of the other world's walls. One of the stained glass windows in the main shrine is called a "space window" – a gift from former NASA administrator Thomas O. Paine – and contains a piece of lunar rock collected during Apollo 11. The window was lit for the occasion.
While NASA generally does not endorse any particular belief or religion, the work of the agency may address wider spiritual concerns, Bridenstine told RNA.
"I will tell you as an administrator, when I talk to people in the community, there is an element of spirituality that exists in our work," he said. "Scripture is very clear that God created heaven and earth. … There are other spiritual questions, how are we alone in the universe? Could there be a life in a world that is not our own? These are scientific questions, but they also lead to a deeper philosophical understanding of "What is our place in the universe?" Should lead.
Asked about the possibility of sending faith leaders into space, Bridenstine said NASA was "absolutely" amenable to the idea.
"I think it would be fantastic – why not?" He said, turning to a discussion about NASA's role as a customer in the fast-growing private space industry.
"The vision I would like to introduce to you is a vision in which everyone from every sphere of life would have access to space, just as we now have for commercial aircraft," he said. "It does not matter if it's someone from the clergy or just a religious leader – everyone should have access. "
The evening ended with a speech by Lovell, detailing his first historical voyage around the Moon and back.
Reflecting on his first thoughts as he saw the earth above the lunar horizon, He repeated the theme of the evening: Moonlighting to understand, yes, but also to understand life here on earth.
"I arrived on a planet with a proper mass to have gravity to control water and an atmosphere vital. I arrived on a planet orbiting a star at exactly the right distance to absorb the energy of that star, "he said.
He paused and added," The answer was clear in my mind: God gave humanity a stage on which they found themselves in. How the game ends is up to us. "