Lessons from Apollo 11

It was about 8:30 in the morning Houston time on July 16, 1969 – 50 years ago – that a Saturn V rocket lifted the Apollo 11 spacecraft off its platform at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, beginning an historic mission to put the first human beings on the moon. In a little over eight days, the United States successfully fulfilled a dream humanity has had for centuries. We had sent three men to the moon, two of whom walked its surface, and then returned all three of them home safely.

It was right here in Houston, Texas, that then President John F. Kennedy, gave his inspiring speech that launched the race to the moon less than seven years earlier. I re-read his speech in preparing my remarks tonight. It is beautifully written and reflects an elegance of language and thought that we are sadly missing in public discourse today. I linked the entire speech above. It is worth reading in its entirety.

He began his speech, which he gave at Rice University stadium on September 12, 1962, with these words:

“We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”

After summarizing the 50,000-year history of mankind in a couple of brief paragraphs, he noted how technology had been developing at an increasingly rapid rate, causing many to wish it would just slow down some. (Sound familiar?) But, he explained, we cannot wait.

“Those who came before us [he said] made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”

* * *

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”

And then came the most memorable words from his speech:

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?”

“We choose to go to the moon. 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 …”

And so, on Sunday, July, 20, 1969, the Lunar Module of the Apollo spacecraft landed in the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon’s surface. The Lunar Module had been nicknamed by the astronauts “The Eagle.” Flight commander Neil Armstrong radioed to NASA the famous words: “Houston. Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” As he first set foot on the lunar surface, he uttered the most quoted words of the mission: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

What is less well known is that his flight partner, Buzz Aldrin, was a devout Presbyterian. Before leaving the lunar module to explore the moon, Buzz had brought with him a communion kit from his church and took communion. Just before he did, he radioed to Earth:

“I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”

Aldrin didn’t make reference to any religious prayers because NASA was still in litigation with an atheist who filed a suit complaining that during the Apollo 8 mission, the astronauts had read the first few lines of the first chapter of Genesis.

Nevertheless, a few days later, on July 23, as the astronauts prepared for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, the three spacemen gave short final speeches. This is what Aldrin said:

“This has been far more than three men on a mission to the Moon; more, still, than the efforts of a government, and industry team; more, even, than the efforts of one nation. We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown … Personally, in reflecting on the events of the past several days, a verse from Psalms comes to mind. “When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the Moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; What is man that Thou are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3-4)

Fifty years later, here we are. And here are some thoughts that I had as I researched and reflected on this amazing human achievement.

First, we now know that God’s domain is not in some special place our ancestors called “heaven” as they pointed to the clear blue sky above us. We have been to the moon. We have seen the small but beautiful blue marble that we call Earth from the Moon’s perspective. We have pointed our powerful telescopes to see the ends of our Galaxy and beyond to the other 100 billion galaxies in the Universe.

There is no specific place in the Universe where God resides. But, thanks to our study of space, we can appreciate in a much more profound way the brilliance of God’s Creation – in all its vastness, all its complexity, and all its sophistication.

Looking at the Earth as the astronauts did in Apollo 8, it is no wonder that they chose to read the opening verses of Genesis. The lawsuit was dismissed, by the way. But whether it was a valid First Amendment claim or not is irrelevant to how we Jews can choose to interpret the sight of our planet from space.

God is not “up there,” per se. But I am humbled and inspired, awe-struck and amazed when I consider God’s creation – every bit as much as our ancestor who wrote Psalm 8 that Buzz Aldrin quoted at the end of their mission.

And this leads to my second thought: why is God mindful of us, here on this exquisite but fragile little globe in the vastness of Space? In the early morning prayers we are supposed to recite each day we read a similar question:

“Master of all worlds! … What are we? What is our life? Our goodness? Our righteousness? Our achievements? Our powers? Our victories? What shall we say in Your presence? … in Your presence our lives seem futile. … all is vanity.”

“Surely, though, we are Your people, adherents of Your covenant, descendants of Abraham, whom You loved … the seed of Isaac … the congregation of Jacob … whom You renamed Israel and Jeshurun …”

Why is God mindful of us? Because he created humanity – as we learn from Genesis – to be God’s agents in our world:

  • with free will so that we could choose our own destiny,
  • with the ability to think, create, love, and explore.
  • We can use our imagination.
  • We can tell stories.
  • We can inspire others.
  • We can forge relationships.
  • We can build sacred communities.

But all of these powers were given to humanity so that we can be God’s agents in bringing love and compassion, hope and prosperity, freedom and dignity, justice and fairness into the world.

When seen from outer space, the world looks so small. Our petty grievances become microscopic. From that perspective – from God’s perspective – selfishness and greed are pointless.

Which leads me to my third and last thought for this evening. We sent men to the moon in the 1960’s. There was a Cold War, a threat of Nuclear War, and a war in Viet Nam. There were violent protests against racial prejudice and inequality. There were human-caused threats to the environment (which led to President Nixon creating the Environmental Protection Agency).

Many wondered why we spent so much money to go to the moon when there were so many problems and so much poverty here at home.

But going to the moon spun off many scientific advances too numerous to discuss this evening. It inspired us to invent, to create and to transform our world. And most importantly, it gave us that perspective on how small our planet is in the vastness of space.

We, in Houston, still have a college (really, two wonderful universities: Rice University and University of Houston) “noted for knowledge”, we are still “a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we [still today] stand in need of all three.” The coming decade will once again be a time of “change and challenge”, “a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance.”

We should continue to explore what is out there in space. But we can also use that creative energy to find solutions to the various challenges we still have here on Earth. We should use that image of the Earth to remind us of the fragility of our planet, to remind us of the pettiness of our disputes and conflicts, to remind us of all the blessings we enjoy in God’s creation – in short, to remind us of what is truly important, and the mission that God has given to humanity make this world as God intended it to be, as He described it at the end of creation: “Tov me’od” – very good!

About the Author
Rabbi Morgen is an Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, TX. He has served on the Boards of the Houston Jewish Federation, and the local boards of the AJC, and the ADL. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. He graduated from UCLA School of Law and practiced law in Los Angeles. He was ordained by JTS in 1998.
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