When I heard about the recent death of Neil Armstrong, I was struck by the fact that his famous first steps on the moon happened over 40 years ago. I remember how relieved we were on that day in July of 1969 when we first heard those now famous words, "The Eagle has landed!"
And then how thrilled we were as we watched the scratchy images of Armstrong's "giant step for mankind."
One of my friends remembers being awakened by his parents and told to come downstairs and to watch it. As he sat in the living room with his grandparents, who were visiting at the time, he realized they were both born in the late 19th Century and had lived to witness everything from the Wright brothers all the way to the moon landing.
Another friend of mine was vacationing in Utah with his family. After they all watched it unfold on television, his aunt took all the children outside and pointed to the moon.
"There are men walking there!" she said. "You'll remember this for the rest of your life!"
"She was right," says my friend.
Personally, I was a junior counselor at Camp Lincoln that summer - a sleep away YMCA camp in New Hampshire. The night of the moon walk over 100 of us, staff and campers alike, crowded into the mess hall. We watched spellbound as Walter Cronkite narrated the whole thing for us on the tiny 12-inch black and white TV at the front of the dining room. It was probably the only time all summer that those kids were actually quiet!
Having lived through that time I thought I knew most of the details of the flight, but it was decades later when I learned something new about the expedition. It happened shortly after the Eagle touched down on Sunday, July 20. Buzz Aldrin, who piloted the lunar module, radioed a message to flight control requesting a few moments of silence. He asked that folks think about the momentous events of the day, and to offer up thanks in whatever made sense for each individual.
Then, during that time of silence, Aldrin opened up tiny little plastic packages containing a bit of bread, a vial of wine the size of his finger tip, and a miniature silver chalice. The communion elements had been given to him by his Presbyterian church and consecrated by his pastor. As he poured the wine into chalice, it rose up the side of the cup due to the low gravity. He read a bit of scripture, and then took the communion meal.
For Buzz Aldrin, the ancient symbols of bread and wine helped him to mark that special moment, that special day. For Aldrin, there seemed no contradiction between his being a person of faith and a man of science. He was able to hold both in whatever tension proved necessary. I was inspired as a child by Armstrong and company - and I still am inspired by them today.
When I see old shuttles mounted on 747s and being carried to their final resting places, when I see old astronauts laid to rest in theirs, it saddens me. For both seem to be reminders of who we could be. Not those bogged down in the despair that often mars this world, but rather those who aim for the stars of hope.
Like many Americans, I long for our return to space. Not because I think it draws us closer to God -speaking of God "up in heaven" is for me merely a figure of speech. No, I long for a more active return to space because such adventures draw us closer to who God intends us to be: creative, cooperative, filled with promise.