An astronaut walked into a church, and stepped behind the pulpit. The stained glass windows behind him did not depict a Biblical scene or long-dead saint, but the technicolor reds and blues of deep space nebulae. Draped over the pulpit was a quilted scene of an astronaut climbing a ladder toward a chalice, a perfect circle of a wafer perched upon its lid. He settled in at the podium with the ease of a man often given microphones, and an energy that screamed “friend of your dad’s.” Though he was dressed in business casual, it was not difficult to imagine him confidently donning the traffic cone orange, 14-layer space suit. “Greetings, Earthlings,” he said, looking out across the sea of parishioners.
Retired astronaut Clayton Anderson, 60, had returned to Webster Presbyterian, his former church, to deliver his first sermon on the anniversary of a special event in the community’s history. Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin consumed the symbolic body and blood of Christ on the lunar surface in an act of Holy Communion. In the Moon’s 1/6th gravity, the wine “curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the chalice,” as Aldrin later recalled. Inside the Lunar Module, Neil Armstrong watched quietly. But instead of following along across millions of radios, the world was none the wiser.
Webster Presbyterian isn’t just any church: It’s the “Church of the Astronauts,” located just down the road from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the home of space flight control since 1961 and the “Houston” in “Houston, we have a problem.” Like many other astronauts, Aldrin was a member. According to the 1970 book First on the Moon, he had approached the late Reverend Dean Woodruff in the weeks before the flight for help coming up with a symbolic gesture that “transcended modern times.” Woodruff believed that “God reveals Himself in the common elements of everyday life,” and suggested that Aldrin bring along with him a little silver chalice, a sachet of wine, and a piece of bread.
But 1969 was a tough year for NASA and religion. In an international radio broadcast on December 24, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 had taken turns reading from the first 10 verses of Genesis upon completion of the Moon’s first circumnavigation. Activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair then sued the U.S. government, claiming the reading violated the First Amendment. “That’s the reason the communion was kept secret,” church archivist Pat Brackett told me. “[Chief of the Astronaut Office] Deke Slayton said, okay, go ahead with your plans, but keep it quiet.”
So in the moments before Neil exited the Lunar Module and took one small step, Buzz called for radio silence, and requested that all listening “contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours, and give thanks in his or her own way.” He then read John 15:5 from a small slip of paper, ate the consecrated bread, and drank the wine. “The ‘silver chalice’ [was] actually a shot glass,” Associate Pastor Helen DeLeon told The Outline. “It just happens to have the right shape, and it was small enough that he could take it.” This was, for DeLeon, both the beauty of the event and the lesson at its center: “We take ordinary things, and we imbue them with meaning.”
The annual Lunar Communion service commemorates Aldrin’s sacrament as both the apotheosis of the church’s long history with NASA, and an ongoing ritual uplifting the sacralization of the secular in American spaceflight. Most of Webster Presbyterian’s congregants work or have worked for Johnson Space Center, while the church’s library features framed portraits of astronaut-members John Glenn, Charlie Bassett, Roger Chaffee, Jeffrey Ashby, Jerry Carr, and Carlos Noriega. In the lobby of the sanctuary, a dozen miniature quilted tapestries depicting scenes from the Space Age lined the entry. Nestled between the display was the original Lunar Communion cup used by Aldrin on the Moon, kept behind a locked window, guarded by a police officer, and roped off by red velvet.
The service has remained more or less the same since 1969. For 40 years, the Church’s late Clerk of Session Jim Payton performed a reading of Psalm 8, so his granddaughter Jennifer traveled from North Carolina to continue the tradition for the 50th anniversary. While fewer than 100 people had attended the regular service the week prior, the Lunar Communion brought out nearly 400. To accommodate the larger crowd, the program named 27 space-affiliated communion servers, including the children of astronauts, NASA physicists, and engineers.
During the five year tenure of the Apollo program from 1967 to 1972, 24 astronauts flew to the Moon, and only half of them walked upon it. As Dr. Kendrick Oliver wrote in To Touch the Face of God: The Sacred, the Profane and the American Space Program 1957-1975, the selection process for NASA’s first seven astronauts “marked institutional preference for candidates whose personalities appeared to be well armored against sudden and spontaneous transformation.” One of the great tragedies of the space program is that those chosen to view the wonders of the universe firsthand were discouraged from fully appreciating them. As Apollo 7 astronaut Wally Schirra told Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1966, “If I dream… if I get lost in wonder at the sight of a sunset, a color, I waste the flight and maybe my life.”
But some dreamed, and got lost. Upon returning to Earth, Apollo 8’s Bill Anders harbored a crisis of his lifelong Catholic faith; the view of Earth from space had transformed his perspective, and diminished his belief in a Christian God’s making of the universe. In a 2012 interview, Anders told The Seattle Times, “Are we really that special? I don’t think so.” But on Apollo 14, Edgar Mitchell had a spiritual awakening. In Moondust, a 2009 collective biography of the moonwalkers, Andrew Smith reports that God exposed Himself to Mitchell as “a universal consciousness manifest in each individual.” Mitchell later founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a New Age organization devoted to the reconciliation of science and religion.
“The beauty of the planet from 100,000 miles should be a goal for all of us, to help in our struggle to make it as it appears to be.”
While Apollo 16’s Charlie Duke didn’t find God on the Moon, he became a Christian in 1978, and has since used his platform as an astronaut to speak about the importance of his faith. “Walking with God,” he said in Moondust, “is like walking on the Moon to me.” After Apollo 15, Jim Irwin claimed that God spoke directly to him on the Moon. Back on Earth, he quickly became a born-again Christian, made the rounds with Billy Graham on the Southern Baptist conference circuit, and led a series of expeditions to Turkey’s Mt. Ararat in search of the archaeological remains of Noah’s Ark. His book More Than Earthlings claims that the Genesis creation story is real history.
Irwin’s views were certainly outliers among the astronaut corps. Clayton Anderson, like Webster Presbyterian, does not believe in the mutual exclusivity of science and faith. Nor does he claim to have spoken with God during his five-month stint on the International Space Station in 2007. “If I were to stand on the Moon, I don’t know if I would see God,” he told me. But God is also found in the ability, the creativity, the ingenuity that got us to space in the first place, he said. “How do you do that? We were given by God, by Allah, Buddha, by Mohammed, I don’t know, whoever... but some entity gave us this capability. My expectation was not to have God flash at me and say, ‘Hey sir! Welcome to space.’ But just by seeing what we’ve created.”
Grappling with the expanded perspective provided by space is central to the Lunar Communion service. On the cover of its program, a photo Anderson took of the Moon from space frames a quote from Psalm 8 which asks God, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars… what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” Before encouraging members to “never tire in our effort to be good stewards” of Earth, the July bulletin quotes Carrying the Fire, the memoir by Apollo 11’s Michael Collins: “The beauty of the planet from 100,000 miles should be a goal for all of us, to help in our struggle to make it as it appears to be.”
Anderson’s sermon used 1960s commitment to the Apollo 11 program as an allegory to explore the ways we all must “do our part” to make Earth better. The irony was that many in attendance actually were those workers who made Apollo happen. They were even dressed like it: throughout the sanctuary, retired scientists and engineers declared their affiliation with the space agency with retro thin ties, white short-sleeved button-ups, and NASA pocket protectors. But Anderson’s suggestions were not rocket science; they required no skillset other than God’s “reference library,” the Bible. If the members of Webster Presbyterian could not encounter God on the Moon, Anderson suggested they might find Him here among their own deeds. “Just as Neil and Buzz did some 50 years ago,” Anderson said, “you must also take your ‘one small step’ for the men, women, and children that populate your orbital path.” After all, as the church bulletin quoted from Collins, “Our home was the main show. Never mind the Moon.”
This is the thing about the Moon: It was not a real place until 1966, when the Soviet rover Luna 9 first landed and transmitted photos of its surface back to Earth, and it has not been one since 1972. After centuries of theory, fantasy, and lore, the Apollo program demystified the Moon. It was neither cheese nor quicksand, but pockmarked rock. Moondust, according to Armstrong, smelled like “wet ashes.” We found among its empty seas no faces but our own, and we have not gone back.
Yet the Moon today is somehow no less mysterious than when Buzz and Neil first landed in the Sea of Tranquillity. The Moon not only retains its mystique, but has also become content, an aesthetic, just as likely to be romantically gazed upon as it is to be photographed, posted, and called “Mom” by young people on Twitter. Every other month a new kind of “supermoon” trends as thousands of people around the world spread word of its size, its shape, and beauty. The Moon is still something to look up to and talk about; it is a celestial celebrity for the 21st century, the shifting looks of which we pick apart online. It’s also a Scandinavian clothing line, and an oral healthcare brand by Kendall Jenner.
If the new millennial faith is astrology, the Moon is among its deities. Astrologer Nan Hall Linke, who’s a longtime member of Edgar Mitchell’s Institute of Noetic Science, said that “some of the lure to the Moon is the fact that it’s beautiful, we can see it, and it changes shape... But I think some of that is that it’s a lost, shadow part of us.” This belief is grounded in science through the impact hypothesis, which claims that the Moon was created when a Mars-sized body hit Earth, breaking off chunks of rock from both, and formed the Moon. We look up to the Moon, Hall Linke said, because it is “part of our original Earth energy.”
If all goes as planned, we will return there by 2024. In November 2020, Artemis 1 will test the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, reaching the Moon for the first time in the 21st century. A Lunar Orbital Platform or “Gateway” space station will serve as a communications hub and holding area for future lunar and deep space missions. By the time Artemis 3 achieves contact light, it will be 52 years since Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan last said, “We leave as we came, and God willing, we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind.”
But private space corporations might beat them there. Both Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin project the introduction of private citizens to the Moon by 2023. While “space tourism” still reads like science fiction, it might not always be. The private companies most likely to make it happen are the same corporations being awarded NASA contracts to ship and return payload to the Moon throughout the Artemis program. If they build a hotel and casino at Tranquility Base, they may need to add a chapel.
The service closed with Aldrin’s call for gratitude. The tape was less than a minute long, with radio beeps, static, and playback from Houston included, but more than 238,000 miles away and 50 years across space and time, Webster Presbyterian listened reverentially. “I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be,” Aldrin said, “to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” In the moment of silence, it was impossible to not imagine the events that had followed: the wine as it poured, even Neil as he watched.
In Aldrin’s 2009 memoir, he wrote that although he “could think of no better way to celebrate the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience” at the time, he perhaps “would not choose to celebrate communion” if he had to do it over again. The sacrament was Christian, Buzz said, “and we had come to the Moon in the name of all mankind — be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics or atheists.” “That disappoints me,” Anderson said, “because I’ve found in my space flying career that most astronauts don’t talk about their faith.” Though Aldrin was invited back to Webster this year, he has not celebrated the event with the church since 1974.
Here, the history of manned spaceflight was both proof of God’s expansiveness, and a means for its further exploration. Its future, however, has a long way to go. Returning to the Moon will cost a projected $30 billion, which, just as critics of Apollo noted, might be better spent on problems here. While the astronaut corps has diversified in the 50 years since our last excursion to the lunar surface, space is still little more to most than the frontier playground of white male billionaires like Musk and Bezos.
But there is yet faith in communities like Webster Presbyterian in the journey itself, where God is found in the wonder of the universe. According to Anderson’s sermon, it is even “part of God’s eternal plan for humans” to explore it. There is perhaps hope, too, in the journey beyond. Although NASA informational documents for the Artemis program bleakly list the “exploitation of space resources” as one rationale for our return to the Moon, they further highlight the position of the lunar program as a stepping stone to the exploration of deep space. Listed among reasons for Mars and beyond reads the directive, “unlock the mysteries of the universe.”