Neil Armstrong’s words as he first stepped onto the surface of the moon — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — are some of the most memorable in history.
But seven months earlier, the astronauts aboard NASA’s first manned mission to orbit the moon, Apollo 8, were at a loss for words.
In December 1968, James Lovell, Frank Borman and Bill Anders prepared to become the first humans to journey beyond Earth’s orbit, circling around the dark side of the moon. Just about everyone on the planet would be listening.
What could they possibly say as they watched that pale blue dot rise over the moon’s horizon on Christmas Eve?
“We wanted to do something significant, not so much religious as to give them sort of a shock in the psychological solar plexus, to help them remember Apollo 8 and humankind’s first venture from the earth,” Anders later told PBS.
Before their mission, the astronauts had contacted a government public affairs specialist named Joseph Laitin for his advice, according to a 2018 Boston Globe report.
It was Laitin’s wife, Christine, who reportedly suggested the trio read the creation account from Genesis 1, the foundation of a number of world religions.
The passage begins with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
Borman read last, ending the transmission with a holiday greeting.
“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,” he said.
Atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair later sued the U.S. government, alleging the Genesis reading was a violation of the separation of church and state. Her case was ultimately dismissed.
But the crew members of Apollo 8 weren’t the last space travelers to bring religion with them into orbit. From NASA’s Apollo missions to SpaceIL’s recent moonshot, and from Christmas to Ramadan, humans have found ways to practice their beliefs while touching the heavens.
Not long after that Christmas Eve, astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first person to celebrate the Christian rite of Communion in space in the moments before he and Armstrong touched down on the surface of the moon 50 years ago this Saturday (July 20).
Several others have since. Three Catholic astronauts received Communion aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 1994, astronaut Tom Jones recalled in his memoir. So did astronaut Mike Hopkins aboard the International Space Station in 2013, according to Catholic News Service.
“When you see the Earth from that vantage point and see all the natural beauty that exists, it’s hard not to sit there and realize there has to be a higher power that has made this,” Hopkins told Catholic News Service.
Religious rituals in space aren’t confined to Christianity, either.
The first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, had written the Kiddush, the Jewish blessing for wine, into his diary so he could offer it aboard the space shuttle Columbia “during his space Sabbath which he read over the radio to Earth,” according to Wired.
Ramon, whose father had fled Nazi Germany and whose mother had survived the concentration camp at Auschwitz, was killed when Columbia disintegrated upon reentry in 2003, minutes before it was expected to land at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Only about 40% of the space shuttle and its contents has ever been recovered.
Ramon’s is the only diary that was found, wet and crumpled in a field outside Palestine, Texas. Scientists and scholars spent four years restoring its pages before it was displayed in 2008 at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem — his handwritten Kiddush clearly readable on its pages.
His wife, Rona, told Wired it was “a small miracle that needs to be shared.”
Ramon also had carried a drawing of the Earth from the perspective of the moon by a Jewish boy killed at Auschwitz and a small Torah that had been smuggled into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
The first known Ramadan prayers offered from orbit came from Malaysia’s first astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, aboard the International Space Station in 2007.
Shukor, an orthopedic surgeon selected as a crew member on the station’s 16th mission, would be in space during the tail end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Though the Muslim Shukor was intent on observing the associated rituals, fasting and praying while in space wasn’t a straightforward endeavor.
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Source: Religion News Service