Undoubtedly. But Rebecca J. Rosen isn’t so sure. She has a smart, balanced piece on the Atlantic Tech blog entitled “Communion on the Moon: The Religious Experience in Space,” in which she basically confirms that, despite our extraordinary, eye-popping technological advances (witness our current excavation of Mars), religion has not faded away, even among, and perhaps especially among, those elect few who have traveled to outer space.
For reasons both straightforward and opaque, the secular, scientific work of space exploration cannot shake religion, and over the last few decades of human space travel, astronauts of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith have taken their religious beliefs into orbit, praying out of duty, in awe, and for their safe return.
That latter reason — risk — is perhaps the most basic explanation for the religious appeals of space explorers. On the ground, people led by popes, presidents, and their own instincts pray for astronauts’ safe deliverance. Is there any supplication more succinct than what astronaut Scott Carpenter radioed to John Glenn, as the rockets powered him off the ground? “Godspeed, John Glenn.” The Book of Common Prayer includes astronauts in an optional line in its Prayer for Travelers: “For those who travel on land, on water, or in the air [or through outer space], let us pray to the Lord.”
And of course, astronauts pray for their own safety. It’s hard to imagine atheists in foxholes; it is at least as hard to imagine them in space shuttles. In his memoir, astronaut Mike Mullane recalled the night before launch, lying in bed wracked by fears. He checked his nightstand for a Bible and found that there wasn’t one. But he writes, “I didn’t need a Bible to talk to God. I prayed for my family. I prayed for myself. I prayed I wouldn’t blow up and then I prayed harder that I wouldn’t screw up.”
But prayers for safety are basic. Astronauts’ religious practice in space has played out in more beautiful and complicated ways.
She then goes on to relate something that came as news to me: that Buzz Aldrin, an Anglican, partook of Holy Communion—on the surface of the moon. In Magnificent Desolation, his 2009 memoir, Aldrin wrote of
how he took communion in the minutes between when he and Neil Armstrong became the first humans on the moon’s surface, and when Armstrong set his foot down on the dust. Aldrin says he had planned the ceremony as “an expression of gratitude and hope.” The ceremony was kept quiet (un-aired) because NASA was proceeding cautiously following a lawsuit over the Apollo 8 Genesis reading, but it proceeded with a tiny vial of wine and a wafer Aldrin had transported to the moon in anticipation of the moment (personal items were strictly restricted by weight, so everything had to be small). He writes:
During those first hours on the moon, before the planned eating and rest periods, I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out the communion elements along with a three-by-five card on which I had written the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” I poured a thimblefull of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon. My comments to the world were inclusive: “I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever 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.” I silently read the Bible passages as I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given.
Neil watched respectfully, but made no comment to me at the time.
Aldrin went on to write how, if he had to do it over again, he would not have performed a specifically Christian sacrament, given that he was representing “all mankind — be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”
By the way, the lawsuit Rosen alludes to, over the reading of Genesis during the Apollo 8 mission, was brought to you by none other than Madalyn Murray O’Hair. “The suit was dismissed by the Supreme Court due to lack of jurisdiction.” Really? I would have thought that’s where all of O’Hair’s jurisdiction lay—in deepest space.
As for Aldrin’s second thoughts regarding Communion: I don’t think he need have worried. The sacrament allows the communicant to receive the body and blood of the crucified Christ. And when Jesus went to the cross, He too represented all mankind.
So it’s all good.