I was only a teenager at the time, but growing up in Houston with a father in the news business, I felt a special connection to NASA from early on, even getting the chance to sit once or twice in the temporary broadcast booths that were constructed for the network anchors back when every launch was a media event. And so, like millions around the world, I was totally transfixed on the black and white television images that miraculously came wafting into our living room on July 20, 1969, from more than a quarter million miles away.
What I didn’t know at the time, however, was what else happened on that Sunday five decades ago when Neil Armstrong became the first human being to ever walk on another world. For even as he prepared for that historic “giant leap for mankind,” his companion, Buzz Aldrin, prepared for something else inside the Eagle, unpacking bread and wine from plastic containers and placing them on the abort guidance system computer.
Radioing back to earth, he invited everyone 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.” And then, switching his radio off, Aldrin read privately from the Gospel of John before pouring the wine into a chalice, where in the lessened gravity of the moon the wine “curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup,” and he followed that by taking communion. In short, as Aldrin later wrote in a Guideposts magazine article, “the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.”
My friend Charles Anderson, who has served as a Methodist pastor to many in the NASA community over the years, has eloquently put it this way: “How both poignant and appropriate, that the greatest technological achievement in human history carried within it the sacramental reminder of the greatest act of salvific love in all history–namely, the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ that binds the past to the present, and the heavens to the earth. The greatest distance that humans have ever traveled from our celestial home was still within reach of the promise and presence of the living God.” Or as Charles goes on to add, “we can never ever journey to a place so far where God is not.”
And fifty years later, we’ve still never been able to do so, even with a Saturn V rocket behind us. Maybe that’s why when Jesus gave us the sacrament, He told us to remember Him in this way whenever we can. And wherever too, we might add.