Apollo 11’s ‘giant leap’

Catholic connections and reflections

The Apollo 11 lunar module ascent stage on July 21, 1969. Photo: NASA

Since the dawn of humanity, human eyes have beheld the glow of Earth’s moon in the skies overhead. For centuries, the human hearts of believers have pondered with awe the psalmist’s prayer to God: “You made the moon to mark the seasons” (Psalm 104:19). For indeed the lunar year was the foundation for the calendar in ancient Israel. 

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Not only has Catholic Digest captured the event with fond memories of those whom witnessed it, but we recap the Catholic legacy of St. Paul VI and Apollo 11. In our June/July/August 2019 print issue and on this website we’ve endeavored to feature history-making photography, plus lunar references from Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Catholic moon references, and more. Read all of our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing here. 

You made the moon to mark the seasons. (Psalm 104:19)

‘The Eagle has landed’

The mission to the moon started with a challenge from America’s first Catholic president. 

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind. (President John F. Kennedy, Address to Joint Session of Congress, May 25, 1961) 

Aboard a Saturn V rocket, the Apollo 11 space vehicle is launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 9:32 a.m. EDT on July 16, 1969. Onboard are astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Photo: NASA

That mission was completed eight years later. The lunar module with two Americans inside safely landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. It was 4:18 p.m. EDT. 

“The Eagle has landed,” Neil Armstrong told NASA mission control in Houston. More than six hours later at 10:56 p.m., Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. A NASA timeline recalls those moments: 

Armstrong puts his left foot to the moon. It is the first time in history that man has ever stepped on anything that has not existed on or originated from the Earth.

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” Armstrong radios. [Astronaut Edwin “Buzz”] Aldrin is taking photographs from inside the spacecraft.

The first print made by the weight of man on the moon is that of a lunar boot which resembles an oversized galosh.

This is a close-up view of an astronaut’s footprint in the lunar soil, photographed by a 70 mm lunar surface camera during the Apollo 11 mission. Photo: NASA

St. Paul VI and Apollo 11

Recently sainted Paul VI, who was pope from 1963–1978, was a great admirer of space travel and especially of the mission of Apollo 11. He not only blessed the astronauts (at a distance) on their departure for their mission on July 16, but, while they were on the moon, he also sent his greetings to them from his observatory at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, with these words:

Honor, greetings, and blessings to you, conquerors of the moon, pale lamp of our nights and our dreams! Bring to her, with your living presence, the voice of the spirit, a hymn to God, our Creator and our Father. 

We are close to you, with our good wishes and with our prayers. Together with the whole Catholic Church, Pope Paul VI salutes you. 

You can listen to the pope’s words in English at CDmag.net/2UgBkUg, beginning at 4:20, in this five-minute video. 

Paul VI was one of 73 heads of state who conveyed goodwill messages captured on a small disc in an ultra-silicon etching that were left behind on the moon by Apollo 11. 

Astronauts at the Vatican 

Months after the mission of Apollo 11, Paul VI welcomed the astronauts and their wives to the Vatican and gave them gifts symbolic of the Magi, noting that the Wise Men also were guided on their journey by the stars. The astronauts also offered the pope gifts: a small Vatican City flag that went to the moon and back and four tiny moon rocks, now displayed at the Vatican Museums.

The Associated Press has a video of Paul VI meeting the Apollo astronauts. Visit CDmag.net/2IqY01G to watch. 

The Apollo 11 astronauts and their wives receive a papal audience by Pope Paul VI in the Papal Library, St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. Photo: NASA

The peaceful and cooperative use of space

Paul VI encouraged the peaceful use of space for the good of all humanity in an Aug. 6, 1968, speech, less than a year before the moon landing. 

With the exploration and utilization of outer space … human life is acquiring a kind of new dimension. Thanks to artificial satellites, which will probably continue to multiply and improve even further, hitherto unsuspected possibilities are now opening up … for the transmission of knowledge and information in all fields; this is a new road … effective as a means of progress in education, cultural exchanges, and international assistance; it is perhaps — God wishes it! — a herald of the imminent collapse of the barriers which still impede peaceful relations among certain social and national groups, a sign of a forthcoming era of sincere cooperation among all the nations of the globe, a turning-point … towards peace. (Message of His Holiness Paul VI to the Conference on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space) 


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