The summer of ’69

Apollo 11 blasts off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969. Photo: NASA

I was devastated when my Aunt Isabelle said to me: “Bobby, if you actually believe men walked on the moon, you need to have your head examined.” How could anyone think that this complex and heroic achievement was nothing but a Hollywood scam? It was a dream of so many, including a certain Massachusetts native who once occupied the White House … and me.

The desire to leave this planet for the heavens is planted deeply within us. Ultimately, to achieve this remains in the hands of our Creator and is the work of grace. Our salvation is in Christ Jesus, and it is in him alone that our sinful human state is redeemed and the hope of heaven made possible.

The desire to leave this planet for the heavens is planted deeply within us.

But this small step made possible 50 years ago by the mission of Apollo 11 was, as Neil Armstrong said, a giant leap for the human race.

It was the summer of ’69, and I was 9, but for as long as I can remember, I was fascinated by the technical and heroic efforts of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs. These spacecraft were cramped tin cans, thrust into orbit with technology not much beyond a simple calculator. But in the dark and cold of space, the bravery of these first astronauts inspired me. I knew every inch of the rocket engines and stages; I followed the television broadcasts of each mission “religiously.” Had I not had ambitions of becoming a priest, I might have ended up in the Air Force with the hope of a dream job at NASA. 

In the corner of my bedroom was a 4-foot-tall Revell model of the Saturn 5 rocket used to launch the lunar missions; it was my most prized possession. On July 16, 1969, atop such a powerful machine, Apollo 11 launched from Cape Kennedy, Florida, with commander Neil Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins, and lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. 

Late at night on July 20, I was sitting perhaps too close to our black-and-white RCA TV, one of an estimated 530 million people watching Armstrong descend the ladder of the lunar module as he described his experience, taking that “one small step for a man.” 

Months later when the three astronauts visited the Vatican, St. Paul VI greeted them with these words: 

Man has a natural urge to explore the unknown, to know the unknown; yet man has also a fear of the unknown. Your bravery has transcended this fear and through your intrepid adventure man has taken another step toward knowing more of the universe. (Address of Paul VI to Mr. Neil Armstrong, Col. Edwin Aldrin, and Lt. Col. Michael Collins, Oct. 16, 1969) 

The pope prayed that people would continue to learn about creation and see more clearly God’s power, infinity, and perfection. The Church has long encouraged scientific inquiry in this spirit and continues to do so. 

Today space travel is somewhat overshadowed by budgetary concerns and the unknown risks of prolonged exposure to the stress and effects of travel beyond our planet. The Star Wars and Star Trek franchises provide sufficient excitement without the danger or expense. 

The Church has long encouraged scientific inquiry … and continues to do so.

But within you and me is a deep desire: to reach beyond this garden of life, to move beyond our frail and flawed human existence to something greater and more wonderful than what eye can see or ear can hear or human heart may ponder.

Some 1,500 years before NASA, St. Augustine of Hippo could only look at the stars and wonder. For him, as for each of us, life was a series of desperate missions for fulfillment that left him so weary he could only pray, “How long, O Lord, how long?” Eventually he saw himself as so small and short-lived that he expressed his desire with these familiar words of longing: “Thou hast formed us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in thee” (Confessions, book 1, chapter 1).

So, in all that you do, reach for the stars, but never without the grace of the sacraments and the life of the Church, knowing that you have been made by God and for God and your heart will always be restless until you rest in him. 

Read all of our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing here. 

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