‘Of Boundless Space and New Destinies’: Apollo 17 and Exploring God’s Creation
Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Last Lunar Landing: Space exploration as a human endeavor should put a human stamp to the glory of God on the cosmos, which, by God’s work of creation, already bears witness to the Almighty.
December’s full moon falls Dec. 7. (For those who look forward to a bright moon on Christmas Eve, sorry — at best, it’ll be the sliver of a waxing crescent.)
Dec. 7 is also the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 17, the last manned space mission to the moon. Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were the last human beings to walk on the moon. Of the 12 men who strolled the moon, only four are still alive, including Schmitt.
As a child growing up in that era, I remember the heady excitement Americans felt as, spurred by the words of President John F. Kennedy, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
We felt the challenge of our possibilities.
Back then, I suspect most Americans would have thought that, by now, a half-century later, we might have already reached the planets, at least Mars. Looking back on that era’s TV science fiction, Lost in Space was Alpha Centauri-bound by 1997, while Star Trek was already exploring the galaxy. But after Apollo 17, when the remaining three planned Apollo missions were canceled, America seemed to have stopped in space. Mankind’s “giant leap” of July 20, 1969, seemed not to have been followed by many subsequent baby steps.
True, the mid-1970s saw the start of Skylab, and humans have continuously lived aboard the International Space Station for more than two decades — and there has been the noble legacy of the space shuttle. Important, but Earth orbit seems like planetary navel-gazing.
The real exploration, the “going where no man has gone before,” has been conducted by machines, not men. NASA’s longest space mission — the 45-year-long Voyager 1 and 2 probes that took them past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune into the further reaches of space — was an unmanned venture. The Pioneer missions, launched in the years just after Apollo 17, flew past Jupiter and Saturn. Pioneers 10 and 11 bear a gold plaque depicting what men and women look like; Voyagers 1 and 2 carry golden records of “The Sounds of Earth.”
Viking 1 roamed around Mars during our nation’s bicentennial. New Horizons reached Pluto only in 2015. Some spacecraft have landed/impacted on Venus and Mercury.
All those missions gleaned reams of scientific data, obviously preliminary to any human steps further into even our own solar system. But the latter seems to be on hold.
Pope St. Paul VI encouraged the human foray into space. In remarks to President Kennedy two days after his 1963 papal coronation, the Pontiff spoke of space exploration as a way of rendering “homage to God,” contributing to the “benefit of mankind” and fostering a “closer relationship of universal brotherhood.”
The Pope, who was wont to peer through the Vatican Observatory’s telescope at Castel Gandolfo, watched on television the first lunar landing in 1969. In his message to the Apollo 11 astronauts, the Pope emphasized the Divine and the human. He began that message with the words “Glory to God,” not just as:
“A festive hymn on the part of our whole terrestrial globe … but the open threshold to the wide expanse of boundless space and new destinies.”
He called on the astronauts to bring to the moon “… with your living presence, the voice of the Spirit, a hymn to God, our Creator and our Father.”
Since man is created in God’s image and likeness, enlivened by his life-giving Spirit, the footprint of man on the moon was also an opportunity for God to be praised on that world through his human image.
In the message from him carried to the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts, the Pope began by invoking Psalm 8:
“When I see the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars that you created, what is man that you are mindful of him?”
That Psalm also reminds us “you have made him little less than a god; with glory and honor you crowned him, gave him power over the works of your hand, put all things under his feet.” The Pope’s choice of the Psalm clearly signified his awareness that the history-making moment clearly implicated man as the one who, in exercising dominion over created things, now had an ever greater scale on which to sing the praises of him whose image he is.
In that, it seems Pope Paul struck the right note: Space exploration as a human endeavor should put a human stamp to the glory of God on the cosmos, which, by God’s work of creation, already bears witness to the Almighty.
Let’s not forget it was on another December night — Dec. 24, 1968 — that the crew of Apollo 8, the first spaceship ever to orbit the moon and which produced the iconic Earthrise photograph, read Genesis 1:1-10 to “all of you on the good Earth.”
The first human entry into the orbit of another celestial body was marked with the words of revelation that everything — everything on that cosmic scale seen from the spacecraft — was God’s handiwork.
Pope Paul VI received the Apollo 11 astronauts in Rome in October 1969. Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have both spoken to astronauts in space. And the Eucharist has been received in space, too.
There has been talk of a human return to the moon by 2024-25, with goals of a permanent lunar encampment that could be a launching pad to further manned space exploration.
There has never been a lack of people who, citing the Copernican Revolution that replaced a geocentric with a heliocentric solar system, claimed that it both made man an insignificant clump of cells on the third rock from the sun and proved the universe could run just fine by its own rules without any god. But it’s also telling that the first human encounters with that third rock’s rock elicited sentiments not of “thank God I’m an atheist” but of “thank God.”
For many, their visceral reaction confirmed Psalm 19:
“The heavens declare the glory of God/the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
Religiously, the world of the 2020s, when some hope humans return to space, is very different — especially in the countries capable of remaking that “giant leap” — from when he last ventured forth.
But humans remain the same image of God they were back then, even if many have forgotten that truth.
Shakespeare perhaps captured our challenge: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
And that suggests some work Earthside, for, as Paul VI observed in July 1969, “Seeing God in the world, and the world in God: What could be more ecstatic?”