by James A. Wilson
Perhaps the most important aspect of the first landing by human beings on another world fifty years ago was the tidal drag on the rest of us to forget our hatreds long enough to come together over it.
This event is forever symbolized in Neil Armstrong’s declaration, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong actually mis-spoke; he meant to say “step for a man,” but nobody cared. In this case it was the thought behind what he said that was as important as the event over which he spoke. The mission patch, designed by Mike Collins, the man forced by circumstances to remain in orbit while his companions made the actual landing, said it all, “We came for all mankind.” The only other event of the decade drawing us together that much was the disaster of Apollo 13; the outpouring prayer and creativity that brought that crew home even managed to halt the fighting in Vietnam for a few days of compassion for men representing all mankind in trouble, as Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins represented us in triumph.
As a human race we are so much more divided today I have to doubt such unity would be possible if we returned to the moon – or on to Mars – in this waning decade. But I can say what happened in 1969, and God knows we desperately need more.
They did it on all the Apollo flights, but it was especially so on Apollo 8 and Apollo 11; men climbed aboard a spacecraft sitting atop more than a million pounds of highly explosive gases and lit the fuse for the sake of going where no man had gone before.
This is the essence of the maverick spirit – doing what we are convicted needs to be done and equally convinced the time is now and the people are us if it would be done at all. The crew of Apollo 8 crossed interplanetary space for the first time and parked themselves in orbit around the moon, knowing a slight miscalculation would hurl them into its surface. Not content with a dramatic stunt, they spent a day mapping and photographing potential landing sites – and hazards – for those who would follow. They lived with the spectre of remaining forever if their return engine failed, and the stronger possibility of either skipping off our atmosphere to forever wander the cosmos if they came in too high or burning up if too steep as they navigated an impossibly narrow angle of attack on their return. Mavericks do what the rest of us want but will not ourselves do.
Apollo 11 faced an even more daunting challenge, landing with no back-up system if they crashed or failed the lift off to return to their mother ship. Neil Armstrong’s immense cool brought them in safely with two seconds of fuel remaining before touchdown and his heart stopping words, “The Eagle has landed.” Yes, they showed uncommon courage, but it was their commitment past points of no-return – all of them – to a project larger than themselves that makes their achievement a tribute to the maverick spirit we mostly admire but rarely embody.
Yet a maverick spirit is a shapeless and ultimately impotent affair without an anchor. The only anchor worth discussion is the anchor provided by Almighty God in the Person of His Son through the agency of His Spirit. Only in this presence are we shaped into the persons we are called to become and enabled to leave a legacy that is more than, “Ooh, what a cool thing they did.”
When it came to Apollo 11, the first meal ever eaten on another planet was the Lord’s Supper in the hands of Buzz Aldrin. That act of worship cemented and extended the word spoken on the earlier flight. A large majority of those who have gone to the moon spoke of the journey as strengthening, initiating, or accelerating their faith in the God who said, “Do this for the remembrance of me.”
Fifty years on we need to recall – in our even more fractured world – that the Eagle has actually landed. The crew came not for themselves or even for America – though we need also recall it was American knowhow, courage, and resources that placed them there – but for all mankind. We need to remember even more – and embrace as never before – the twin realities that “In the beginning God…” and this same loving God said, “Do this for the remembrance of me.” Our collective lives require not just honoring Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, but actually following where they led – in spirit and in truth if not in flame. Only then do we find ultimate meaning and encouragement in something that happened half a century ago and still echoes magnificently in our hearts.
James A. Wilson is the author of Living As Ambassadors of Relationships, The Holy Spirit and the End Times, Kingdom in Pursuit, and his first novel, Generation – available at Bounty Books or at email@example.com