Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Communion on the Moon

Here's an interesting story I came across from the Apollo space program. Did you know that before walking on the moon Buzz Aldrin performed a brief eucharist ritual? Neither did I. The story was kept quiet up for years because NASA was concerned that it would be seen as associating Christianity with the space program, a massive government-funded enterprise, in violation of the separation of church and state. Apparently concerns had been raised after a bible verse was read over the radio from space during one of the earlier flights about the possibility of "preaching from the moon," though why anyone would want to do such a thing remains a mystery to me. Aldrin, to his credit, handled the situation perfectly - he asked for a moment of silence and performed his ritual without comment. And even though I'm not a Christian myself, hearing that a spiritual ritual was performed on the moon is actually pretty cool.

Before Armstrong and Aldrin stepped out of the lunar module on July 20, 1969, Aldrin unstowed a small plastic container of wine and some bread. He had brought them to the moon from Webster Presbyterian church near Houston, where he was an elder. Aldrin had received permission from the Presbyterian church’s general assembly to administer it to himself. In his book Magnificent Desolation he shares the message he then radioed to Nasa: “I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever 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.”

He then ate and drank the elements. The surreal ceremony is described in an article by Aldrin in a 1970 copy of Guideposts magazine: “I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup. It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.”

It should be noted that at least one Thelemite also performed invocations in connection with the space program. Jack Parsons, whose work on solid rocket fuels led to the boosters that launched the space shuttle, used to recite Aleister Crowley's Hymn to Pan prior to every launch. Many of the commenters on Raw Story seem annoyed that any sort of religious ritual would be associated with the space program, but to expect that a religious person should not engage in any sort of spiritual action prior to something as momentous as walking on the moon seems kind of ridiculous. Maybe not everyone would perform a communion ritual, but my guess is that most would at least make some sort of silent prayer directed at whatever their concept of the divine happened to be. It's part of the basic nature of spiritual practitioners, and to eschew that in the interests of politics seems pretty misguided.

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Unknown said...

Ignoring the importance of spiritual practice because it is "incompatible with Science" is also BS. I'm sick of people equating science with godless!

Scott Stenwick said...

Me too. Consciousness studies are getting pretty close to where we're going to be measuring stuff traditionally considered spiritual using the same techniques as in more conventional science. And I think that there are going to be some big surprises for the materialist hardliners once we're in a position to collect that data.

Unknown said...

Though neither Christian nor Thelemite, I greatly admire your tolerance and your spirit of universal ecumenism.

Scott Stenwick said...

@Rachel: Thanks! As I see it you can approach just about any religion or mystical system as a viable spiritual path. Folks only get themselves into trouble when they lose sight of that and start condemning the spirituality of others.