By Jim Bennett
Daily Review Atlas
Six percent of U.S. residents refuse to believe that American astronauts have ever landed on the Moon. If you happen to be one of them, now would be a good time for you to put down the newspaper, don your Reynolds Wrap shower cap and go search for Sasquatch, or maybe watch a Michael Moore film. This column is devoted to celebrating Neil Armstrong. Today, Aug. 5, this giant among the ever-dwindling pantheon of living American heroes turns 80.
Sadly, the Apollo 11 mission was such a stunning leap forward in human achievement that Armstrong’s other accomplishments are seldom mentioned, and they are certainly worthy of review. For instance, he became a licensed pilot at just 16; three years later, at the tender age of 19, he was in the U.S. Navy, flying from, and landing on, aircraft carriers.
At 21, Armstrong was handling dangerous combat runs over China and North Korea. In September of 1951, while on a low-altitude bombing mission, anti-aircraft fire struck his Grumman Panther and sent it plummeting. At just 500 feet off the ground his plane struck a cable, clipping off about six feet of its right wing. Somehow the young ensign managed to regain control of the F9F-2 long enough to fly it out of enemy airspace, but the wing damage made landing it out of the question. The treacherous and unpredictable prospect of ejection was a gamble, but he took it. He would go on to rack up a total of 78 missions in the Korean War.
Many have also forgotten that later, as a civilian, Neil Armstrong would make a career of cheating death daily as a research pilot of experimental aircraft. And the spectacle of the Moon landing also eclipses his earlier space journey, serving as command pilot of Gemini VIII. The mission was the first of its kind: Docking one orbiting spacecraft with another. Mere moments after the risky, historic rendezvous had been completed, however, the capsule and target vehicle began to spin dangerously and the trip had to be cut short. Nevertheless, the Moon shot would have remained just a hopeful dream if Gemini VIII hadn’t proven that two vessels in orbit could link up together.
Apollo 11, of course, was the realization of that dream, and it is wholly understandable why it would be the Neil Armstrong highlight we all remember. Not that it went perfectly, mind you: Alarms were sounding frantically as the Lunar Module “Eagle” carried Armstrong and LM pilot Buzz Aldrin down to the Moon’s surface; reportedly the stream of radar data was coming in to the craft’s computers at a rate much faster than they could handle (That mobile phone in your shirt pocket actually has more processing power than they had). The intended landing area was significantly overshot as well, and there was less than a minute’s worth of propellant remaining when they finally touched down.
Yet before the “giant leap for mankind” took place, Armstrong was part of one other seldom-mentioned event, if only as a witness. A few days before the launch, Aldrin, a church elder, had asked his pastor to help him plan a meaningful way to claim that historic occasion for God. Once the Eagle had landed, Aldrin revealed to Armstrong that he intended to take communion on the Moon.
Though he had hoped to broadcast it to the world, NASA demurred; they were already being sued by atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair (she objected to the Apollo 8 astronauts reading from Genesis when they orbited the moon at Christmas). Privately, with Armstrong looking on, Aldrin read a Bible verse, ate the bread, drank the wine and gave thanks.
Incidentally, the verse was John 15:5, where Jesus says, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”
I don’t believe Neil Armstrong has commented much on this particular moment from Apollo 11, and I frankly have no idea what spiritual beliefs, if any, he holds. But I do so hope this courageous American has placed his own trust in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. One who has ascended to the heights he has should know that “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.”
Jim Bennett is the pastor of Rozetta Baptist Church in rural Henderson County.
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