Today - July 20, 2009 - we are celebrating the first landing of Men upon the Moon. Forty years ago, on July 16th, 1969, the world waited breathlessly for an event years in the making. Amidst the sand dunes and palmetto trees beside the Atlantic Ocean, a million tourists, journalists and VIPs waited for the launch of Apollo 11 from pad 39A. Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins were to carry the hopes and dreams, not only of a country, but of all mankind.
It was the 1960's - when it seemed the dark side of humanity was ascendant... The Vietnam war... Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Bobby Kennedy gunned down... Protests raging on university campuses... The Cold War... Violent clashes between the police and demonstrators...
Which all faded from memory when, precisely on schedule, Jack King, the “voice of Apollo,” said “10-9-8... Ignition sequence start... 4-3-2-1 and LIFTOFF! We have liftoff!” The mighty Saturn V rocket strains to rise against the force of gravity, and for a heart-stopping second it appears to be losing the fight. Then, ever so slowly, it starts to pick up speed and clears the tower, streaking into the clear blue sky.
Four days later, the Lunar Module EAGLE approaches Sea of Tranquility, hovering 300 feet above the surface, when Neil Armstrong discovers the landing zone is filled with dangerous boulders. Armstrong takes manual control and for about 90 seconds, searches for a clear spot, flying over a crater and ignoring warning alarms from an overloaded computer. Fuel is running low, near empty. He sees a likely place, moves to it and cuts the engine as he calmly announces “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” And that night, July 20, 1969, at 10:56:20 pm Eastern Daylight Time, Neil Armstrong stepped from the ladder onto the surface of the Moon, saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The whole world shared in that moment. I think Columbus, Magellan, and the other great explorers of history would be less astonished by two men walking on the Moon than by the fact that hundreds of millions of people around the world were watching every moment as it happened, including the safe return of the astronauts to Earth.
Years later, Michael Collins would recall the people they met around the world. He was warmed by their reception, not so much by their praise, but by a sense of shared accomplishment. People didn't say, ‘Well, you Americans did it,’ everywhere they said: ‘We did it!’ We, humankind, we, the human race, we did it!” The spirit of inclusiveness was remarkable, given the space race’s origins in an atmosphere of fear and belligerence. Six times astronauts walked on the moon. And there was the unlucky Apollo 13, when we collectively held our breath and prayed three astronauts who faced death and disaster on the way to the Moon, would somehow limp back home safely.
Each day is a new opportunity for us to Explore our relationship with God. We seek to discover how we can exchange Our Goals and Our Dreams for the chance to follow His Plan. Like the Apollo astronauts, we have many personal challenges we will face in our lives. But rather than compare our personal journey to the first Lunar landing, I want to remind you of the space flight in December, 1968 – before Apollo 11. When Apollo 8 circled the moon for the first time - the first flight of humans beyond Earth’s orbit – a mission that restored and re-energized our sense of adventure. We have all seen that incredible picture of Earth, a blue and white marble sparkling in the blackness of space, rising above the dead lunar surface. If there is an image that defines the 20th century - that picture of our home planet rising above the lunar plain is it.
In 1968, on Christmas Eve, the astronauts of Apollo 8 - Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders - focused a camera on the surface of the Moon outside the spacecraft window, while reading the opening words of the creation story from the Book of Genesis. This unexpected transmission, literally from on high, was a gift of HOPE. Hope there is still beauty in the world. Hope we can still aspire to Goodness and Greatness. Everyone who heard those words, whether they believed in God, in other gods, or in no god at all, shared in the spirit of that moment. We all experienced a boundless optimism, where once there had been despair. And with that spirit in hearts and minds - we moved forward.
It's been said that the essence of Apollo 8 was about leaving, and that Apollo 11’s was about arriving. So I ask you - which is more important, that people left their home planet or that people arrived at their nearby satellite?” Consider that during a storm on the Sea of Galilee, Peter believed in Christ and wanted to follow Him wherever Christ led: but Peter had to find the personal courage within himself to Step Out Of The Boat.
Today, we regard Apollo 11 as being the showpiece and symbol of the Apollo program, and rightly so. As we embark on our journey to achieve a better understanding of who God is and what wonderful Plan He has for us, I ask you to remember that – sometimes - it’s more significant to LEAVE than it is to ARRIVE.