One Small Step for Man
Apollo 11 Fifty Years Later
July 20, 2019, marks the fiftieth anniversary of perhaps the crowning achievement of human creativity and ingenuity. On that day in 1969, two Americans, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, landed their spacecraft on the surface of the moon.
This mission was the culmination of an expansive national effort initiated by John F. Kennedy’s bold challenge to the nation to send a man to the moon and return him safely home before the end of the decade. In spite of the fact that the United States had a mere fifteen minutes of manned space flight at the time of Kennedy’s challenge, the task was accomplished when Armstrong, Aldrin, and command module pilot Michael Collins splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.
This remarkable achievement of engineering and ingenuity is worthy of reflection. Here are four lessons we can learn from the Apollo moon missions fifty years later.
1. God’s image-bearers possess remarkable creativity.
God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:27–28)
After God created Adam and Eve, he commanded them to fill the earth and subdue it, but he did not give them detailed instructions on how to fulfill their mission. When God created humanity in his image, he gave us remarkable creativity with which to fulfill our God-given tasks. This creativity has enabled humans to use plants, animals, and materials from the earth to create tools, shelter, clothing, art, literature, music, and other objects that bring glory to God and joy to other human beings. While creativity is too often used for evil, this does not diminish the magnificence of the creative abilities that God has bestowed on humanity.
God-given creativity and ingenuity allow humans to harness the power of animals, plants, and the rest of creation to subdue the earth in ways that are outside the realm of what we can accomplish by human power alone. Horses can be trained and controlled to move heavy loads. Minerals can be extracted from the ground, purified, and formed into useful devices. Plants can be harvested and processed into materials with many different beneficial properties. These materials can be creatively arranged into a sweater, a bicycle, the computer I am typing with, the smartphone many of you are reading with. They can be used to build cities and create things no human has yet imagined. Solids, liquids, and gases can be extracted and refined into fuels that power machines that can literally move the face of the earth — or fly away from the earth.
One of the most awe-inspiring examples of human creativity and ingenuity is the immensely powerful Saturn V rocket that was used to transport human beings to the moon. Anyone who has stood next to one of the three Saturn Vs on display at museums in the United States can’t help but feel overwhelmed by this mammoth of engineering muscle. The Saturn V is still the most powerful rocket ever assembled, standing 363 feet high, producing 7.5 million pounds of thrust, and burning a staggering twenty tons of rocket fuel per second. It was transported to the launch pad by a Mobile Service Structure almost five hundred feet tall and larger than a baseball diamond. The launch pad included a six-story-tall flame deflector pit to prevent the immense exhaust flame from deflecting up and destroying the rocket.
To the Moon — and Back
In addition to engineering muscle, the quest to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth required remarkable creativity. As powerful as the Saturn V rockets were, they weren’t nearly powerful enough to launch a rocket on a direct round trip to the moon and back. So a lunar orbit rendezvous mission strategy was devised in which a small lunar module landed on the moon while a larger command module remained in orbit around the moon until the two modules rendezvoused and the astronauts traveled back to earth.
“We developed the spacecraft, but God made the brain we used to create it. We created the mission plan, but God made the moon.”
Communications technologies were developed to send spacecraft telemetry data to mission control, measure the vital signs of the crew, relay video display back to earth, and enable the astronauts to talk to the president while 240,000 miles away. Space suits were developed to sustain life in the vacuum of space and shelter astronauts from the extreme temperature range in the shade and sunlight of space (from colder than 250 below zero to hotter than 250 degrees Fahrenheit). In order to safely return the astronauts to earth, a heat shield was developed using specialized materials that could withstand the temperatures that the spacecraft was exposed to during reentry into the earth’s atmosphere — temperatures nearly half that of the surface of the sun.
In the words of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, “The legacy of Apollo is when a group of people seize a challenge, human beings can accept a challenge and chart a course and do just remarkable things” (When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions).
2. God’s creativity surpasses ours.
As amazing as human creativity and ingenuity are, our creative powers are very limited. We cannot create matter out of nothing; we simply can reorder it (albeit in some pretty remarkable ways!). The sum total of all human ingenuity in the history of mankind is insufficient to create even a single grain of sand. God’s creative powers are unlimited — he created the entire universe out of nothing (Hebrews 11:3). He merely says, “Let there be . . .” and it is (Genesis 1:3). God spoke, and light, gravity, electromagnetism, the strong force which binds quarks together to form protons and neutrons, the weak force without which stars could not form, and everything else that brings order and beauty to his creation came into existence.
God’s creativity was primary in the Apollo moon landings; our creativity was derivative. We turned minerals into useful alloys, but God made the ore that the minerals were extracted from. We developed a fuel mixture capable of powering rockets, but God made the kerosene and oxygen used in the fuel. We developed the complex spacecraft, but God made the brain we used to create it. We created the mission plan, but God made the moon.
“The creation is big; our God is unfathomably bigger.”
The creativity of God is like a jewel with many facets. The beauty of God’s creativity is displayed through delicate flowers of the field (Matthew 6:28–29) and the immense Orion Nebula (Psalm 19:1–4). The power of his creativity is seen in light generated by nuclear fusion occurring in our sun and in infinitely dark black holes that hold together galaxies by the power of their gravity. The wisdom of his creativity is seen in the working together of the members of the human body — eyes that allow us to see, ears that allow us to hear, nerves that allow us to feel, white blood cells that fight off disease, taste buds by which we enjoy chocolate chip cookies and milk, digestive enzymes that turn food into useful energy, and a brain that is able to comprehend how fearfully and wonderfully we have been made (Psalm 139:14).
The mercy of his creativity is seen on the cross, where he upheld his justice while finding a solution to the problem of our guilt due to sin (Romans 3:23–26). Who else would have conceived of such a plan of salvation? So much more can be said about God’s creativity. “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Romans 11:36).
3. Creation is unfathomably big — and God is even bigger.
In the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, astronaut Jim Lovell says,
We learned a lot about the moon, but what we really learned was about the earth: The fact that just from the distance of the moon, you can put your thumb up, and you can hide the earth behind your thumb. Everything that you’ve ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the earth itself — all behind your thumb. And how insignificant we really all are, but then how fortunate we are to have this body and to be able to enjoy living here amongst the beauty of the earth itself.
“The beauty of God’s creativity is displayed through delicate flowers of the field and the immense Orion Nebula.”
Most people think that the crew of Apollo 11 were the first human beings to travel to the moon, but that is only partly correct. In December of 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 (Jim Lovell, William Anders, and Frank Borman) traveled to, but did not land on, the moon. On Christmas Eve of that year, Apollo 8 entered into orbit around the moon. The crew read from Genesis 1 as they transmitted to approximately one billion people worldwide a breathtaking view of the earth rising above the surface of the moon. Our immense earth — a little blue jewel in the vast darkness of space. Our earth, one little speck in the solar system surrounding an ordinary star. Our sun, one of approximately four hundred billion stars in the Milky Way. Our galaxy, one medium-sized galaxy among a couple of trillion galaxies!
We rightly marvel at the extraordinary Apollo moon missions that transported human beings to our nearest cosmic neighbor. The Apollo spacecrafts traveled at a top speed of approximately twenty-four thousand miles per hour on their journey to the moon. How incredible that such machines were created fifty years ago and accomplished so much while being controlled by a computer with far less computing power than your cell phone! What an accomplishment. Yet what a small fraction of the universe we have explored. What a small fraction of the universe we can explore. Even traveling at the top speed of the Apollo spacecraft, it would take 122 thousand years to reach the nearest star other than the sun. It would take more than seventy billion years to reach the nearest galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy.
As big as the creation is, the Bible shows us that our Creator is even bigger. The vast oceans of the earth, which when perturbed by an earthquake create tsunamis powerful enough to wipe out provinces, all can be measured by God in the hollow of his hand (Isaiah 40:12). The enormous heavens are described by David as the work of God’s fingers — not even his whole hands (Psalm 8:3). Whether we are in the heavens or in the depths, our God will be there with us (Psalm 139:8). He “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). The creation is big; our God is unfathomably bigger.
4. The infinite Creator cares about his creatures.
The Lord is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of his people. He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children. (Psalm 113:4–9 NIV)
“God actually cares about seemingly insignificant people located in a tiny corner of the universe.”
The picture of God given to us in Psalm 113 is of One so awesome and big that he has to stoop down to see the heavens and the earth he created (“Let me stoop down and find that beautiful blue earth. Oh, there it is down there! Wow, that is a pretty one!”). Jim Lovell was rightly humbled by how small we and our earth are in comparison to the expanse of God’s creation. Yet amazingly, we are precious in the Creator’s eyes.
The biblical picture of God is not merely that of a powerful and omnipresent Creator, but also of a God who actually cares about seemingly insignificant people located in a tiny corner of the universe. He is a compassionate Father who cares for the poor and needy, and draws near to them (Psalm 34:4–7). He takes note of weak and vulnerable people, and works for their good (Psalm 147:3–6). Lord, “what is man that you are mindful of him?” we ask with David (Psalm 8:4).
God so loved weak and sinful sinners like us that he sent his one and only Son to the tiny blue speck orbiting an ordinary star on the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy, so that whoever believes in him might have eternal life. What an amazing God.