Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong nearly didn’t make it back from the Moon. One of the many startling revelations of Astronaut Aldrin’s two-hour presentation April 1st at Annapolis’ Severn School was his description of seeing a broken plastic switch for a circuit breaker in the command module, the Eagle, on the surface of the moon. He knew they could not take off and rendezvous with Michael Collins in the orbiting spacecraft Columbia without that switch. Buzz hastily improvised; he placed a plastic felt-tip pen in the circuit breaker – and it fit exactly.
None of the estimated one billion people on earth who were watching on TV and listening on radio had any knowledge that such a life-saving action had just been taken by the crew of Apollo XI. The historic mission in July 1969 was the triumphal fulfillment of President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the Soviets, to America’s NASA, and to the scientific and engineering communities of the United States and the free world.
Our young president had been frustrated in 1961 when the USSR launched the first man into space. Major Yuri Gagarin’s grinning face was on the cover of every newspaper and mass circulation magazine in the world. The brave Soviet pilot had been selected by Communist Party chief Nikita Khrushchev as a prime example of “new Soviet man.”
Khrushchev had told the Free World: “We will bury you.” He spent the late 1950s and early 1960s threatening the Western allies’ precarious position in West Berlin. That bastion of freedom was 110 miles inside the Soviet zone of Germany. And Khrushchev was testing prototypes for a 100-megaton hydrogen bomb. After the USSR launched the world’s first artificial satellite in 1957, called Sputnik, it seemed the United States was doomed to come in second in a very desperate race for the foreseeable future.
Khrushchev was a generation older than Kennedy and, with his bald head, gap-toothed grin, and 52-inch waistline, he was the antithesis of Kennedy’s youthful energy and glamour. Still, this fat man moved with startling speed. And he saw the Space Race as a way to legitimize atheistic communism. Asked what he had seen up in space, Gagarin smiled and said: Nyet boga – No God.
Kennedy had pledged “to get America moving again.” His New Frontier program was all about defending American ideals “with vigah.” Facing a decade of losing to the communists in the Space Race presented Kennedy with a refutation of the very reason he ran for president.
Buzz Aldrin described NASA scientists telling the young president the U.S. could beat the Soviets to the Moon, but that it would take fifty years to do it. Kennedy accepted the goal but, typically, he advanced the deadline. He went before Congress on May 25, 1961, and made it the highest priority of his administration to send a man to the Moon and bring him safely home – “by the end of this decade.”
The Moon Race was on. Once Kennedy had pointed to the Moon and given the world his word, and given NASA its marching orders, the mission was clear.
Initially rejected as a NASA Astronaut, Buzz Aldrin had gone to MIT to earn a Ph.D. in astronautics. His dissertation on the then-arcane subject of manned rendezvous in space proved to be the critical element to completing the mission. But if we sent only one Saturn V rocket into space, there would be no margin for error. If anything happened to the lunar orbiter, Columbia, or the lunar lander, Eagle, no rescue of the astronauts would be possible.
Buzz Aldrin modestly maintained that the success of Apollo XI, and the entire Apollo program, was the result of teamwork. Some 400,000 scientists and engineers labored for a decade to win the Space Race. Buzz even credited the seamstresses who stitched the spacesuits that protected the astronauts’ very lives from a hostile lunar environment.
Beginning with Mercury – orbital flights with just one astronaut – and continuing through Gemini – where two astronauts teamed and perfected rendezvous and EVA (extra-vehicular activity, or Space Walks) – and on through Apollo, the looming deadline and the increased pressure affected all Apollo team members. President Kennedy’s death by assassination in 1963 only underscored the importance of achieving his great goal.
In his presentation, Buzz Aldrin, now 84, left out the tragic fire aboard Apollo I. That shocking accident occurred during a “routine” training exercise on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy on January, 27, 1967. Three astronauts – Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee – met a gruesome death trapped inside the blazing capsule as oxygen fed the flames from an electrical spark.
It was as if a miler had fallen at the 3/4-mile mark, broken his leg, and still had to try to win the race. And win it we did. NASA completely re-engineered the Apollo spacecraft and stayed on Jack Kennedy’s schedule to land on the Moon.
Describing the descent of the Eagle to the lunar surface, on July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin noted that the landing site NASA had chosen was strewn with boulders. They could not land there. And the rest of the crater – soon to be known as Tranquility Base – was cast into ink-black darkness! Mission Commander Neil Armstrong had to override the designated landing instructions and manually land the spacecraft. The audio of Armstrong’s skillful set down gives no hint of the mortal peril the astronauts faced.
Neil Armstrong landed the Eagle with only 15 seconds of fuel remaining.
In his presentation at the Severn School, Buzz Aldrin made no reference to what he did next. That’s understandable, perhaps. The scientific community in whose ranks he rightly counts himself would likely look askance at celebrating Christian communion on the Moon. Still, that is what Buzz Aldrin did on that world historic occasion. He took as his text the words of John’s Gospel (15:5): “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
Buzz Aldrin described saluting the flag of the United States of America. It was, he said, “the proudest moment of my life.” It symbolized the victory of this country over a determined Soviet adversary. And it was in no small measure, a victory by a spiritual people, a free and brave and generous people, over an evil empire shackled to atheist materialism.
When the atheizers of today try to efface every Christian symbol, when they seethe with open hostility to any public expression of faith, they will not prevail. We know that the gates of hell will not prevail over the Church.
Nor will the atheizers succeed in blotting out all references to faith from the memory of the American people. Even if they were to sandblast every monument, every inscription here on earth, even if they succeeded in covering up every cross and Star of David, there would still be a plaque on the Moon:
Here Men from the Planet Earth
First set foot upon the Moon
July 1969 A.D.
We came in Peace for all Mankind
As long as we live, we will remember that storied Moon Landing. And we will remember that Anno Domini.