The Apollo 11 moon landing still staggers the imagination. Fifty years after Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, famously saying, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” it and subsequent missions remain humanity’s greatest technological achievement. Reflecting on it now, it continues to stir a sense of wonder and pride.
It was also an unprecedented and blessed moment of unity for humanity – one which would be nice to see now. The whole world joined together to watch history unfold on their television sets. A plaque on the astronauts’ lunar module “Eagle” proclaimed, “We came in peace for all mankind,” and a silicon disc that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin also brought to the moon contained the good will messages of leaders around the world.
The message of Pope Paul VI on this disc that was left on the moon included the passage from scripture which ponders the glory of God and His creation – “When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him? . . . Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet” (Psalms 8:4-6).
In the immensity of the universe, where on the one hand we are mere specks, man slipping the bonds of earth to touch another heavenly body shows also the greatness that we are capable of. Indeed, I like to think that God was watching that day with pride and a big smile on His face for what His children had accomplished. Not simply in the technology and engineering of the effort, which is beyond the comprehension of most of us. But also in the fact that, for that one man to first set foot on the moon, it took the dedication and work of hundreds of thousands of people.
From the flight crew to the people who designed the spacecraft and launch vehicles to those who manufactured the parts and assembled them to the people who designed and manufactured the machines to make the parts to the mathematicians and physicists who calculated the course and necessary velocity to the people who built the roads to carry the vehicles to the people who first imagined it was all possible to their families who supported them, all of them standing on the shoulders of those who came before us in history – all these were necessary to being able to successfully send and land human beings on the moon, walk on the surface, and return safely to earth.
When we come together and work together, we can do some amazing things – things we cannot do when we turn inward on ourselves. We can accomplish a lot of good in the world when we join together as one people. We can rediscover hope and joy and the idea of what is possible. It does not take going to the moon or reaching for the stars – we can do great things here in our own neighborhoods and communities.
This 50th anniversary is also an opportunity to reflect upon the teaching of St. Augustine and other Church fathers that was once summed up by Father Joseph Ratzinger around the time of the Apollo missions: “We can think of the Catholic Church by comparing it to the moon because the moon does not have its own light. It receives light from the sun, without which it would be in total darkness. Is this not an exact image of the Church?” Explaining, he said, “Whoever explores the Church and digs into it with a probe will discover, as in the moon, nothing but desert, sand and rock; the weaknesses of mankind seen as dust, stones, waste. But the decisive fact is that even if she is nothing but sand and stones, the Church is also Light by virtue of the Lord.”
On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded, “You are dust.” Yet we are dust created by God and filled with the breath of God. We are His greatest creation and, despite everything, the “sun” of His Son shines on us.
That means in our own lives, like the moon, we should be reflecting the Light of Christ to the people of earth who look upon us. And as great as scientific achievement is, the small steps we take ought also to be giant leaps for mankind in terms of love in the human heart.
Walking on the moon was a triumph of human ingenuity. How great it would be if we followed it up today with an equal effort to build a better world of working together and caring for one another.
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