There is a full moon tonight as I look out my window in Florida, USA. It led me to think about a little known fact of something that happened on the moon in 1969 when an American astronaut, Buzz Aldrin took with him a consecrated wine and wafer to take part in the first Christian sacrament ever performed on the moon. (The History Channel “Eight Little Known Facts About the Moon Landing,”)
When Apollo 11‘s Eagle lunar module landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had to wait before venturing outside. Their mission ordered them to take a pause before the big event.
David Mickelson wrote this article that includes Aldrin’s description of the events:
So Aldrin used some of the time doing something unexpected, something no man had ever attempted before… He took part in the first Christian sacrament ever performed on the moon—a rite of Christian communion.
Aldrin openly described his Communion experience on the moon in print several times, including an August 1969 interview with LIFE magazine, an October 1970 Guideposts article, and his 1973 book Return to Earth. The following account of his motivations and preparation is taken from Aldrin’s 2009 book, Magnificent Desolation.
“Landing on the moon is not quite the same thing as arriving at Grandmother’s for Thanksgiving. You don’t hop out of the lunar module the moment the engine stops and yell, “We’re here! We’re here!” Getting out of the LM takes a lot of preparation, so we had built in several extra hours to our flight plan. We also figured it was wise to allow more time rather than less for our initial activities after landing, just in case anything had gone wrong during the flight.
According to our schedule, we were supposed to eat a meal, rest awhile, and then sleep for seven hours after arriving on the moon. After all, we had already worked a long, full day and we wanted to be fresh for our extra-vehicular activity (EVA). Mission Control had notified the media that they could take a break and catch their breath since there wouldn’t be much happening for several hours as we rested. But it was hard to rest with all that adrenaline pumping through our systems.
Nevertheless, in an effort to remain calm and collected, I decided that this would be an excellent time for a ceremony I had planned as an expression of gratitude and hope. Weeks before, as the Apollo mission drew near, I had originally asked Dean Woodruff, pastor at Webster Presbyterian Church, where my family and I attended services when I was home in Houston, to help me come up with something I could do on the moon, some appropriate symbolic act regarding the universality of seeking. I had thought in terms of doing something overtly patriotic, but everything we came up with sounded trite and jingoistic. I settled on a well-known expression of spirituality: celebrating the first Christian Communion on the moon, much as Christopher Columbus and other explorers had done when they first landed in their “new world.
I wanted to do something positive for the world, so the spiritual aspect appealed greatly to me, but NASA was still smarting from a lawsuit filed by atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair after the Apollo 8 astronauts read from the biblical creation account in Genesis. O’Hair contended this was a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. Although O’Hair’s views did not represent mainstream America at that time, her lawsuit was a nuisance and a distraction that NASA preferred to live without.
I met with Deke Slayton, one of the original “Mercury Seven” astronauts who ran our flight-crew operations, to inform him of my plans and that I intended to tell the world what I was doing. Deke said, “No, that’s not a good idea, Buzz. Go ahead and have communion, but keep your comments more general.” I understood that Deke didn’t want any more trouble.
So, during those first hours on the moon, before the planned eating and rest periods, I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out the communion elements along with a three-by-five card on which I had written the words of Jesus: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.’
I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon. My comments to the world were inclusive: “I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” I silently read the Bible passage as I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given. Neil watched respectfully, but made no comment to me at the time.
Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion. Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind — be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience that by giving thanks to God. It was my hope that people would keep the whole event in their minds and see, beyond minor details and technical achievements, a deeper meaning — a challenge, and the human need to explore whatever is above us, below us, or out there.”
The atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair may have wanted to ban NASA astronauts from practicing anything religious on earth or in space while on duty, but Holy Communion happened just the same because of one man who wanted to honor the God of the Universe in the one way that he knew how. Advised to say little about it, Buzz Aldrin made history that day with this simple act of faith. Thank you, Mr. Aldrin, for reminding us, as people or a nation, that without God, we “can do nothing.”
VIDEO: A re-enactment of the event: Short clip (with subtitles…no sound) showing Buzz Aldrin performing communion on the moon (from “Mare Tranquilitatis”, Episode 6 of “From the Earth to the Moon” miniseries).