Those of us old enough to remember July 20, 1969—when human beings first walked on the moon—recall, too, our sense of amazement over the “one small step for man” that came to mark the day for posterity.
The technical accomplishment was formidable. The Apollo 11 spacecraft transported three men from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the moon, and two of them stepped out onto the Sea of Tranquility, a dry bed on the lunar surface.
For some, it was wholly the technological feat that yielded the awe. The “giant step for mankind,” to them, meant that now nothing could stand in the way of further space exploration, that further giant steps—which they assumed were inevitable—would soon enough include a permanent outpost on the moon, a human presence on Mars, even flesh and blood forays into realms beyond the solar system. Humans could, and would, conquer the heavens.
Today, more than forty years later, a considerably more modest mood has settled on would-be intergalactic conquistadores. No feet have disturbed lunar dust since 1972. Space travel disasters, dangers posed by radiation in space, and budgetary constraints born of wars and social needs have combined to effectively remove colonization of the moon from the United States’ agenda. Men on Mars remains a mere science fiction trope. Even the space shuttle program has now been shelved.
Others in 1969, though, while they were duly impressed by what human minds and hands had built and accomplished, felt an awe of a deeper sort. It was essentially the same astonishment born of looking—truly looking—at any part of what the world calls nature, of seeing—truly seeing—the night sky even from here on earth, or the sun, or clouds shifting shape. It was the awe of watching a baby explore his own new world, or begin to talk or walk; of leaves turning in the fall; of a spider spinning a web; of a wound, miraculously, healing. To be sure, the awe that summer day in 1969 was newly writ large, in images of an alien landscape, of bootprints in ancient dust, of a brilliant blue earthrise. But the shiver it inspired was, to sensitive people, the same yir’as harome’mus— awe before creation’s Creator—accessible everywhere. To those observers, the space program’s subsequent deceleration was but a reminder of the limits placed upon us mortal creations.
Those two diametric responses evoked by the first moonwalk—human hubris and awe of the Divine—long predated that event, of course; and they persist today as well. There remain among us those who stand in astonishment at human intelligence, dexterity and imagination, and proudly imagine that man is master of all he surveys. And then there are those who recognize that man, no less than the rest of nature at whose pinnacle he stands, is but testimony to an infinitely greater object of veneration, to Whom, in the end, all truly belongs.
Interestingly, the mission of one of Apollo 11’s precursors, Apollo 8—the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon—yielded its own examples of both perspectives. The astronauts on the craft took turns reading a translation of the first verses of Genesis, broadcasting to all of the world’s human beings the Torah’s account of Creation.
And, as a result of that choice of message, a famous atheist of the time, Madalyn Murray O’Hair—who was responsible for the U.S. Supreme Court’s outlawing of prayer in public schools (and who was murdered in 1995 by an employee of the American Atheists organization she founded; and who was denounced by her son as an “evil and lawless” embezzler and tax cheat)—responded by filing a lawsuit over, as she saw it, that unconstitutional injection of religion into a governmental program.
The lawsuit, O’Hair v. Paine (1970) bounced around for a while but finally, in one of the more lasting and delightful legacies of the moon missions, it reached, and was dismissed, by the U.S. Supreme Court. “The motion to dismiss is granted and the appeal is dismissed,” the decision read, “for want of jurisdiction.”
© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE
[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]
The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.