I vividly remember where I was on July 20, 1969 when humanity reached and landed on the moon. Amazing does not do justice to the feeling of that moment. We had just arrived at the front door of the universe. What did it all mean? Some 53 years later, we have perspective. The writer Adam Roberts wonders if it was a profane moment in our history and our world when we took on a more universal view.
Etymologically, “profane” describes the ground outside of (pro) or in front of the temple (fanum). He wonders about our perspective at that moment and its own trajectory. Were we viewing planet Earth as the temple with the universe as the profane? Or was it perhaps the reverse? Were we living in the profane and just newly arrived at the entrance to the temple?
The 1960s were an era of transition and change. The Supreme Court had only recently issued its landmark ruling on the separation of church and state with the outlawing of mandatory school prayer setting a trajectory towards the removal of prayer from the public forum of school. The April 8, 1966 cover of Time Magazine posed the question “Is God dead?” Yet, Roberts notes that among all the emerging thoughts and agendas, the space program in general and the Apollo program particularly was infused with a religious sensibility.
In the midst of all this, the Apollo 8 astronauts, orbiting the moon on Dec. 24, 1968, read aloud a “message for the entire world.” Sharing the reading, they proclaimed the story of creation from the Book of Genesis. In mission control, veteran flight director Gene Kranz wept openly, later recalling “I felt the presence of creation and the Creator” in that moment. It was not just the religious convictions of scientists, engineers, astronauts, and Apollo program people – it was the sense of the nation.
One of the plaintiffs in the 1963 Supreme Court case protested that such a purely religious propaganda funded by government money was an outrage and pointed to the 28,000 letters she received in support of her position. NASA received more than 8 million letters in support of that religious moment.
Yet the excitement of the Apollo 11 mission faded. Apollo 12 became routine and met our expectations. Only Apollo 13 gave us a moment of national unity as we all prayed the astronauts home in their crippled capsule. Oliver Kendrick sees that time as one in which we as a people began to look away from the heavens and seek new temples and new deities.
The last Apollo mission (1975) was the same year that George Lucas began production of Star Wars. The phenomena of the Star Wars franchise turned our attention to the new temple, the theater. Yet the religious impulse that characterized our nation and infused our space program was still present. Consider the highly religious sentiment of those movies: the Force, the shepherd-clad wisdom figure of Obi Wan Kenobi, the messianic expectations surrounding proto-Jedi Luke Skywalker, and the monastic life and sensibilities of the Jedi padawan seeking to become a Jedi master. Apart from the limits of the laws of physics, the front door to the universe swung open with cinematic drama – and we became fans – a word that derives from “profane.” We were people seeking a connection with the divine, the Force that surrounds and infuses all things. We were people “worshipping” at the cinematic temple.
Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix, Doctor Who, and now the Marvel Cinematic Universe – are financially successful enterprises. The Marvel movies have taken in more than $26 billion dollars during the last 12 years. The cost of the Apollo 11 mission was $12 billion (2022 dollars). As Kendrick has pointed out, humanity has spent more money on creating a universe and a temple to its desires and liking, than exploring the universe given to us. We spend money to connect with the power of Captain Marvel, the wisdom of Captain Picard, the ingenuity of Tony Stark, the heroism of Captain America, the community of the Avengers, the power of Thor, and all the other cinematic heroes of our on-screen, streaming universe.
All the while, we still have the question of profanity – where is the true temple and are we on the inside or the outside? Don’t get me wrong, I am a Sci-Fi fan and have donated to its coffers, yet the story that continues to animate and engage my life is one of a 1st century carpenter, the Good Shepherd, Wisdom personified, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and more. The one who formed a community of “fans” and left us a universe, a profane world for which we were missioned to lead them to the temple of God from whom all the world was created.
It is years later, and time moves on and the sentiment of the country continues to change. But the memories of Apollo 11 are clear as is my wonderment of the glory of God in that moment – and in so many moments from then to now. His is still the greatest story ever told.