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Five decades of small steps and giants leaps, remembering the ‘conquerors of the Moon’

Moon time: Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong walking on the moon 50 years ago.

THE voice of Neil Armstrong reached out in the dark some 384,400km away and crackled those famous words in cramped television rooms across the world, proclaiming a triumph of human ingenuity and God’s grace.

That was 50 years ago – 50 years to the day for Australian audiences.

While the event ought to retain its Cold War context – choked by espionage and nuclear paranoia – the moon landings still serve as a reminder, even on the edge of atomic annihilation, that machinations of evil can be transformed into vehicles for good.

It reminds us that hope always remains – hope not just for “earthlings”, but of the Church’s saving mission for the whole cosmos.

Pope Paul VI was heavily invested in the Apollo 11 mission; he watched the mission’s final stages carefully from the observatory at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome.

Minutes after the Lunar Excursion Module touched down, the Holy Father issued a message to the astronauts.

“Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of good will,” he said.

“Christ, when coming among us from the abysses of the divinity, made this blessed voice resound in the firmament. 

“Today, We, his humble representative, echo and repeat it as a festive hymn on the part of our whole terrestrial globe, no longer the insurmountable boundary of human existence but the open threshold to the wide expanse of boundless space and new destinies.”

Pope Paul VI was in awe of the men and women who made it possible.

“Honour, greetings and blessing to you, conquerors of the Moon, pale lamp of our nights and our dreams,” he said. 

“Bring to her, with your living presence, the voice of the spirit, a hymn to God, our Creator and our Father.”

Pope Paul VI handwrote a copy of Psalm 8 in Latin and sent it to NASA to be left on the moon by the Apollo 11 crew: “For the glory of the name of God, who gives men such power, we pray and wish well for this wondrous endeavour”. 

There, the scripture passage remains safe and secure on the windless lunar expanse for any future space-farers.

Other prominent members of the Church were still young at the time, but were impacted by it nonetheless.

Vatican Observatory director Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno was 16 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. 

Br Consolmagno devoured sci-fi novels and often imagined what space travel might be like in the future.

“That put the connection in my mind that the things we fantasise about can actually happen. So dreams carry with them an important sort of reality,” he told CNS.

“In the long run, it made me recognise the importance of our aspirations, the importance of our dreams, but also it really ties into the Jesuit idea that I really hadn’t understood yet of looking for God in your deepest desires.”

After studying astronomy, he entered religious life and now heads the world-class Vatican Observatory. 

He said he continued to marvel at the possibility of space travel – he sees God’s paint brush in it all.

“I can feel God in any of that work,” Br Consolmagno said.

“To me, you feel God in the joy of the moment.

“That the universe is logical and the fact that there is also beauty and understanding, it is a source of joy.”

It was also a source of humility.

Professor of theology at Villanova University Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio said the moon landings were a way of glimpsing the inner workings of creation and what it meant to be human.

“It’s obviously very, very hard for us to get our heads around the fact that we are on a planet that’s moving through space, that space is filled with all sort of material life and perhaps intelligent life that we have yet to discover,” she told CNS. 

“But the landing on the moon shows we can discover new things when we thought never before this could be done.

“That’s what these discoveries are pointing to – a humble stance in this incredibly vast cosmos.”

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