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18.07.2019

Moon Landing: Big Perspective, Big Questions | Connecting with Culture

Were you woken up in the middle of the night on 20th July 1969 to watch the very first moon landing?

If, like me, you weren’t even born then, you will have to capture the moment by listening to others’ stories. Some families simply went outside to stare at the moon and think about the incredible fact that there might be a person walking around on it at that very moment.

Those of us who grew up in an age when ‘astronaut’ was a career option (albeit a pretty specialist one) might struggle to identify with the wonder of that first moon landing. But this recent photograph captures the true scale of the challenge. Human beings developed the technology to send living people out of Earth’s atmosphere, cross the 252,000-mile gap to the moon, land on it, take off again, and arrive back in one piece. It’s the safe arrival home that gets me – like hitting the bullseye twice in a row.

For some space-travellers, seeing Earth from a distance is a life-changing experience; a shift in thinking dubbed ‘the overview effect’. The observer feels a sense of awe at seeing the whole planet as a single entity rather than a fragmented collection of countries, and getting a sense of the fragility of the whole system. It brings people out of themselves – something psychologists call a ‘self-transcendent experience’.

Some people claim to have a ‘nothing but science’ approach to life that trusts only in things for which we can produce very concrete, measurable, evidence. Is it perhaps ironic, then, that this overview of the whole globe – which is made possible by science – can trigger such a deep sense of meaning?

Science can bring us to the big questions of meaning and purpose, but it doesn’t answer them. It’s important to recognise that science, wonderful though it is, has limits. Beyond those boundaries we step into other ways of knowing, such as philosophy or theology. At the interface between science and theology we can have some fascinating conversations.

The discussions about science and religion that I enjoy most happen when people share what really matters to them. What do you find beautiful? Which scientific discoveries changed the course of your life? How do you see yourself in relation to the cosmos? As we celebrate the first moon landing this weekend, we have an opportunity to have conversations that reflect the same sense of wonder experienced by those first moon walkers.

Dr Ruth M. Bancewicz
Church Engagement Director, The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion

Comments

  1. Thanks Ruth. You have caused me to reflect on my own memories of that great event.

    My family were living in Sydney, Australia when all this happened. For us the moon landing occurred during the day. I was required to go to school. (My brother’s school was closed so the students and staff could watch the day’s events unfold. I was somewhat jealous!)

    I remember one of the teachers telling us excitedly, ‘This is the greatest day in the history of mankind!’ Even then I wondered if this was true. Surely the events we celebrate at Easter were even greater than a man walking on the moon.

    God’s gift of science has enabled us to do great things and we should give thanks for that, but was not his greatest gift. Maybe this needs to be part of the conversation.

    By John Steley - 19th July 2019
  2. Thank you John, yes you’re absolutely right! It’s fascinating that an astronauts’ perspective is often changed by their travels into space, and a number of people have found it strengthened their Christian faith very powerfully. Looking up can bring us to look back down, seeing how love and power over evil is expressed not by outward displays of cleverness and power, but by not flinching when suffering and death beckons. Jesus gave us the ultimate historical moment when the creator gave up his life to redeem his own creation, and then not content with that – also beat death by coming back to life.

    By Ruth Bancewicz - 19th July 2019
  3. Thanks Ruth, I really enjoyed this. And I wanted to share my short poem as the themes chime so well. It will be played on BBC Radio Leeds this Sunday. The voice audio is on my blog, linked.

    Man on the Moon.

    Three men atop a rocket fuelled colossus, Saturn Five,
    A decade’s work, half million minds behind it all – a hive
    Of scientific brilliance, to this pivot point arrive,
    To get this trio of brave souls, to the moon and back, alive.

    A hundred thousand gallons of rocket fuel combust,
    A calibrated cauldron, mind-melting upward thrust,
    Those half a million minds now in precision tuning trust,
    For three there’s no way back now, it’s to the moon, or bust.

    A quarter of a million miles, the odds don’t easily stack,
    The jangling nerves of half the world will soon be on the rack,
    To achieve it, NASA’s plans cannot afford a single crack,
    To get three men out to the moon – and then to get them back.

    Approaching lunar surface, low, and skirting crater deep,
    Two astronauts land frail foil craft, while millions watch, or sleep,
    Of famous lines, Neil Armstrong uttered one we’re sure to keep,
    That one small step for man, for mankind’s a giant leap.

    Of reveries in space though, there are deeper yet to plumb,
    One astronaut discovered that all things on earth, the sum
    Of everything that has been, and now is, and is to come,
    This globe, the span of human life, could sit behind his thumb.

    A moment of profundity for humans (prone to preen),
    Questions like our place in things (that life will tend to screen),
    A reminder that a part of us will always probe, and lean
    To ask, from such perspective, what do our frail lives mean?

    Such magic God-like viewpoint inclines my thoughts to soar,
    And after ‘moon at fifty’ fades again from media roar,
    That photo of a fragile earth will still have power to awe,
    Prompt thoughts: are we alone, is this it, or is there something more?

    And though I’ll surely never in a lunar trip take part,
    Connect direct with the wizardry and wonder of space art,
    I may yet be inspired to take small baby steps, a start,
    To better grasp that other journey – of the human heart.

    By Bruce Gulland - 19th July 2019

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