It’s often cited as the first prayer from space, but Alan Shepard was still mostly ground-bound when he said it, and the eight words were as determined and earthy as the astronaut himself. As Shepard sat holstered into his tiny Mercury capsule atop a Redstone rocket at Cape Canaveral on May 5, 1961, waiting impatiently through multiple delays to become America’s first man in space, he uttered a simple intercessory request: “Dear Lord, please don’t let me [mess] up.”
The prayer was apparently answered. The flight was a success, Shepard became the first hero of America’s manned space program, and his words still are quoted both fondly and wryly by NASA officials, who recall that “mess”’ was not the word Shepard used (he later claimed he was misquoted).
Still, Shepard’s quick plea from the heart became the first of what would become a long litany of expressions of faith by generations of men and women who would go into space, from simple shows of individual piety in zero gravity to sacramental formality on the surface of the moon.
Perhaps the most celebrated instance came on Christmas Eve, 1968 as Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders (a Catholic) became the first humans to orbit another world. As their command module circled the moon, each of the crewmen took turns reading from the Book of Genesis, and the reading was transmitted back to Mission Control in Houston as a Christmas greeting to the people of earth.
“We were told that on Christmas Eve we would have the largest audience that had ever listened to a human voice,” recalled Borman on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission. “And the only instructions that we got from NASA was to do something appropriate.”
Lovell said that the Scripture verses were chosen with a broad audience in mind. “The first ten verses of Genesis is the foundation of many of the world’s religions, not just the Christian religion,” he said. “There are more people in other religions than the Christian religion around the world, and so this would be appropriate to that and so that’s how it came to pass.”
As spiritually significant as the reading was at the time, the most lasting and indelible memory of the Apollo 8 mission was captured by Anders, who photographed the rising earth over the lunar horizon in brilliant color. Titled “Earthrise,” the photo became one of the most famous ever made, an icon of technological achievement and environmental and spiritual awareness—the first record of the home planet from another world.
Four years later, Catholic astronaut Gene Cernan became the last human to walk on the lunar surface as the commander of the final Apollo mission, Apollo 17. His parting words as he stepped off the moon: “I believe history will record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”
Sitting at his console in Mission Control in Houston listening to Cernan was the legendary NASA Flight Director, Gene Kranz. A tough-minded and hugely respected veteran of the manned space program, Kranz, more than any other NASA official, set the uncompromising tone for the Apollo program by promulgating what became known as “The Kranz Dictum.”
“After the Apollo 1 fire (a blaze inside the capsule while on the launch pad that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in 1967), we wrote out a values statement that talked about the characteristics for professional ethics,” wrote Kranz in later years. ”If you read behind the lines, you’ll see a lot of influence from the Ursulines, the Oblates and the Jesuits who taught me.”
The core of the dictum: “From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: Tough and Competent. Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for.
“Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.”
When the Apollo program gave way to the Space Shuttle, the relative spaciousness of the living quarters allowed Catholic astronauts to practice their faith sacramentally.
Thomas Jones, a Catholic astronaut who flew on the space shuttle Endeavor, recalls sharing the Eucharist aboard the shuttle with his crewmates Kevin Chilton and Sid Gutierrez in his 2006 book “Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir.”
“Kevin shared the Body of Christ with Sid and me, and we floated weightless on the flight deck, grateful for this moment of comradeship and communion with Christ. Our silent reflection was interrupted by a sudden burst of dazzling white light. The sun had risen just as we finished Communion, and now its pure radiance streamed through Endeavour’s cockpit windows and bathed us in its warmth… I rolled away from my crewmates, unable to stem the tears evoked by that singular sunrise.”
On Jones’ last shuttle flight in 2001, he experienced a significant moment of communion with God during the last minutes of a space walk outside the orbiter.
“Never have I felt so insignificant, yet so privileged to be a part of a scene so obviously set by God,” writes Jones. “Emotions welled up inside: gratitude for the chance to experience this vista, wonder that our minds can appreciate God’s glories, humility at my minuscule place in God’s limitless universe. Riding the prow of the Space Station, I thought of how much God had done for me. If God can show such generosity to one unimportant astronaut, I thought, how limitless must be God’s gifts to those truly in need.”
Jones’ insights, profound as they were, are not unique to space voyagers. Madhu Thangavelu, writing for CNN’s Belief Blog, says that a profound spiritual awakening is common—nearly automatic—among space travelers with whom he has spoken.
“Though they are fully aware that Newton and Kepler’s laws of gravity and motion guided them there, some have told me that their minds gravitate toward their religious traditions’ scriptures, writes Thangavelu, who conducts the Space Exploration Architecture Concept Synthesis Studio at USC.
“Most crew of space missions come back changed forever. Astronauts do not see national boundaries, they do not see warring nations, and they rarely notice the ravages of humanity and industry on the face of the planet.
“All they see is a stunningly vibrant planet, lots of rich blue-aquamarine ocean, virgin white snow tops on chains of mountain ranges and puffs of cloud cover as the continents whiz by below them in absolute silence…
“They see the whole world as one giant, harmonious living entity. They are immersed in a warm and caring embrace, a feeling of oneness with nature that it inescapable. From orbit, the idea of a common humanity becomes reality.
“If that’s not a spiritual awakening, what is?”