Home InDepth Op-Eds The Moon Landing, 50 Years Later

The Moon Landing, 50 Years Later

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{Originally posted to the Aish website}

Fifty years ago, on July 21, 1969, more than 500 million people around the globe watched in stunned awe and fascination the moment when earthlings stepped foot on the moon for the first time. Humans had achieved the impossible.


For astronaut Neil Armstrong the historic significance of the moment was captured with the now famous words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Man’s first landing on another world was viewed as a triumph of modern technology. It was seen as confirmation of the primacy of science as the solution for all of man’s problems. The celebration that followed this breakthrough smacked of a new kind of idolatry. The ancient worship of the moon as a god was replaced with the worship of man for his ability to step foot upon its surface.

Fifty years later, with the benefit of hindsight and the lessons of history, it would be helpful to reconsider the significance of direct human contact with the moon.

A little more than half a year before Apollo 11 made its successful landing on the moon, on December 21, 1968, Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, blasted off from present-day Cape Canaveral in Florida. The plan called for the three astronauts onboard to come within about 70 miles of the moon, circle it several times and return safely home, all while broadcasting their feats to the world below. By gaining operational experience, testing equipment and checking out potential landing sites, they also hoped to pave the way for a moonwalk the following year, just in time to meet former President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to do so before the end of the decade.

The astronauts became the first to see the Earth from afar as a whole planet, taking “the single most important and powerful photograph in human history.”

Minutes after a straightforward departure, Air Force Col. Frank Borman, the mission commander, Navy Capt. James A. Lovell Jr., the command module pilot, and Air Force Major William A. Anders, the lunar module pilot, propelled themselves into uncharted territory, voyaging for three days through the vastness of space. No previous manned flight, either U.S. or Soviet, had ever left Earth’s gravitational field. On December 24, the astronauts became the first humans to see the dark side of the moon and the first to enter lunar orbit, circling the celestial body 10 times.

They had also become the first to see the Earth from afar as a whole planet. It was then that Major Anders captured what is today called by many “the single most important and powerful photograph in human history”, today known as his “Earthrise” photo.

To look at that globe and to recognize it as our home, to know that we are spinning in its orbit and living out our daily lives in the context of a far larger universe, is to grasp the full meaning of King David’s words in the Psalms, “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers… [I wonder] what is man that You should recall Him” (Psalms 8:4-5).

Even as we glorify our achievements when we claim we are “conquering space”, we can’t fail but to be overwhelmed by our puniness in comparison to the vastness of the universe and its clear proof of a far more powerful Creator.

Maimonides, in his classic work the Mishne Torah, described how to best fulfill our dual obligation to love and fear God.

What is the path to attain love and awe of Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify [Him], yearning with tremendous desire to know [God’s] great name, as David stated: ‘My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God’ (Psalms 42:3).

When he reflects on these same matters, he will immediately recoil in awe and fear, appreciating how he is a tiny, lowly, and dark creature, standing with his flimsy, limited, wisdom before He who is of perfect knowledge, as David stated: “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers… [I wonder] what is man that You should recall Him” (Psalms 8:4-5).

How can we explain mankind’s unquenchable thirst to discover what lies beyond our earthly home? What justifies the expenditure of billions of dollars to fleetingly set foot on the moon – and hopefully in the future even further? The quest is in essence spiritual. It is, as Maimonides has defined it, the longing of our soul to know more about our Creator. It is an act of love – which brings in its wake a response of incredible awe.

That is what happened on the mission which preceded Apollo 11. As William Anders pointed his camera out the window and took the shot that reminds us of our real place in the universe, the astronauts began a running diary of what they could see, from the pitch-black sky to the moon’s various mountains, craters and seas. And then, with no instructions from NASA except to do something “appropriate”, they took turns reading the opening verses of the Torah.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”

The opening words of the Torah were but a small step for God but a giant leap for mankind.

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Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and an internationally recognized educator, religious leader, lecturer, and author of 19 highly acclaimed books with combined sales of over a half million copies. His newest book, “Redemption, Then and Now” (a Passover Haggadah with commentaries and essays) is presently available on Amazon and in Judaica bookstores.

Printed from: https://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/the-moon-landing-50-years-later/2019/07/21/

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