September 19, 2020

Another Look: Walking On The Moon

Yesterday we lost one of my greatest heroes. Neil Armstrong died at the age of 82 in Cincinnati. There are many things I could say about Armstrong (he owned a farm in my hometown of Lebanon, Ohio, so I have heard many stories from those who knew him there), but I think this essay I wrote in 2010 says it best. 

I am a geek when it comes to the Wright Brothers and manned space flight, as much of this history goes through Dayton, Ohio (near where I was born and raised) and vicinity. I have several dozen books on Wilbur and Orville as well as the space program. I consider going to the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patt Air Force Base to be a highlight of any trip back home.

I can remember exactly where I was in July of 1969 when I watched on television as men actually walk on the moon. I ran outside and looked up at the moon, then back in to see Armstrong and Aldrin walking on that same moon on our TV. Back and forth I went, amazed to think that those two men were actually up there right now, walking on the moon’s surface.

Twelve men walked on the surface of the moon during the Apollo missions. (The Apollo program lasted just a little over three years. Three years, twelve men. Yes, I get it.) Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, Jim Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Gene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt. Conrad, Shepard and Irwin are all dead. The youngest of the remaining nine, Duke and Schmitt, are 75 years old. Other than Neil Armstrong–and maybe Buzz Aldrin–most school kids today could not name any of these pioneers.

Each of these men walked where no other created creature has been. Their footprints remain on the moon’s surface today. But it was on their return to earth that the enormity of their adventure set in. All twelve found life on earth to be, well, difficult to adjust to after their time on the moon. Many ended up alcoholics, divorced, uneasy with life as they had known it. They were celebrities, but shunned the spotlight. Or grabbed it and ended up saying and doing things that, well, were difficult for us earth-bound creatures to understand.

Take Armstrong. He was offered a high-ranking position with NASA, but turned it down to become an engineering professor at the University of Cincinnati. He bought a farm in my hometown of Lebanon, Ohio and kept to himself. Those who had occasion to speak to him said if you kept to a topic like farming or the weather he was pleasant enough. But even try to bring up his moon experience and he turned vicious. He and his wife of 36 years divorced when his mood swings became too much to handle. He now lives in a suburb of Cincinnati—Indian Hill—but rarely makes public appearances or talks about his walk on the moon.

Buzz Aldrin, the second man ever to walk on the moon, was reduced for a time to selling used Cadillacs in Texas.

What impacted these twelve so strongly that their lives were forever changed after walking on the moon? What made it so difficult to fit into this life after a very short life on another rock? Could it have been that, after walking where no one in recorded history had ever before walked, life on earth just didn’t matter as much?

As I studied the lives of these heroes, I began thinking about the twelve men who walked with God for a few years while He was on the Earth. The men who watched Jesus teach and heal and create. Who ate and drank with Jesus every day. When we see them throughout the rest of the New Testament–after Jesus had ascended to the right hand of the Father–we find them having a difficult time fitting in with life on earth. Look at the early church. There was a discrepancy in which widows were being fed first in the food lines. The twelve apostles scratched their heads and said, “We can’t handle this. Find some men who are good at administration to handle these kinds of things. We are pursuing God.” The church grew, not because the apostles were brilliant marketers and businessmen, but because they had walked with Jesus, because the Holy Spirit filled them with God through and through.

There are other connections with the moon that followers of Jesus may recognize. The moon, of course, does not generate light, it simply reflects light generated by the Sun. Jesus said that he only did what he saw his Father do. He said if we see him, we see the Father. Jesus is the moon, reflecting to us the Father whom we cannot look on or we would die.

Sometimes I stand outside at night and stare at the moon. (The neighbors pull back their curtains and say, “What is the matter with that boy?” But they are getting used to me…) I wonder if any of the surviving nine moonwalkers are looking at the moon at the same time. I see it as a mystery; they see it as, however temporary, their once home. And since leaving the moon, they have never been the same.

(If you don’t like the astronaut illustration, think of Richard Dreyfuss’ character in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. After being buzzed by flying saucers, he just didn’t fit in with his family, his job, his neighborhood. He was haunted by a shape he just could not put his finger on. Once he did, he dangerously fought to climb Devil’s Tower because, well, he didn’t know why, did he? But his heart kept pulling him there, and he could not resist. That is what I am feeling. Does that work better than the astronauts?)

I purport to walk with Jesus. I have the Holy Spirit residing in me. Why, then, do I find it so easy to fit into this world? Why do I not stand out, not find daily life here perfectly awkward? I have walked on the moon—life on the Earth should not be the same. But too often it is.

Here is where I separate myself from the moonwalkers. I do not have to travel away from this planet in order to have my otherworldly experience. I am not waiting until I die to be able to have that close walk with Jesus. Jesus walks with us now, here. Yet I do not see him clearly. After 36 years as his follower, I still struggle to hear his voice clearly. I can look into the night sky and have no problem picking out the moon from all of the other celestial bodies. So why do I have so much trouble picking Jesus out from a crowd? When will my eyes adjust to see him as clearly as I long to see him? When will I find life on this earth strange and feel more at home on the moon?

I have the desire. Now I want the ability to walk on the moon every moment of every day.


  1. The astronauts probably experienced the equivalent of PTSD through facing death on every blast-off and stage separation. I don’t think we understood the inherent risks of space travel until the shuttle disasters.

    I think many Christians experience a similar PTSD through involvement in abusive churches.

    Encountering God should make it easier to relate with the world, because we’re all looking for grace, forgiveness, and redemption. When we can’t relate, perhaps the God of grace is not whom we’ve encountered.

  2. From the Wikipedia entry on Apollo 11:
    Two and a half hours after landing, before preparations began for the EVA, Aldrin broadcast that:
    “This is the LM pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”
    He then took communion privately. At this time NASA was still fighting a lawsuit brought by atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair (who had objected to the Apollo 8 crew reading from the Book of Genesis) demanding that their astronauts refrain from religious activities while in space. As such, Aldrin chose to refrain from directly mentioning this. He had kept the plan quiet (not even mentioning it to his wife) and did not reveal it publicly for several years.
    Aldrin was an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church in Webster, Texas. His communion kit was prepared by the pastor of the church, the Rev. Dean Woodruff. Aldrin described communion on the Moon and the involvement of his church and pastor in the October 1970 edition of Guideposts magazine and in his book Return to Earth. Webster Presbyterian possesses the chalice used on the Moon and commemorates the event each year on the Sunday closest to July 20.

  3. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    Charles Duke actually goes to my church, though we all call him Charlie. He’s got an amazing testimony. Every so often we give him the pulpit to tell his story. He’s written a book about his conversion story that’s a good read.

    One of the things he said is that reaching the tippity top of the life one has been building when one is so young in life is really hard for folks to deal with. Leads to destructive patterns that only God can turn around.

    It was my 2nd or 3rd week attending the parish, and I ended up sitting with Charlie and his wife way up front due to a dearth of seats in our old meeting place. I had no idea who he was. Just thought he was a friendly older gentleman who happened to have a free seat. Afterword, the priest said to me, “Hey, did you know…” and told me who he was.

    I gotta tell you, we’re super-blessed to have one of the twelve moon walkers at our little parish. Charlie’s a great guy with a good story. And it seems he’s healthy enough to keep on going telling it for many years to come, despite being over 75.

    • There’s an incredible documentary that came out just a few years ago called “In The Shadow Of The Moon”, in which many of these men, now in their 70’s and 80’s reflect back not only on the events but also the impact on their worldview and their spirituality. It can be viewed in 9 parts on YouTube, starting with

      • That documentary is really great, and the music is wonderful. I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it, and to those who have–see it again. I’ve been a long time fan of the space program and have been involved in model rocketry since I was four. My wife and I watched the Apollo 11 episode of From the Earth to the Moon the other night after hearing about Neil. From the Earth to the Moon is another well done set of videos (HBO miniseries) that gives a thorough picture of the Apollo program.

  4. Looking at it from a vocational point of view, reaching the pinnacle of your career in your late thirties or early forties, especiially with something so historic and momentous, you lead the rest of your life under an anti- climactic shadow. Nothing you will ever do will come close to matching what you have already done. I can see how that would become an almost unbearable burden.

    • And yet, for some of the astronauts, seeing how small earth looked in relation to the vastness of space made even the simplest activities of life back on earth seem like an daily miracle.

  5. I remember reading that the crews of the B-29s that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had similar issues. How does one return to the mundane after having done something so extreme, good OR bad?

    Frodo, after his little adventure, made a similar observation: “We set out to save the Shire, Sam. And it has been saved. But not for me.”

  6. What an interesting blog post! I never knew all those men experienced that kind of trauma upon returning home. Maybe they learned something that NASA didn’t want exposed and they had to live with it the rest of their life? Who knows?

    At any rate, and as you suggest, I am glad with can experience a grand experience, even more so than walking on the moon, by walking with God in the here and now.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Maybe they learned something that NASA didn’t want exposed and they had to live with it the rest of their life? Who knows?

      That way lies Grand Unified UFO Conspiracy Theory and Art Bell at 3 Ayem.

    • At least one had mentioned experiencing ongoing guilt that he (as a pilot) avoided fighting in Vietnam and was hailed as a national hero (as an astronaut), while his pilot friends who were doing bombing missions were treated with scorn by the antiwar protesters stateside.

  7. I think many people expereince trauma in their jobs. Police and fireman certainly do it due ot close calls, or arriving on accidnet scenes. It must be hard to be a policeman and walk up to a car not knowing if the guy has a gun and is on the run.

    Think of all the brave men and women in our armed services. US Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard. Each and every person who wears a uniform places themself at risk. They deal with consequencs and difficulties of deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Think of transportation officials…from train engineers, pilots, taxi drivers, etc… They all face risk. A few years back I read a Chicago Tribune article that talked about how train engineers on Chicago’s METRA rail dealt with PTSD. What caused it…people that committed suicide stepping out on the tracks in front of a train. It’s such a problem that employees refer to it as METRACIDE.

    But Armstrong has been someone I admired. Our country needs more people like him.