Forty-five years ago, the late astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon’s surface. On that same Apollo 11 trip to the moon, fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin marked the 1969 occasion by taking communion.
In celebration of that historic day in the life of NASA and the American space program, members of Webster Presbyterian Church in Texas will be commemorating Aldrin’s act with a special service they have deemed Lunar Communion.
The annual event will take place during the 10:15 a.m. worship service Sunday, July 20 – the 45th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing – at the 500-plus-member church located in a suburb of Houston on NASA Parkway in Webster, Texas.
“It’s very special for us (the Webster congregation) and very special for Christians,” said Pat Brackett, archivist for the church. “When man first walked on a heavenly body other than Earth there was a celebration of holy communion. That’s what is so amazing to me.”
Helen Rose Moore, interim pastor at Webster for the past 18 months, said the congregation has celebrated the event with a special communion service that features a recording of Aldrin’s words back to Earth following the lunar landing each year since 1969.
“It is a reminder of how extraordinary this act really was,” Moore said. “It puts into context for those who were not here (in 1969) what happened and why we continue to celebrate.”
On the moon
Armstrong, who died in 2012 at the age of 82, stepped out of the lunar module Eagle on the surface of the moon that day and uttered the famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Twenty minutes later, Aldrin joined him, becoming the second person to set foot on the moon. Together, he and Armstrong planted a U.S. flag on the surface and a plaque commemorating the occasion.
Before he stepped on to the moon’s surface, Aldrin, an elder at Webster Presbyterian Church at the time, became the first person to engage in a religious ceremony on the moon’s surface.
After landing the lunar module, Aldrin radioed Earth and said, “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.”
During that moment of silence, Aldrin read a passage from John 15:5 (Jesus’ teaching about the vine and the branches) he had written on an index card, ate bread (taken from the loaf that was to be used that same day at his church in Texas) and drank a packet of grape juice poured into a small chalice. All the items he used were part of a communion kit that was given to him by the Webster congregation.
Those communion elements were the first food and liquid consumed on the moon.
Brackett recalled that Webster had communion on that morning 45 years ago, but Pastor Dean Woodruff did not give a final benediction at the close of the service that particular Sunday, instead telling congregants the service would conclude later in the day. About three hours after the end of the service, the Eagle landed on the moon, and Aldrin completed the lunar communion.
“Isn’t it just awesome that the first food and drink eaten on the moon were the simple communion elements?” Brackett asked.
A special service
Brackett indicated that the lunar communion service at Webster is more special this year because it falls on the actual date Aldrin took communion on the moon. It usually takes place on the Sunday closest to July 20 at Webster, known as the “church of astronauts.” Past members include Aldrin and John Glenn, and many other members work for NASA.
Though he has not returned for the lunar communion service hosted by the 121-year-old congregation, Aldrin, 84, has sent a video, and some church members already have started inviting him to be part of the service commemorating 50 years of the historic act in 2019.
During the communion service at Webster, a replica of the chalice used by Aldrin for communion will be on display as well as an Apollo 11 reserve flag made by the late Jack Kinzler, a member of Webster Presbyterian who designed the flag that Armstrong and Aldrin placed on the moon. Kinzler, who died earlier this year, designed the flags that were placed on the moon during all six Apollo mission flights. The backup flag for the Apollo 11 flight, which Kinzler kept, will be displayed at Sunday’s service.
“I think this church has a unique perspective on the significance of this event because Buzz was an elder here,” Moore said. “The way the service (at Webster in 1969) was left open … even though he was up there on the moon, the whole church celebrated (communion) together.”
In addition, there will be a Scripture passage read that Aldrin recited during a television broadcast the day before the astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean upon their return from the moon. The passage comes from Psalm 8:3-4, and traditionally has been part of Webster’s lunar communion service, recited by Clerk Emeritus Jim Paden for the last 45 years. It reads, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?”