When researching for the novel that would eventually become Children of Apollo, I came upon a story about how Buzz Aldrin, the lunar module pilot on Apollo 11, took communion shortly after landing on the lunar surface as a way to thank God for the opportunity he had been given to be part of the first crew on the first lunar expedition ever.
However, some months before, the crew of Apollo 8, the first manned space craft to orbit the Moon, read from the Book of Genesis during a live TV broadcast on Christmas Eve that showed the iconic image of the Earth rising above the lunar surface. It was a beautiful celebration of the awe inspiring splendor of the universe and of the privilege three human beings had been given to look upon it from a new perspective.
Not everyone thought that the gesture was beautiful. Atheist activist Madeline Murray O’Hair, who had previously successfully sued to stop organized prayers in public school, actually sued NASA over the Apollo 8 broadcast. Though the suit was eventually thrown out by the Supreme Court, it caused NASA to forbid the open expression of religious faith by its astronauts on future space missions. Hence, Buzz Aldrin was obliged to take communion in private. The story was not even told for several decades.
As a man of faith and, just as important, a man who believes in liberty, this revelation kind of stuck in my craw. So I, perhaps taking a little bit of revenge, I imagined the crew of my fictitious Apollo 23, celebrating the first Christmas on the lunar surface in 1975, and committing an act of insubordination. This causes a slight problem for my fictional NASA Administrator, Lew Jacobson, who is, ironically enough, Jewish.
Enjoy this excerpt from Children of Apollo, my alternate history novel, a story of Christmas and politics.
Christmas Day, 1975 began on Earth much like any other Christmas. Thousands of pilgrims crowded Manger Square in Bethlehem under the watchful eyes of Israeli soldiers. The Pope gave a midnight homily from the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. In North America, children bounced excitedly from their beds to discover what treasures awaited them under the tree. Families and friends gathered in church and at Christmas dinners.
This Christmas was to be the first Christmas celebrated on the surface of the Moon. The “tree” inside the LT consisted of something on the bulkhead made of aluminum foil. Wendy gave McPherson a tie, with images of the Apollo spacecraft woven in. He gave her a pair of earrings in the shape of the crescent Moon. Then they had their holiday meal consisting of specially-wrapped turkey sandwiches, cranberry sauce, and a mush that they were assured was dressing.
Their one duty that day was what the TV networks advertised as “A Christmas Greeting from the Moon.” The idea had come from NASA PAO and for once was enthusiastically greeted by all concerned. Everyone remembered the similar broadcast by the crew of Apollo 8, with the image of the Earth rising above the surface of the Moon.
Of course, NASA PAO had handed the Apollo 23 astronauts a kind of mushy, nondenominational script that was designed to not offend anyone. The atheist Madeline Murray O’Hair had sued the US government for the readings from Genesis by the Apollo 8 crew. The suit had gone all the way to the Supreme Court before being thrown out. The NASA PAO script therefore had a lot of rhetoric about “peace on Earth and goodwill toward men” and even a joke about Christmas turkey.
What the Apollo 23 astronauts said instead gave a lot of people heartburn, at least until subsequent events overshadowed everything.
Wendy and McPherson put on their Moon suits and descended one after the other down the ladder of the lunar taxi to the surface. They set up the TV camera so that it would show not only them, but also the Lunar Taxi and the crescent Earth low over the North Slope.
At about five in the afternoon, Eastern Time, the networks broke into regularly scheduled programming. Each of the three anchors came on and said some version of what Walter Cronkite said.
“In just a moment, we will be broadcasting a live telecast from the crew of Apollo 23 on the surface of the Moon. The subject of the telecast is described as a Christmas greeting from the astronauts, harkening back to a similar broadcast done by the crew of Apollo 8. So, without further ado.”
And then television screens around the world showed the image of Aitken Base. The Lunar Taxi stood on the surface, with the two white-clad astronauts in the foreground.
“Hello,” McPherson said, his voice transmitted across a quarter of a million miles. “I’m Captain Raymond McPherson of the United States Navy.” He raised his hand to show the television viewers who was speaking.
“And I’m Dr. Wendy Pendleton,” Wendy added, raising her hand.
“We’d like to thank you for taking some time from your holiday,” McPherson said. “On this day, all over the world, almost a billion Christians are celebrating our most sacred and memorable day. We had the idea of adding a little to the occasion, and we thought that there was nothing more appropriate than some words written almost two thousand years ago, by a physician named Luke.
“`And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”
Then Wendy said, “`And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” And they came with haste and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.'”
McPherson said, “To all of you on the good Earth, have a very Merry Christmas.”
Then the broadcast ended.
It became a standard joke that the only reason Madeline Murray O’Hair took fifteen hours to file suit against NASA in federal district court was that the courts were closed for business on Christmas, it being a federal holiday. Certainly enough she demanded satisfaction from NASA and the United States government for the “gross violation of the separation of Church and State” committed by the Apollo 23 astronauts. The definition of that satisfaction was left unclear, presumably to be determined by the court.
The NewYorkTimes opined that while the Christmas message from the astronauts was heartfelt, it was nevertheless, “in bad taste being broadcast to a world filled not only with Christians, but Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and nonbelievers.” The Apollo astronauts should, “represent all mankind, not just that minority which worship Christ.” The WashingtonPost and several other major newspapers expressed similar sentiments.
President Nixon had celebrated Christmas at his home in San Clemente, California. He watched the broadcast and, while he heartily approved of the sentiments the astronauts had expressed, he was a canny enough politician to know what would follow. He contacted Lew Jacobson, who was at home in his house in Alexandria, Virginia, by phone.
“So what did you think of the broadcast, Lew?” the President asked.
“I thought it was a heartfelt expression of what they were feeling,” Jacobson replied. Jacobson had expected something from the White House, but not so soon and not from so high up. He was more curious than concerned.
“I happen to agree,” the President replied. “But some of our friends in the media aren’t going to be as understanding.”
“Is that woman O’Hair going to make trouble?”
“I’ll wager you that she’ll be at federal court when the sun rises tomorrow.”
“Well, she lost before.”
“But made a big enough noise so that your own public affairs office established a policy that there would be no more public displays of religion on space missions.”
“That’s not an official policy.”
“Don’t try to BS a BSer, Dr. Jacobson. I know how these things work. Anyway, I think you’re going to have to make some kind of public statement tomorrow.”
“You think so?”
“Just read the editorial page of the NewYorkTimes tomorrow morning and then ask me if I’m wrong.” And of course Jacobson followed the President’s suggestion. Even so, he had to admit being a little puzzled. He was a practicing Jew in a country where–like most–Jews were in the minority. But he had never been offended by expressions of other religions, especially Christianity. Even knowing what things were like in such places as Northern Ireland and the Middle East, he had difficulty understanding why anyone should.
At any rate, Nixon’s advice was well given. Jacobson decided to sit in on the daily mission press conference at NASA headquarters. PAO staged those press conferences at headquarters and at each of the NASA centers. For the most part, the questions ranged from what the astronauts had for lunch that day to the status of lunar surface experiments. Since the auditorium seemed more crowded that usual, Jacobson guessed that there just might be something about the Christmas broadcast.
And sure enough, the third question came from a young guy from one of the networks. “Will there be sanctions imposed on the astronauts because of yesterday’s broadcast?”
“I’ll take that one,” Jacobson muttered. Aloud he replied, “You mean for mentioning Christ on Christmas?” The audience responded with some nervous tittering. “The answer to your question is no.”
“Follow up, please?”
“By all means,” said Jacobson smiling.
“The frankly sectarian message the astronauts gave yesterday seems to have caused public relations headaches for NASA. How do you intend to deal with that?”
“I really dispute the premise to your question,” Jacobson replied. “I suspect that if you did a poll you’d find overwhelming support for what the astronauts had to say from the American people. And that support wouldn’t just come from Christians, either. Look, neither NASA nor I personally have anything against honest expressions of religious faith from astronauts. I understand that there’s something about being in space, seeing the Earth as a whole, and the stars, which elicits awe for Him who made all of them. Two Apollo astronauts I know of are going into the ministry.”
“You don’t think the broadcast was insulting to non-Christians?”
“I’m a practicing Jew. I didn’t find it insulting.”
“How do you think people will react to a non-Christian astronaut expressing his or her faith on a space mission.”
“I frankly look forward to it. My ambition is to host the first Passover Seder on the Moon. Shall we go on to the next question, please?”
Jacobson didn’t bother to suppress a smile as the reporter sat down. The next question was about the progress the LUNOX prototype was having extracting oxygen.
From Children of Apollo by Mark R. Whittington, Xlibris, Copyright 2002