Jesuits...in space! Looking back on Catholic coverage of the cosmos
To the moon, Reid and Victor and Christina and Jeremy!
Even if you’re not a fan of “The Honeymooners,” that phrase might have piqued your interest this week for a different reason: On April 3, NASA named the four astronauts who will crew the first manned mission to the moon in half a century. In 2024, commander Reid Wiseman, pilot Victor Glover, mission specialist Christina Hammock Koch and mission specialist (and Canadian) Jeremy Hansen will circle the moon aboard “Artemis II.” While they will not land on the surface themselves (that is planned for a few years from now), their flight trajectory will likely take them farther from the Earth than any human being has ever been.
"We looked up over the lunar horizon, and there was the Earth...the only thing in the universe that had any color."
Humans have not walked on the moon since 1972, when the Apollo space program was canceled just three short years after the first moon landing on July 20, 1969. That first landing inspired America’s editorial board as much as it did every man, woman and child who went outside and looked up at the moon and marveled that people were walking on its surface. “Our solar system, measuring 7.3 billion miles in diameter, still is insignificantly small when compared to the universe itself. Comparable solar systems in the vast regions of space, in fact, number into the millions,” they wrote in an editorial published on Aug. 3, 1960. “On July 20, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins introduced us all in a new and dramatic way to this reality.”
While the moon landing was hailed as a great technological achievement, the editors noted, it was a religious moment as well. “The sheer magnitude of the universe, as shown by technological advances, can inspire deeply religious thoughts and sentiments. Col. Edwin Aldrin’s father responded in such a religious way when he suggested to his son that he recite the Eighth Psalm from the moon’s surface,” they wrote. “John Glenn’s response to space travel was religious, too, when he said that he felt that wherever such exploration would bring man, God would certainly be there.” Further, the entire Apollo enterprise was “so much a symbol and product of human unity as to argue its distinctively religious character in itself.”
They were not the last contributors to look skyward and marvel at the possibilities—and the enormity of God’s creation. Everyone from prominent theologians to inquisitive teenagers have offered their thoughts on humanity’s place in the cosmos for America in the years since.
“Out of the Big Bang came the galaxies of stars,” wrote the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., in a 2009 essay. “Out of the exploding material of aging stars came our sun and its planets; out of the molecules of Earth came living creatures; out of those single-celled ancestors evolved all plants and animals, including human beings, we primates whose brains are so richly textured that we experience self-reflective consciousness and freedom, or in classical terms, mind and will.” In other words, we are literally made of stardust—which means so too was Jesus.
“I wanted to know what it was really like to travel to the moon, but I realized that the only people who knew would not be around much longer,” Buscarino wrote, “so I set out to capture their stories.”
“Jesus of Nazareth was an earthling, a complex unit of minerals and fluids, an item in the carbon, oxygen and nitrogen cycles, a moment in the biological evolution of this planet. The atoms comprising his body once belonged to other creatures,” Johnson continued. “The genetic structure of his cells made him part of the whole community of life that descended from common ancestors in the ancient seas. The sarx of Jn 1:14 thus reaches beyond Jesus, and beyond all other human beings, to encompass the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which they are composed.”
In 2019, 13-year-old Matthew Buscarino (the nephew of America editor at large James Martin, S.J.) wrote of his efforts to interview surviving Apollo astronauts. “I wanted to know what it was really like to travel to the moon, but I realized that the only people who knew would not be around much longer,” Buscarino wrote, “so I set out to capture their stories.” He interviewed five astronauts, including Frank Borman, the commander of Apollo 8, the first craft to enter lunar orbit. Borman recalled his experience of “Earthrise,” the moment the Earth became visible from the surface of the moon:
We looked up over the lunar horizon, and there was the Earth...the only thing in the universe that had any color. And, of course, it was home and all our families were back on that blue planet. I think that captured our attention more than the moon ever did.
Buscarino’s essay was part of one of America’s 2019 “Space Issue” commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. It included articles like “Why I gave up my job at NASA to become a nun” and “Why the Big Bang isn’t what you think it is,” as well as essays asking “Why are so many craters on the moon named after Jesuits?” and “Why do Catholic priests keep popping up in sci-fi?” Other reflections included “Why the U.S. going to the moon still matters to immigrants,” “How space exploration became a wake up call on climate change” and, of course, an exploration of what a church on the moon might look like.
That issue also included Joe McAuley’s review of Douglas Brinkley’s book American Moonshot, a history of the Apollo program. While John F. Kennedy was a “space skeptic” early on, Brinkley noted, he eventually realized the value of putting Americans on the moon. Further, “It appealed to Kennedy’s idealistic, historical and, frankly, romantic nature because it was a challenge to be met, one that could be used for the benefit of mankind and for peace,” McAuley wrote. “Applying the nautical images he so loved, he viewed it as a ‘new sea’ on which to set sail.”
A U.S. Air Force chaplain and Catholic priest, the Rev. Clifford Stevens, said much the same in a 1967 issue of Liturgical Arts, while arguing that theologians should be part of any trip to the moon:
Priests stood with Columbus and Magellan on the journeys into the unknown, and with the Vikings, too, when they explored the unknown western ocean. Man stands now on the threshold of a far more breathtaking discovery, and so it is not unfitting for the theologian, symbolically or otherwise, to put on a space suit.
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
- The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison
- ‘The Irish Lincoln’: When Éamon de Valera visited America
- Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)
- Theophilus Lewis brought the Harlem Renaissance to the pages of America
James T. Keane