The challenge of a giant leap

When I was 6 years old, just a few weeks before I started first grade, a lunar module designated “Eagle,” landed on the moon. A little over six hours later, Neil Armstrong, the commander of the mission, stepped from the module to the lunar surface.

The first human being to step on a soil that was not the Earth’s.

Nineteen minutes later, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. joined him while their crewmate Michael Collins flew overhead. This was a world-changing event, the 50th anniversary of which we celebrated a few months ago.

I was a bit nostalgic this past summer thinking about the Apollo 11 flight, watching documentaries and miniseries, reading articles and histories, but I will have to be honest about my own personal recollections regarding this event.

I think I remember it, but to be honest, I am not sure. I have a vague recollection of watching it on our old black and white TV, but I cannot swear it happened. I cannot imagine my dad letting an event pass like this without us watching it, so I am confident I saw it, but not entirely sure, being that I was only 6 years old.

I am confident that I saw other moon landings and other moon walks before the last one with Apollo 17 in 1972, and while my mind goes back and forth with the historical accuracy of my first viewing, my heart has no doubt and embraces the image of a little blonde kid sitting on the floor only partially understanding what was happening.

Now I more fully understand and I am amazed at the challenges faced in order for that “one small step” to happen; we had to dock the lunar module to the command module while in Earth’s orbit, fly to the moon, undock, land the lunar module safely (by all accounts, the most difficult of the tasks), walk on the moon, dock again with the command module in lunar orbit, fly back to Earth and safely splash down.

It seems doable now only because we have done it.

Just now it occurs to me it is a bit of a conceit to write “we” when referring to the Apollo missions instead of “they.” I write “we” as if I had anything to do with it other than (presumably) watching it happen; but that “we” is important if we are to understand, not just the “small step,” but the “giant leap” as well.

A few months ago, while in the midst of my nostalgic journey to the moon, I learned something. I was reading an article about the history of the Apollo 11 mission patch worn by the astronauts. Apollo and Gemini patches were designed by the astronauts themselves and then worked over by various officials in NASA.

The Apollo 11 astronauts came up with an image of a bald eagle landing on the moon. They chose the eagle as the primary image because it represented the United States and was the name of their lunar module. They later decided it should have an olive branch in its beak to symbolize their coming to the moon in peace, although officials later moved the branch to the eagle’s talons.

What I learned was that the astronauts, for the first time, requested that their names not be on the patch. They wanted that small detail to express their belief that this was not something they achieved alone, but was an achievement made by the thousands involved in the space program, and ultimately, it would be an achievement made by us all.

It was a human achievement.

This simple detail, the lack of names, is a lovely reminder of what we can do when we are aware of our unity, and our need for that unity. Just think of it, when we put our minds and wills together, we can walk on the moon. Sometimes at night, I glance up at our silent companion in the stars and remember.

It is a lesson I also try to remember on weekends when we gather to celebrate the even more amazing gift of the Eucharist; a simple reminder that we are in this together. I realize, when preaching, that I can make pronouncements of Divine expectation that can seem almost impossible, but then I remember.

We are not called to live and be the Kingdom alone, we are called to do it together, as a family, and together with our Brother and Lord. We are given this family for a reason.

One last detail on that mission patch; in the background is the Earth, distant and beautiful. This is our home, our fragile, aching home and all the people on it, waiting for us to remember again.