What Apollo 11 still means

Forty years ago, on July 20, 1969, a low decade reached a glorious apogee when Neil Armstrong steered Eagle over a lunar rock field and, with 17 seconds of fuel left, gently set his spidery spacecraft down on the Sea of Tranquility—the first time human beings had landed on another celestial body. Strangely, Apollo 11 never quite seized the public imagination the way Apollo 8 did with its Christmas Eve circumnavigation of the Moon and those stunning “Earth-rise” photos. Three Apollo missions later (and nine months before the high drama of Apollo 13), Americans were accustomed to success in spaceflight. There was nothing automatic about that first lunar landing, though, which was a hair-raiser until touchdown. On its 40th anniversary, it’s worth remembering what an extraordinary accomplishment Apollo 11 was.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the entire Apollo program was the creativity that went into it. No one knew how to do this in 1961, when President Kennedy announced that the United States would land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the decade was out. The booster rocketry wasn’t yet designed. The path to the Moon—direct ascent, earth orbit rendezvous, lunar orbit rendezvous?—was undetermined. The stack of vehicles to do the job hadn’t been imagined. The Apollo command module, Columbia, was the most complex piece of machinery ever built; millions of parts had to be invented from scratch. The same was true for the lunar module, Eagle, the first craft ever built to fly solely in space: Should it have three legs or four? Where would the windows go? Would the astronauts sit or stand? How do you keep the pilots from punching a hole in the Elm’s .0000833 inch-thick nickel-steel skin—a hull the thickness of three sheets of aluminum foil?

Everything about the Apollo program—hardware, software, navigation techniques, mission rules and procedures—had to be invented: a stunning exercise in intellectual creativity and engineering prowess. And it was all done without today’s sophisticated computers—the computer on-board Eagle had less computing power than your standard phone today.

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe justifiably celebrated the courage and skill of the astronaut corps, spiritual qualities that ought to remain an inspiration today. Yet in the retrospect of 40 years, what seems equally impressive is the sheer volume of creative ideas that made possible Neil Armstrong’s epic transmission—“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed”—and Buzz Aldrin’s word-portrait of the Moon’s “magnificent desolation.” As we ponder the accomplishment of Apollo 11, the thought that bears repeating is, “No one knew how to do any of this, eight years before it happened.”

On this anniversary, it’s also worth reflecting on why we stopped pushing out into space and what that’s meant. At the height of the space race, it was simply assumed that, after conquering the Moon (and perhaps building a permanent base there), there would be a Mars mission, which was thought doable by the end of the 20th century, if not earlier. Yet Congress decreed that we stop exploring the Moon with Apollo 17; we can’t get back with the equipment we have now; Mars remains an unfocused dream; and the next men on the Moon (or beyond) could be Chinese.

The lowness of another low decade, the 1970s, had something to do with America’s failure to keep pushing the outside of the envelope in space, I suspect. As in the spiritual life, so in public life: if we look down, or look around, but don’t look up, the human spirit withers a bit. After a season of withering, we find it difficult to imagine ourselves as creatures called to transcend ourselves. So we turn inward, become self-absorbed, and end up, like contemporary Europe—trapped in a crisis of civilizational morale, unable to summon the moral energy to create future generations.

God made us for adventure and discovery. Abandoning the great adventure of manned space exploration was a serious mistake, for America and for the human future.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.