As a flight instructor, my favorite missions are the instrument training flights; especially when they are conducted at night over the Arizona desert under the watchful eye of the full moon. There are a number of reasons I enjoy them. The sun has set and is no longer turning our cockpit into an Easy Bake Oven. The airspace over Phoenix is relatively calm. And on a clear night, the moon paints the desert in a surreal metallic glow.
As the light of the full moon illuminates our cockpit, I can see why the ancients revered and, in some cases, even worshipped the Moon. I know that the circular object we observe floating across the great sea of stars and space is nothing more than a dusty space rock reflecting light from the Sun. The astrophysics are as simple as lining up a couple of balls on a pool table, turning off lights and carefully aiming a flashlight at them. Light from the Sun bounces off the Moon and hits me between the eyes as we practice our instrument approaches at midnight. Yet, when I look up, I see more than the angle of incidence and the refractive index. I see beauty, serenity, peace and, of course, history. For thousands of years, that rock of “magnificent desolation,” as Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin described it, has functioned as the Sun’s cosmic mirror. By its light, harvests were completed, calendars set and sacred days observed. Even our celebration of Easter is still tied to the appearance of the full moon.
If I were Neil Armstrong, I would have been more than a little nervous descending the steps of Apollo 11’s Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). Not only was he about to make the first footprint on the Moon’s chalky surface, but he was also about to become the first human to speak from the Moon toward the Earth. Throughout history and from every corner of our planet, people have looked up and spoke to the Moon or about it. Now, Armstrong was going to speak to us from it. His words from the lunar surface that day continue their historic echo, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
As we read these words today, safely grounded to our planetary home, we might note that they are obviously redundant. In fact, the quote really makes little sense because of a simple mistake, the absence of a single letter between “for” and “man.” He was supposed to say, “That’s one small step for a man…” He would be referring to his foot, his small step, his footprint. Even Armstrong later lamented, “I blew the first words on the moon, didn’t I?” Who would blame him? He had been awake for 24 hours, was 238,857 miles from home, and was stepping upon the biggest stage in history. The world was watching, literally!
But, I am not sure I would change anything. I like the quote the way Armstrong recited it.
The Apollo program and expedition to the moon was a massive, courageous, and remarkable project. Setting foot on the moon was a giant technological stride for humanity. At the same time, it was a small step for humanity. We should remember that, too. After all, God made it, we just stepped on it. Like the ancients who worshipped the Moon, we should be careful where we put our trust and hope for the future. Technology itself is only a reflection, like the light of the full moon; the result of the creativity, determination and wisdom which all begin with God. After all, when you look up tonight, you will not see the LEM or the American flag that Armstrong and Aldrin planted. You will only see the Moon that God planted.