Tomorrow morning, Tuesday April 12, 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of STS-1, the first lift-off of the shuttle Columbia, from launch pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 1981. And for those of you old enough to remember years before that, another flight took place on April 12th – only this one was 20 years earlier in 1961. And that time, it was a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space – who spent 108 minutes circling the earth and returning unharmed. He, after entering the atmosphere in his capsule, ejected and parachuted to safety over land, in contrast to the American space program, which had astronauts “splashing down” in the ocean, rather than risking a high impact ground landing. And the big question that Cosmonaut Gagarin answered was one that had plagued both the U.S. and Soviet space programs – could the human body tolerate weightlessness, or would space travelers lose their minds?
While Gagarin was circling the earth, he was being promoted two grades, to Major. And the Soviet Union was already making him a national hero. Unfortunately, he died years later in a test flight, and now belongs to the ages. But there is no denying that he paved the way for modern space flight, and several months later, in May, 1961, Alan Shepherd became the first American in space, but only for about 15 minutes or so. It was not until John Glenn flew 3 orbits of the earth, on Feb. 20, 1962, that we rivaled the Soviet space program. And this was important to America, because several years earlier, Russia had launched Sputnik, a small 83 pound satellite, on Oct. 4, 1957, and it send an eerie signal to earth that caused many Americans to stand up and notice the Soviet effort – after all, as Lyndon Johnson put it, no American wanted to “go to sleep by the light of a Soviet moon.”
But there is another launch that I want to talk about tonight – the first orbital flight around the moon, Apollo 8, led by commander Frank Borman. Like Neil Armstrong, the following year, Borman realized that the world would be waiting for his words as the spacecraft swung around the moon and re-established communication with the earth on Christmas Eve, 1968. Along with his crew, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders, Commander Borman decided that the only appropriate thing to do was to read from Genesis 1. And so, on Christmas Eve, as the craft came around the dark side of the moon, the three astronauts started reading, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void……” And they continued through Genesis 1:10, finishing with the words, “And God saw that it was good.”
I remember hearing that broadcast live as it happened. It actually sent chills down my spine, and to this day, every time I think about space, or Christmas Eve for that matter, I think of the crew of Apollo 8 reading from Genesis. I don’t know that I have ever heard a more powerful witness in my life. Imagine, the whole word listening, all religions, while Genesis 1 was read from hundreds of thousands of miles away. What better way to acknowledge the greatness of God? And, in the words of Christ, to spread the Good News to the outermost regions of the earth.
Well, Borman ended the broadcast with the words, “”And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.” Is that special, or what? A blessing from outer space! So my encouragement is this – that the God of the HEAVENS and the EARTH wants to have a personal relationship with you, and no matter where you are, you are within His reach, and His kingdom. And my prayer is that you will heed the words of Moses, the author of Genesis, who was,of course, inspired by the Holy Spirit – because he began telling the greatest story ever. That God created the perfect environment for us to live in, and even though we suffered separation from God as a result of the sin and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, He has created a way for us to be re-united with Him, through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.
And even though life on earth was made difficult, heaven will be beyond our wildest dreams and we will live with God forever. And the great news is, that if you have already accepted Christ as your Savior, your eternal life has already begun. So, in closing tonight, I will borrow words from Frank Borman, as their reading of Genesis concluded “God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.”