Cathedral Age: What did it mean to you to pay tribute to Neil Armstrong in his memorial service at the Cathedral?
Standing in that pulpit and looking out at the throngs of people and the stained glass windows, the columns, and the greatness of the Cathedral was a really humbling moment for me. It truly was something I will never forget as long as I live.
I wanted to tell people about the Neil Armstrong I knew, knowing many people didn’t have that privilege and opportunity. I didn’t want to talk about walking on the moon, rather to share my feelings with people about Neil as a human being, as a guy who in one sense “put his pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us.” But on the opposite side of that coin, as I said in my eulogy, he would be remembered long after all of us who were there that morning will have been forgotten. The words I ended with probably sum it up best: “Farewell, my friend, you have left us far too soon; but we want you to know we do cherish the time we have had and shared together.”
Cathedral Age: How do you think Neil Armstrong wanted to be remembered?
Neil was a special friend. I had done many things with Neil: we’d flown together, we’d ballooned together, we’d soared, we’d fished, we’d hunted, we’d both worked with and were very committed to naval aviation—and to the university we both attended, Purdue. What we did inspired future generations to dream the impossible, then go out and make it happen.
Neil was obviously very conscious of what he did. He knew what it meant to the country. But I believe he personally wanted to focus on the future by trying to inspire young kids. He wanted to share himself in a way that they could relate to—not as this iconic figure who was the first human being on the moon. He had a way of delivering a presentation that I often called “vintage Neil,” as only he could do it: candidly, off the cuff, meaningful. Sometimes I would listen to him and be amazed myself because this guy had done what people on this planet had only dreamed of doing for centuries.
Cathedral Age: Reflecting on your own life and career, how has your experience as an astronaut affected your view of humanity and the world?
I’ve always said there are two space programs: technological and spiritual. When you accelerate to 25,000 miles an hour and head out somewhere into space, and you get a chance to look back, that is when things begin to change. That’s when you realize that you are mortal and that there’s something you don’t understand.
The horizon of the Earth, only slightly curved in orbit, now closes in upon and around itself. And right there, filling the window in front of you, you begin to see something strange and yet something very familiar. You realize you’re beginning to see the entirety of our planet—Earth—as part of creation. The further you go, the smaller it gets very, very quickly until you can cover it with nothing bigger than your thumb. You can blot out your identity with reality with nothing bigger than the palm of your hand.
I’ve been to the moon twice, so I had the opportunity to challenge this feeling. Although you’re in sunlight, you’re looking back at the multi-colored blues of the ocean, white of the snow and the clouds—this planet of ours surrounded by endless blackness—not darkness: a three-dimensional blackness beyond your conception. I can’t draw a picture or show it to people, but I can tell you it exists because I saw it with my own eyes. It may be something we call infinity. I tend to call it the endlessness of time and space.
This Earth, this home of ours—where we relate to past and future, love, and everything about our existence—it doesn’t move aimlessly through space. It doesn’t tumble, it doesn’t roll upon its side. It rotates on an axis you cannot see, but you know must be there. No strings are holding it up, and yet it rotates methodically, with purpose, with logic. Every 12 hours you are looking at the other side of the world. North America disappears around the corner, and then up comes the Pacific. You can look from the Eastern coast of the United States, across the plains and the snow-capped mountains into the deep dark blues of the Pacific as it rotates. Then Australia and Asia, then all of Europe and the entire continent of Africa come into view. In a few short hours in your lifetime, you are watching and looking at the other side of the world, and we’re not traveling around it anymore; we’re leaving it for a rendezvous with another body in the universe we have chosen to call the moon.
I came to the conclusion after Apollo 10, and I reinforced it standing on the moon during Apollo 17: Our Earth is just too beautiful to have happened by accident. There is just somebody bigger than you and me who put it all together. I believe there has to be a creator of this universe, because I was privileged to sit on God’s front porch and to look back home at that small part of creation. You can address God by whatever name you want. I happen to believe all religions were created by man to define our values, to get us all to the same place—to a God, to a supreme being, our creator. That is a lasting impression that I can never forget.
Cathedral Age: Thinking back to the Gemini and Apollo missions: at the time, we did not know for sure how they would go. how did you prepare for those journeys?
You’ve got to have a lot of faith. Yet you almost have to be somewhat arrogant to know you can do it, and do it well. In all three of my missions, I never took anything for granted. Before every one of my spaceflights, I had a priest who’s a good friend of mine say a quick Mass and offered Communion before we left. It was one of those things I felt I needed to do, because what I was being asked to do was almost greater than myself. Where I was going was somewhere where few other men had gone before.
Cathedral Age: What words of wisdom or other sources of inspiration do you turn to in tough times?
From a practical point of view, I turn a lot of times to things my dad reminded me of: “If you’re going to do it, do it well or not at all. Otherwise you’re going to have to do it over again.” Going to the moon, you only have one chance to do it right because you don’t have a chance to do it over again. He always used to tell me, and I impart this to my grandkids: “I’m only going to ask one thing of you, just to go out and do your best. You’re not going to be better than everybody at everything. But some time, some day you’re going to surprise yourself.” Yet there was always a caveat. He said, “There’s only one person who knows what their best really is—and that’s you.” That’s something that I turn to and think about when I’m challenged with things like the responsibility of Apollo 17. I had the responsibility of the nation on my shoulders—not just the crew and success of the mission. I felt that I was challenged by the commitment and pride of an entire nation to do it well, and to come home alive. And I’m not afraid to admit it: I called on my God to give me a little help when I might need it.
Cathedral Age: Space exploration played a very aspirational role for your generation. what should today’s generation aspire toward for humanity’s next “giant leap”?
There’s more at stake than just putting a man in space. When Neil, Jim Lovell, and I testified in front of Congress, we emphasized that it’s more than just putting a man in space. What’s at stake is the exceptionalism that young kids ought to be committed to as young Americans. Think about the fact that people in their 40s and 50s today either weren’t born when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon or were in diapers or knee pants when I left those final footprints (which will be 40 years ago this December 14). That generation and their children are thirsty for an identity with what this country did and was able to do. They want the chance. We knocked the door open, and, unfortunately, it’s taken a generation and a half to consider walking back through it.
I tell fourth graders today that, given the opportunity that someone gave me many years ago, they’re the ones that are going to take us back to the moon. They’re the ones that are going to take us to Mars. It will happen, because curiosity is the essence of human existence: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? We are so unknowledgeable about where it all started, where we came from, and where it’s going. I believe faith—in something, somebody, some God, some creator—is essential. The creator has given us a chance to get those answers step by step. But we’ll never get them all, because for every answer we’ll get another question.
Cathedral Age: The moon rock Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins presented to the Cathedral in 1974 is estimated to be 3.6 billion years old and was embedded in the Cathedral’s space window. What does that mean to you?
I’m not sure any of us really understand “millions and billions and trillions.” We do know it was a long time ago, perhaps since the beginning. It’s pretty tough to define eternity. Time is the fourth dimension we encounter when we go into space. I’ve been asked a lot about my footprints, the flag, and about my daughter’s initials that I put in the surface of the moon before we left. People ask how long will they be there, and my answer is, “forever”—however long “forever” is. I guess that’s another way of saying, “for eternity.” That moon rock represents more than the fact that three human beings brought artifacts back. It’s unique. It was the moon.
What would it be like to have a splinter of the cross that Jesus was crucified on? In a way, that rock is a symbol of creation itself. It’s the closest thing you and I can relate to “the beginning.” These are the mysteries that we live in today. The moon rock in the window—particularly because it comes from the first mission that went to the moon—is far more symbolic than anything else we brought back.
The Cathedral is not just a holy place—it also represents what America is all about. We were founded in this nation on a belief in God, and “in God we trust.” The Cathedral represents not just a church. It represents the nation as well as our relationship as a nation to God. The rock simply puts another piece of holiness into the Cathedral.