The value of space exploration

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, July 18th. So glad you’ve joined us today for The WORLD and Everything in It. Good morning to you. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that landed man on the moon.

Celebrations around the nation will commemorate the moment American Neil Armstrong took a small step that represented a giant leap for all mankind.

But that moment, and the subsequent achievements of America’s manned space flight program, also came at great cost. Seventeen men and women died during missions spanning the Apollo and space shuttle programs.

EICHER: WORLD correspondent Bonnie Pritchett recently talked to former astronauts Charlie Duke and David Leestma. She asked if the quest to discover our place in the universe has been worth it.

BUSH: At 9 o’clock this morning Mission Control in Houston lost contact with our space shuttle Columbia. The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.

BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: On Feb. 1st, 2003 President George W. Bush announced to the nation what David Leestma already knew. As NASA director of flight crew operations, he had assigned the Columbia crew to that ill-fated mission.

LEESTMA: This is a dangerous business just like aviation and I’ve lost several friends in aviation accidents. But it’s also a personal thing and I knew that crew a little bit more than I knew some of the others. 

Leestra was a Navy pilot when NASA tapped him for the astronaut class of 1980. He flew three shuttle missions and served as a NASA administrator before retiring from the space agency in 2014.

DUKE: Roger, Tranquility Base. We copy you on the ground. You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue.

Charlie Duke is a retired Air Force pilot who joined NASA in 1966. During the Apollo 11 moon landing, he served as the Capsule Communicator, the lone person in Mission Control who speaks directly to the flight crew. Later he became the 10th of only 12 men to ever walk on the moon.

DUKE: We all knew that there was a possibility you wasn’t coming back from the moon. Or you weren’t coming back from space or whatever your flight was.

Not coming back was a very real possibility…

BERGMAN: It was all over in one stunned, horrifying second.

That’s ABC News anchor Jules Bergman on January 28th, 1967. Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Ed White died the day before during a routine launch rehearsal.

BERGMAN: An electrical spark apparently shot out and ignited the 100 percent oxygen in the cabin that they were breathing as in a real space flight. The crewmen never had a chance.

While shocked and grieved by the disaster, Duke said NASA spent little time hand-wringing.

DUKE: The attitude in the office was “It’s a tragedy, but let’s press on and fix it. Don’t let this happen again.” And, so, the Block 2 spacecraft was a whole lot better and a whole lot safer.

Space exploration is not for the risk averse. But if NASA’s latest call for astronauts is any indication, there are plenty of adventurous souls willing to take on new challenges. More than 18,000 people applied for the 12 spots in the astronaut class of 2017.

Is God pleased when his image bearers risk their lives to uncover the mysteries of his creation?

DUKE: We’re all born with an inquisitive nature. I think God has given us a spirit that tends toward exploration, to seek him, to seek out our place in the universe.

Duke wasn’t a Christian when he and John Young landed on the moon April 20th, 1972. But in retrospect, he says the thrill of discovery was evidence that God created humans to explore and find joy in it.

DUKE: When we landed it was a big ‘Yahoo!” John and I stayed excited the whole 72 hours we were on the moon. Having fun.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Their time on the lunar surface was planned to the minute. By mission’s end they had driven the lunar rover almost 17 miles, set up numerous experiments, gathered 209 pounds of samples—including a rock they named ‘Big Mulie.'”

Leestma calls the quest for knowledge “thrilling” and believes God encourages humans to discover what they can about the universe.

LEESTMA: Solomon talks about us not really knowing much of anything. And we’re always surprised about how much there is to know and how much we don’t know. The more we look at the universe and the more we discover out there the more we realize there’s more to be discovered.

So, it’s little wonder that Leestma and Duke support efforts to return to the moon, stay there, and prepare for deep space exploration and a journey to Mars. 

Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind still motivates space exploration. But it was the crew of Apollo 8 who reminded Earth’s inhabitants who it is that brings out the starry hosts, names them, and causes mankind to wonder.

ASTRONAUT WILL ANDERS: For all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 

Observing God’s ordered creation from space is a vantage point that neither Duke nor Leestma take for granted.

DUKE: In the book of Job it says when God made the Earth, he suspended it upon nothing. That’s exactly what it looks like hung up in the blackness of space, suspended upon nothing.

LEESTMA: The perspective just gives you more of this grand view, overview of things that are, just are, they’re mind boggling but they’re soul-wrenching too. They just tell you this is the God that you believe in and that you trust with your whole life with your whole future and it’s worth it.

BORMAN: “And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.” 

For WORLD Radio, I’m Bonnie Pritchett reporting from Houston, Texas.

BORMAN: 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.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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