Responding to the Apollo 13 Miracle

We hear a lot about miracles today, and there is a large volume of work addressing the subject—more than I could address here. In my experience on the Lunar Module support team during Apollo 13, I felt moved in a special way by what I felt was answered prayer and the miraculous recovery of the crew. Far too many unique circumstances and extraordinary events fell into place and demonstrated that a higher power was protecting us. Miracles—or even unexplained circumstances that coincidently happen in congruence with our need—testify to a supernatural working and the answers to prayer. Sometimes circumstantial events happen: a phone call, a chance meeting, an unexpected bonus check, a song on the radio, or a word from a friend just when we needed something. These things stir us, speak to us, and, at a deeper level, cause us to sense that perhaps God is revealing himself to us.

God often uses “supernatural” workings or circumstantial events to speak to us. In a technical sense, some of these things may not be defined as miracles—such as the design of the LM heater circuitry years earlier, the fortuitous training of Jim Lovell in the use of a backup navigation procedure, or even the extremely providential movement of a hurricane away from a predesignated landing area. We might call these acts of providence, whereby God is simply orchestrating natural events—not suspending the natural but controlling the natural so that it does what he wants it to do. However, I believe these supernatural acts demonstrate a loving and compassionate God reaching out to us to make himself known.

A miracle might then be defined as an extraordinary event wrought by God that cannot be explained by any natural means. It is where the laws of nature are seemingly violated or suspended and there is no physical or scientific explanation. This is when fuel cell pressure increases even though the physical environment demands a decrease by natural law. This is when a cancerous tumor mysteriously goes into remission or seemingly vanishes without medical explanation. These things get our attention and testify to a supernatural power. There are numerous miracles recorded in the Bible and many more documented in history. The crossing of the Israelites through the Red Sea led by Moses in the Old Testament or the feeding of five thousand with two fish and five loaves of bread by Jesus are two striking examples. Miracles play a particularly powerful role in Christianity, especially the most significant miracle of all—Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

One might then ask why God doesn’t use miracles more frequently to reveal himself. C. S. Lewis wrote, “God does not shake miracles into nature at random as if from a pepper-caster. They come on great occasions and are found at the great ganglions of history—not political or social history, but of that spiritual history which cannot be fully known by men.”2 I believe that the way God works in the world is not normally by breaking the laws of nature but by quietly attracting individuals through his compassion, truth, goodness, awe, and redemptive spirit as revealed in numerous ways discussed in this chapter. John Polkinghorne makes this point: “Miracles are not to be interpreted as divine acts against the laws of nature (for those laws are themselves expressions of God’s will) but as more profound revelations of the character of the divine relationship to creation.” In other words, because of God’s great desire to relate to and rescue humanity, he sometimes reaches beyond the wall of physical barriers and touches the heart of a hurting soul; in doing so, he reveals his great love for all people.

I would also agree that miracles require an element of faith. Faith is one of those spiritual qualities that goes beyond the physical realm and bears witness to the soul. According to noted theologian Bruce Epperly, “Faith opens us to new dimensions of reality and within these new dimensions, miraculous releases of divine energy, congruent with the laws of nature, are released.” Faith is believing without seeing—or perhaps a different way of seeing. Faith helps us believe without having any proof other than the changed lives of the individuals involved. Faith is a way that God reaches out to touch the depths of our soul. But faith is not necessarily “blind.” It is based on the traces of God’s image and power he has left for us in the universe and the world around us. I believe God intentionally leaves traces and clues and acts in providential ways to lead us to faith. God’s design and purpose have been woven into the fabric of history.

Dr. Bill Nichols says in his book Healthy Faith,

A healthy faith is based on reliable evidence, not wishful thinking, superstitions, myths or fairytales. It’s founded on time-tested, trustworthy findings including a real, personal God who acted in real historical events and in real people’s lives. Your faith is not healthy because of bright ideas, the latest fad, or popular theory, but because of solid research and dependable evidence.

Several of the astronauts and ground controllers bore witness of this kind of faith and were touched in a special way by the awe and inspiration of their Apollo experiences. A prime example is Colonel Jim Irwin. Jim flew as the LM Pilot on Apollo 15 and touched down in the hilly region of Hadley Rille, a valley on the Moon. Of all the people who walked on the Moon, Jim probably had the most profound spiritual experience. In the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, David Sington says Jim “had a ‘road to Damascus’ experience on the moon.”

As Jim Irwin stood on the lunar surface, with sunlight reflecting off the landscape, God’s words came to him from the book of Psalms: “I look unto the hills from whence cometh my help” (121:1). Jim sensed God’s help and strength, and by faith he felt God reaching out to him. He felt the mysterious presence of a spiritual force. The beauty of the mountains of the Moon moved Jim, and he said he experienced the presence of God as he never had before. In his book, To Rule the Night, Jim Irwin describes his spiritual experience:

I felt an overwhelming sense of the presence of God on the moon. The ultimate effect was to deepen and strengthen all the religious insight I ever had. It remade my faith. I had become a skeptic about getting guidance from God, and I know I had lost the feeling of His nearness. On the moon the total picture of the power of God and His Son Jesus Christ became abundantly clear to me. I felt His spirit more closely than I have ever felt it on the earth, right there beside me—it was amazing.

Some people would consider a trip to the Moon as one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments, but Irwin had a different perspective. Afterward, he frequently said, “I believe Jesus Christ walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon.” Irwin retired from NASA in 1972 and founded High Flight, a Christian ministry. He traveled frequently and spoke to groups about the ways his experiences in space increased his awareness of the presence of God. Irwin’s striking picture of himself with the lunar hills in the background along with the quote from Psalms printed on that photo hangs in my office today.

Other astronauts such as John Glenn, who was the first American to orbit the Earth and later flew on space shuttle Discovery, were also significantly touched by what they saw. Onboard the Discovery on November 1, 1998, Glenn broadcast down, “I don’t think you can be up here and look out the window as I did the first day and see the earth from this vantage point, to look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God. To me, it’s impossible . . . it just strengthens my faith. I wish there were words to truly describe what it’s like . . . truly awesome.”

In my case, the inspiring events of Apollo 13 profoundly affected my life and led me to take a different turn. I somehow felt called to probe into a deeper look at God and theological studies even though I didn’t know at the time what direction that would go. Although a Christian, I had faced serious conflicts between what I was taught about the Bible and undeniable scientific discoveries. Because of what I had seen and experienced with Apollo 13, I felt compelled to pursue the truths about God and science and how to integrate the two. It seemed to me that a God who had the compassion to reach out and save the lives of three astronauts, and who claimed to be the Creator of the universe, was big enough to resolve any issue between science and faith. The great Creator is also the great Integrator of one world.

This post is an excerpt from chapter 4 of Seeing the Son on the Way to the Moon: A NASA Engineer’s Reflection on Science and Faith by W. Merlin Merritt.

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