When Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 launched on June 30, 1995, I didn’t pay attention. It wasn’t until years later, when I happened upon clips of James Horner’s soundtrack and then finally saw the film itself, that I realized this was the first historical drama I ever enjoyed.
Now it’s been 20 years since the film released and 45 years since the real-life mission that failed to reach the moon but returned its three-man crew to Earth. Those anniversaries and the recent death of the film’s composer, James Horner, has me grieving a little, similar to that aching sense I feel when I ponder astronaut Jim Lovell’s (Tom Hanks) closing question:
I look up at the moon and wonder, when will we be going back, and who will that be?
Even when I hadn’t seen the film, I remember hearing the groundbreaking stories behind the story. Actors Tom Hanks and Kathleen Quinlan actually lived with the real-life Lovell family for a time. And without the benefit of CG effects such as those in Gravity to defy that natural law, Howard sent the actors up in the actual KC-135 training plane to simulate weightlessness in 23-second bursts. These experiences grounded the film in a way I haven’t seen since.
The film is Lovell’s story. His is the classic enviable mid-20th-century bio: U.S. Navy pilot, beautiful wife, middle-class family, Southern accent and work ethic. But he idolizes none of these. Instead, he is lost in the wonder of space travel. At the film’s beginning he holds his thumb against the moon to compare sizes. Later, during his ill-fated voyage, he does the same with Earth. By the end he has shared his epilogue and posed his question to himself and to viewers. “…When will we be going back [to the moon], and who will that be?”The film showcased Americans’ boredom with the space program … and today our disinterest in space exploration is even worse.
Today the answers are the same: Not anytime soon, and likely no one alive today.
The film showcased Americans’ boredom with the space program — until astronauts’ lives were at risk — and today our disinterest in space exploration is even worse. As a Christian, this renews in me a groaning for lost opportunities but even more for a lost paradise.
I also ask what the film’s Lovell left unasked: If we’re refusing to go back, why is that?
Reason 1: We are fallen. Lovell was part of the crew who read, on Christmas Eve during the Apollo 8 mission, Genesis 1’s account of God’s creation. But we are broken reflections of what God created. We are fallen. That means we want to exalt ourselves above God. Instead of wanting to bear and reflect the fire of His glory, we crave to steal the fire from His heaven.
That also means we reject or abuse God’s order to fill the earth with His glory by creating culture (Gen. 1:26-28). Do we suspect that if Adam and Eve had never rebelled against God, they and their children would have stayed in the Garden forever, naked and bored? Perish the thought. Instead for years and decades and centuries they would have made culture: clothes, travel, agriculture, architecture, stories, songs, games, science, technology. They would have built engines and ships. Later, they would have spread God’s glory to the stars.
Reason 2: Now violent creation is punishing our cultures. If humans had not sinned, the heaven of space would not be our enemy. This heaven could have been as the medievalists imagined it: a spiritual realm of æther in which musical spheres floated between earth and God’s dwelling place. Now space is a cold vacuum. Its music has been turned to groaning.
In real-world space, one bad O-ring, one damaged coil, and purging flames blast us back into dust.
And in our stories, outer space is not populated by singing heavenlies. It becomes a killing field of humans versus nature, technological breakdown, insanity, and invading demons.
Reason 3: With some exceptions, such as this week’s near-conjunction of Jupiter and Venus that has captivated many, our rebellion lowers our eyes from heaven and its wonders to the dust we walk on and from which we came. We don’t desire to discover more of infinity. We’re in lust with ourselves. Thus our science becomes devoted to making more shrunken baubles that help us expand our own glory. And thus our stories, having stripped our sense of awe or dismissed it as “just fiction,” leave us uncovered.
No longer do real fantasy beings exist. There are no benevolent spirits among the stars. They were all fairy tales. So we dress up in cheap rubber spirit-creature suits. We would not just exalt ourselves among the stars, but become the exalted stars of our own fairy tales.
Yet while our real-life efforts to shine flickers of that old glory beyond Earth are limited, our stories stubbornly reflect this ancient vision in films such as Apollo 13, Interstellar, or even Tomorrowland. That’s why we need these kinds of stories, and need to find, prize, and even make more of these stories with God — exalting beauty, excellence, realism, and power.
Christians, let us not show high regard for these magical going-to-the-moon tales but reduce them to abstract symbols, saying those are all very well and good but our true citizenship is in Heaven. But read God’s promise that Heaven and Earth are both due for a fiery remodeling, after which His city, like a beautiful bride descends from heaven to Earth.
Imagine a world in which everything truly reflects God’s glory! At last in this Afterworld His redeemed pilots and engineers will have new hearts, new bodies built of better stuff than dust, and will use both to worship Him in their cultures. I am sure that only then can we answer Lovell’s question, “When will we be going back [to the moon?]” like this: “Now that Christ has returned, we go there every day, and beyond.” The old wonder of spreading His glory among the stars — the longing barely hinted in Lovell’s awe, Howard’s directorial vision, and Horner’s soundtrack — will be fulfilled for eternity. All the poems and symbols will become reality. Adam and Eve’s children will literally explore the cosmos for the glory of the Creator, no longer fighting to survive but dancing and singing among the stars.