By James M. Wall
October Sky begins on the night of October 5, 1957. Residents of the town of Coalwood, West Virginia, peer into the October sky, some with binoculars, searching for a brief glimpse of Sputnik, the first Russian-launched satellite.
The film is based on Rocket Boys, a memoir written by Homer H. Hickam Jr. The memoir tells the true story of four boys in a coal-mining town in Appalachia, each determined to build a rocket that will soar into the sky. It is a serious project. The boys want to help get America back into the “space race.”
At the film’s conclusion, we discover what their experiences as “Rocket Boys” prepared them to do as adults.
The celebration of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union is the first of two anniversaries in October, 2017.
The second will arrive October 31, preceded by other events, all pointing to the day 500 years ago when Martin Luther, according to one account, nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.
These celebrations look back at one contest between nations, and a second struggle between a church hierarchy and a growing demand for theological openness.
The “thesis” is a list Luther offered to debate with church authorities.
Luther proposed an academic discussion of the practice and efficacy of indulgences in his Ninety-five Theses of 1517. (For more, click here.)
It is notable that these two events were of a peaceful nature, though, as sinful nations and institutions are wont to do, subsequent events in those contests turned violent.
In the space race, from commanders like John Glenn to the African-American women who under the burden of racial segregation provided crucial technical assistance, a large number of individuals acted positively to give the U.S. an edge.
The African-American contribution to the space race is creatively portrayed in the recent film, Hidden Figures.
Key to both, however, is that at turning points, key individuals emerged to provide practical and inspirational leadership for movements long in gestation.
For the Reformation, which Luther’s defiant 95 thesis moment indicates, a single man provided a key movement, and drove it forward.
Daniel Graves, webmaster for the Christian History Institute, discusses Luther at a critical moment in the reforming process:
Most famous of all Luther’s quotable words are those from the Diet (Assembly) of Worms (1521). Commanded to repudiate his writings, he stood alone with his conscience against an array of powerful clergy and statesmen.
The official transcript quotes him as saying, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason (I do not accept the authority of popes and councils because they have contradicted each other), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. So help me God. Amen.”
Luther’s collected works, issued later under his supervision, give the closing words as, “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” It is that version of his speech that has come down so memorably to posterity.
The Concordia Publishing House blog, The Word Endures, shares the painting below of Luther Before the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner (1843–1915).
In the space race, the two nations in contention for space superiority, have spent decades threatening and preparing for conflict, but on the night of October 5, 1957, it was a non-violent, competitive struggle.
The U.S. Secretary of State, Rex W. Tillerson, is currently engaging a bellicose North Korea in negotiations to reduce the tensions between the two nations. His boss appears to be playing a good cop-bad cop game with him.
In the space race, which has led to joint space projects for the U.S. and Russia, talk produced positive results. From the 95 thesis moment, the Christian Church emerged stronger than it was as an autocratic institution.
Anniversary celebrations are in order for negotiations over violent conflict.
Perhaps it is then appropriate to commemorate the space race anniversary with this note: today one of Canada’s 8 astronauts, Julie Payette, was installed with much pomp and ceremony as Governor-General (the highest office in the land, as our Queen’s representative). Ms. Payette is a true renaissance women, with a mastery of engineering, aviation, physics, history, fine arts and fluent in six languages including Russian. This morning she announced her personal commitment to build bridges to “tackle the pressing problems of climate change, migration and poverty.”
She is also a personal hero of mine from an unpublicized event. She rescued a 12 year-old parishioner of mine who went missing from a church canoe trip. Ms.Payette and her husband found him hypothermic clinging to a log in the lake. They immediately ended their vacation to paddle him out, take him hours to the nearest hospital and stay with him.
Robert, Thank you for sharing this personal story about Ms. Payette, “a true renaissance woman”, as you note.
Concurrent to the race to win world attention in the space race was a major effort of the U.S. based National Council of Churches to foster dialogue with the churches in the Soviet Union. I was fortunate to be involved in those conversations and prayer vigils that took place in the USSR, in the USA, and wherever summit conferences between our President and the General Secretary of the USSR were held.
The first prayer vigil was held in Geneva, Switzerland, during the summit meeting between President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev. Appropriately, Mr. Reagan held off on a press conference until he was satisfied with the conversations. So the media focused on our meetings with the colorfully dressed Metropolitans and priests and the smiling lay representatives of the Russian Orthodox and Russian Baptist Churches. I became well acquainted with Metropolitan Yuvenaly and with the journalists associated with the Soviet Union. When the U.S. successfully launched an astronaut into space and sent back pictures of our blue planet, my friends there were impressed and thrilled. Met. Yuvenaly had a medal struck with that image and the next time I saw him presented me one of those medals in a velvet box.
Things have gone down hill from that time, but I continue to believe that our conversations and vigils, and the exchange of gifts, was an important contribution to making and keeping of peace.