MIAMI — Jesuit Father Pedro Cartaya remembers shaking hands with astronaut Neil Armstrong.
On Aug. 5, 1969, the priest was in New York City, among the crowd waiting to see the parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts. As the vehicle with the astronauts came by, Cartaya was fortunate enough to quickly shake hands with the first human to walk on the moon. He told Armstrong, “Great job! God bless you.”
This July 20 marked the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11, the mission that allowed mankind to walk on the moon for the first time in history.
“Armstrong stepped on the moon, leaving forever his footprint as a symbol of what he did. It was thrilling,” said Cartaya, an astronomy enthusiast who was born in Cuba and serves as spiritual counselor and chaplain to the alumni association of Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami.
The priest was 33, teaching and studying for his doctorate in literature at St. Louis University when he tuned in, along with millions around the globe, to witness the moon landing. He remembers watching the broadcast on a small, black-and-white TV. When Armstrong announced: “The Eagle has landed,” Cartaya could barely contain his excitement.
“I got so emotional that in the parish where I was staying, I was about to ring the bells, announcing to the world that for the first time in history mankind had achieved something that seemed impossible, touching something celestial outside of Earth,” he told the Florida, Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.
Years later, another first from Apollo 11 was revealed: Astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin had received Communion in space.
“Can you imagine that for the first time that man stepped onto the moon, the Eucharist was also consumed for the first time outside of Earth?” Cartaya asked.
Aldrin, with permission from his pastor at Webster Presbyterian Church in Texas, brought bread and wine with him on the mission. About an hour before stepping onto the moon, he recalled in his memoirs, he read a passage from Scripture, drank the wine and ate the bread.
“For me, as a priest, it was twice as emotional to know that the first Communion took place outside of Earth on the same day that man stepped on the moon. I am grateful to God for the talent that he has given to mankind and for the grace that Christ also needed to be present outside of the Earth,” said Cartaya.
Concerned about the separation of church and state, NASA refrained from sharing the moment with the public. Aldrin revealed it years later.
He was neither the first nor the last astronaut to remember God in space.
The crew of Apollo 8 read from the Book of Genesis on Christmas Day 1968, when they became the first humans to orbit the moon. Two weeks after Easter 1994, Catholic astronauts Thomas Jones, Sid Gutierrez and Kevin Chilton — the latter an extraordinary minister of holy Communion — received the Eucharist on board the space shuttle Endeavor.
Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon reportedly recited the Kiddush, the Sabbath blessing for wine, on his last Friday aboard the space shuttle Columbia. (He and his fellow astronauts were killed when the shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry Feb. 1, 2003.)
And in 2017, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Ryzhikov brought with him a relic of St. Serafim of Sarnov, a Russian Orthodox saint.
Cartaya has had the honor of blessing astronauts heading out to space. In 1998, Belen Jesuit Preparatory School obtained permission from NASA to send a molecular DNA experiment aboard the space shuttle Discovery, to test the effect of zero gravity. The experiment was created by Belen students and encased in a metal box. A student hand-delivered it to the shuttle.
While Cartaya looked on, the astronauts going on the mission approached, and one of them asked if he was a priest, a pastor or a rabbi and was hoping for a blessing.
The priest, recalling that day, said he “couldn’t mention Jesus Christ because some of them were Jewish. I couldn’t mention the Virgin Mary because some of them were Protestant. I couldn’t mention God because some of them were atheists — no, that’s not true,” he joked.
“I told them I was honored and said: ‘I wish you all a very happy adventure and success in space, and since you are all aboard a shuttle named Discovery, I hope that you discover God beyond the stars,'” Cartaya said.
An astronomy enthusiast, Cartaya marvels at how far humanity has come since the Apollo 11 lunar landing. He called it a moment in history which served as a catapult to reaching something greater and continuing a legacy of exploration and creativity inspired by God.
Although he is retired from full-time teaching, he still serves as director of the Padre Benito Vines Observatory at Belen, the only one of its kind in any high school in South Florida. Cartaya’s students from the class of 1972 built and equipped the observatory.
“They designed it, they paid for it and they built it when they became architects and engineers,” Cartaya said.
The Miami observatory continues 164 years of tradition at the school, a tradition that began with the Belen Observatory in Havana. That rooftop is where 13-year-old Cartaya saw his first astro-phenomenon.
He said he had special permission from the school, and his parents, to spend the night on the rooftop, watching the sky. Around 2 a.m., enveloped in “darkness and solitude,” he watched as “an extraordinary meteorite passed over the sky of Havana. I was overwhelmed,” Cartaya said.
He credits the experience for sparking his lifelong passion for astronomy.
With the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, he believes humanity is more than capable of returning to the moon, making it to Mars, and beyond.
“We get a better perspective of Earth being outside of Earth,” he said. “I think every time we leave Earth we return with more ideas, and a better perspective to improve all mankind. Returning to the moon is the opportunity to reproduce and recreate the opportunity to say, ‘How great is the universe that God has given us.'”
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Cabrera Jarro writes for the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.
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