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At the height of the Cold War and the global contest to explore the next great frontier sits a story of both science and faith. It is the untold tale of the late Rev. John Stout ’44, who served as chaplain to America’s astronauts during an illustrious career at NASA. As the United States’ race to the moon against the Soviet Union enraptured the nation, he carried forward a vision to send the first book to the lunar surface: a Bible.

Helen and John Stout ’44. Photo provided by The University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.

Stout’s story began in 1922 on the rural backroads of Handley, Texas, an archetypal small town. There, the young “Johnnie” developed dual interests in theology and astrophysics and desired to attend college. At Texas A&M University, he served in the Corps of Cadets and played football alongside All-American running back John Kimbrough ’41 while earning a degree in chemical engineering. He was handed his diploma by Dwight D. Eisenhower, then U.S. Army Chief of Staff.

Following service in World War II, Stout and his wife, Helen, spent 11 years in Brazil, where he pursued missionary work and taught chemistry and engineering design at the University of Lavras. While living in South America, he fashioned a long-range photographic telescope, pointed his makeshift tripod at the sky and captured the first photograph of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 in 1957. Lyndon B. Johnson, a U.S. senator at the time, celebrated the moment in a letter to Stout, dubbing him “Moon Watcher.” It was just a precursor of his role to come in reaching the stars.

The Race for Space

In 1962, the couple returned to the United States. By this time, Stout had earned multiple degrees in theology and science as well as a doctorate in linguistics, and his accomplishments inspired NASA to recruit him as a senior information scientist. He accepted on the condition that he also act as the unofficial astronaut chaplain.

John Stout ’44 played a vital role in fulfilling the dream to carry a Bible to the moon during the Apollo 14 mission. Photo provided by the Princeton Theological Seminary Wright Library.

In this capacity, he befriended the era’s astronauts, including Edward White II, an Air Force veteran and devout Christian who became the first American to walk in space in 1965 on Gemini 4. For White, the space program symbolized something far beyond international prestige: He believed it brought the world closer to the divine. He once told a reporter he hoped to carry a Bible to the moon, but his dream was cut short when he was tragically killed by a cabin fire in 1967 during a routine launch test for Apollo 1.

The following year, Stout honored White by forming the Apollo Prayer League, a support group devoted to praying for the safety of astronauts. As its membership grew, he provided a source of hope and faith to those working tirelessly on the Apollo projects, but he always remembered his friend’s wish for a Bible to reach the moon.

Utilizing groundbreaking microfilm technology developed by the National Cash Register Company during the 1960s, Stout and the Apollo Prayer League sought to create a Bible that would adhere to NASA’s in-flight weight restrictions and could be carried to the moon’s surface. The technology reduced all 1,245 pages of the King James Bible to a microfilm chip measuring 1.5 square inches—a little larger than a postage stamp—that could be read by microscope.

To the Moon and Back

After reproductions were made, several attempts ensued to land the Bibles on the moon. Several hundred copies were carried on Apollo 12, but that mission remained in orbit, unable to land. Before the Apollo 13 mission, George H.W. Bush—the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time—distributed 512 copies in small pouches to the crew, but an oxygen tank explosion again prevented a lunar landing. Despite not having been to the lunar surface, the Bibles became a symbol of answered prayer for the safety of these missions’ astronauts.

George H.W. Bush and astronaut Michael Collins with a lunar Bible.

Finally, on Feb. 5, 1971, Stout saw White’s dreams fulfilled as Apollo 14 slowly sank into the moon’s rocky surface, kicking up dust as astronaut Edgar Mitchell carried a Bible to the lunar surface. The crew carried 100 copies in the lunar module and 200 in the command module. News of the first lunar book spread to media outlets, which reported that the event seemed like a “breath of fresh air,” and the term “lunar Bible” was coined.

Stout remained at NASA until the Apollo program ended in 1972. He passed away at age 94 on Dec. 8, 2016, the same day as astronaut John Glenn. He always treasured his relationships with the people who heeded John F. Kennedy’s famous call to “climb space” and set sail with God’s blessing “on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man ever embarked.”

About the Author

Grace Jones ’17 ’21 is a doctoral student at Rice University studying the history of space, religion, and science and technology. She is also a human space flight specialist at The Aerospace Corporation. She holds a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in history from Texas A&M University.

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