July 19, 2019 — What do the last names Bettini, Clavius, Fournier, Grimaldi and Kirchner have in common? They belong to famous Jesuit scientists who have craters named after them on the moon. There are 30 more “Jesuit craters” on the lunar surface, a reminder that the Society of Jesus has been pursuing knowledge about our shared universe since its founding in the 16th century.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing on July 20, 2019, here are a few ways Jesuits have connections to Earth’s only natural satellite.
1. Being curator of meteorites at the Vatican Observatory allows Jesuit Brother Robert Macke to 'find God' in all things. He cares for a moon rock from Apollo 17, a goodwill gift from United States to the Vatican.
A display case also holds a piece of the "Moon Tree," a sycamore at the Lunar and Planetary Lab in Tucson, Arizona, that was grown from seeds that flew on the Apollo 14 mission.
The Vatican Observatory guestbook has a signature of Frank Borman, dated Feb. 15, 1969, less than two months after he, James Lovell and William Anders became the first three men to orbit the Moon on the Apollo 8 mission, Brother Macke said. Borman also gave the Observatory a signed print of the famous "Earthrise" photograph, which now hangs on an Observatory wall next to a signed photograph of Eugene Cernan from Apollo 17 that is addressed to St. Paul VI.
In one of the observatory domes, Brother Macke said a photograph shows St. Paul VI watching the Apollo 11 landing from that exact location.
"My office is littered with models of the Apollo spacecraft, unmanned space probes, and space telescopes," Brother Macke said. "My research has even included work with Apollo moon rocks, which has involved several trips to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center."
2. Giovanni Riccioli, SJ, (1598–1671) an Italian Jesuit astronomer, introduced the lunar nomenclature, much of which is still used today. In fact, Riccioli named "Mare Tranquillitatis" — the Sea of Tranquility — where Apollo 11 landed in 1969.
Riccioli and another Jesuit, Francesco Grimaldi, created a map of the moon in 1651, which appeared in their book “Almagestum novum.” Written across the top of the map in Latin: “Neither do men inhabit the moon nor do souls migrate there.”
3. Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), a German Jesuit and polymath, also drew a map of the moon in the 17th century — 300 years before the American astronauts would land there.
4. American Jesuit Fr. Charles Marie Charroppin, SJ, (1840-1915) was an educator with a fascination for both astronomy and photography. During the May 28, 1900, solar eclipse, he set up his equipment at an astronomical station in Washington, Georgia, and by overlapping a series of 18 negatives, he generated a photograph of the moon blocking the sun.
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, says the moon landing offers concrete lessons for people of faith, including the lesson of hope.
When U.S. President John F. Kennedy famously declared in 1961 that within the decade, he intended to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth, “the U.S. had not even successfully put a human into orbit,” Consolmagno said. “And yet we did it.”
“The science and technology was astonishing, but even more so was the political ability that got half a million scientists and engineers cooperating together for a common goal,” he said, adding the experience suggests humanity can “face seeming impossible problems if we let ourselves work together.”
If humanity is capable of harnessing the same creativity, determination and collaboration that allowed Apollo 11 to happen, many modern crises, he said, citing climate change as an example, “can be met if we have the will.”