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Astronaut James Lovell: ‘We go to heaven when we’re born’ — podcast

Former astronaut James Lovell: “God has given us a stage . . . upon which to perform, and how the play turns out is really up to us.” | Robert Herguth / Sun-Times

James Lovell, retired astronaut, part of Apollo 8 moon mission in 1968, Presbyterian, believes in heaven — on Earth.

Born in Cleveland, raised mostly in Milwaukee, “where the family was in the heating business,” attended U.S. Naval Academy, now lives in Chicago’s north suburbs.

“See, I was born in 1928, and, 1927, Charles Lindbergh made that famous trip across the ocean, and so boys of my age through the ’30s, you know, airplanes were the big thing.”

An uncle had gone through the Naval Academy, “and he was the 58th naval aviator.

“He’d tell us about flying on those little biplanes on the early aircraft carriers and things like that. And so that was my initial desire . . . to sort of follow him.”

Initially, Lovell was “sort of a loose Presbyterian.

“My father died when I was 11, so my mother and I lived in just a little one-room apartment up in Milwaukee . . . I got involved in Boy Scouts . . . One of the things that I was required . . . you have to get a little bit of religion.

“My mother started out to be Lutheran, but there was an old Presbyterian church downtown Milwaukee . . . I went down there” and became “a good Presbyterian.”

That “started my religious life.”

Apollo 8 astronauts, from left, Commander Frank Borman, command module pilot James Lovell Jr. and lunar module pilot William Anders at Kennedy Space Center on Oct. 22, 1968. | NASA via AP

“At the Naval Academy, there was a requirement you had to attend the church service. It was non-denominational, and we had a beautiful chapel . . . Or, if you desired to go out into town, my roommate was Episcopalian, and they would march out into town to the Episcopal church.

“I got more involved with religion at that time.”

Some view religion and science as incompatible.

“I disagree. I look at it a different way, though.

There’s a beginning and an end to everything . . . This table we’re at right now had a beginning — it was built — and then one day . . . it will break, or it will get too old ,or it will be destroyed. Humans, of course, have a beginning and an end . . . The sun is halfway through its life.”

But “space, as far as we can see, does not have an end.”

While orbiting the moon, he looked out through the window of his spacecraft and saw Earth, which appeared so small that he could obscure the view with his thumb. “I thought how insignificant we really all are and yet how fortunate we all are that we have a place to live.

“I began to think that, you know, in reality, we often say that I hope to go to heaven when we die. In reality, we go to heaven when we’re born. We arrive on a [planet] with the proper mass that has the gravity that can contain water and an atmosphere, the very essentials for life.

“And if you want to really pursue that to the extreme, St. Peter was that doctor you saw when you first opened your eyes.

“That’s my sort of philosophy right now, that enjoy life . . . take a moment, and look at what you have, look at Lake Michigan . . . Feel the breeze on your cheek, and know that God has really given us ability to be here.

God has given us a stage . . . upon which to perform, and how the play turns out is really up to us.”

Apollo 13 crew, from left, James A. Lovell, John L. “Jack” Swigert and Fred W. Haise at Kennedy Space Center. | NASA

Is there an afterlife?

“No, in reality, I think our life and our heaven is the time that we’re here on Earth.

Of course, there’s a lot of sadness, but the happiness is now.”

He still goes to church.

God likely is the spark that lit the universe, then “things slowly evolved.”

Climate change is not a “religious thing . . . It’s a natural thing.”

“I think what religion teaches you is well worth listening to. But you have to remember, if you want to take a look at the history of religion, it’s not all good. I mean, religion itself has caused more distraught, more problems, to this day.”

While in space on Christmas Eve 1968, he and fellow astronauts famously read biblical passages from Genesis about the Earth being created by God. It was broadcast to Earth, where the Vietnam war was raging.

“That was so appropriate at the time.”

There’s relevance” in the bible, “but the main thing about the bible is not exactly what the story tells you, is how people get comfort from it.”

Face to Faith appears Sundays in the Chicago Sun-Times, with an accompanying audio podcast, with additional content, at iTunes and chicago.suntimes.com.

From right, former astronauts Jim Lovell, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong at an Aug. 29, 2008, celebration of NASA’s 50th anniversary. | AP

Listen to previous Face to Faith podcasts:

Gemini-12 astronauts James Lovell, left, and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin laugh over a gag greeting card given them  prior to their four-day space mission. | File photo

James Lovell and John Swigert of Apollo 13 are questioned by teens at Orchestra Hall. | Sun-Times files

James A. Lovell Jr., center, waves his Navy cap and Buzzz Aldrin stands beside him as they arrive aboard the carrier Wasp after their four-day journey around the world in November 1966. | AP

James Lovell, giving a thumb’s up, with fellow Apollo 13 astronaut John Swigert parade down Wacker Drive. | Sun-Times files