In the rounded gray Apennine mountains of the moon, Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin had an encounter with God he would never forget. Irwin was the eighth man to walk on the moon and the first to ride in the Lunar Rover. Apollo 15 was a ‘J-Mission,’ which meant he and fellow astronaut David Scott spent an extended period on the lunar surface – almost three days, where they collected 170 pounds of geologic material including the famous “Genesis Rock.”
Scientists believe the rock dates back to the time the original lunar crust was formed, which they estimate at 4.5 billion years. “It was remarkable,” Irwin commented later. “It was sitting on a pedestal rock almost free from dust. It seemed to be saying, ‘Here I am, take me.’”
Irwin and Scott worked for an extended period with little rest prior to their liftoff. “Apparently, when Jim was suiting up his water tube kinked so he wasn’t able to get any water,” recalls Mary Irwin, his wife.
Outside their spacesuits, the temperature on the lunar surface was 150 degrees. “He perspired like crazy,” Mary says. “He was losing his electrolyte balance. An imbalance of sodium and potassium can trigger a heart attack,” she notes.
While Irwin did not suffer a heart attack, flight surgeons on earth who monitored the men were alarmed when they saw both astronauts develop irregular heart rhythms.
Irwin’s situation was more severe, with abnormal heartbeats every other beat. Neither man was told about their condition by Mission Control. Flight surgeons reasoned they were already getting 100 percent oxygen, they had continuous monitoring of their vital signs, and they were at zero gravity – conditions that partially replicated or even exceeded an ICU unit back on earth.
NASA also had concerns about wider dissemination of this sensitive health information. “If doctors said something and it was on the loop, who knows who would have leaked that to the press,” Mary notes. “They didn’t need that kind of situation terrifying people.”
As Irwin moved about the lunar surface, apparently unaware of his precarious health situation, he was struck by the size of the earth – about the size of his thumbnail.
“I was just amazed to see the earth,” he said. “It reminded me of a Christmas tree ornament – a very fragile one, hanging majestically in space. It was very touching to see earth from that perspective.”
At one point, Irwin had trouble with a planned experiment. “He was erecting an experiment that wouldn’t erect, due to a cotter pin or something of that nature,” Mary recalls.
Frustrated in his attempts to get the experiment to work, Irwin decided he would pray.
While raised in a Christian home – and a believer and churchgoer since age 10, he was a nominal Christian at this stage of his life. “Maybe he walked away from his walk with the Lord a little,” Mary suggests. “He described himself as a ‘bump on a log Christian.’”
But he really needed wisdom due to this problem and he said, “God I need your help right now.”
Suddenly Irwin experienced the presence of Jesus Christ in a remarkable way, unlike anything he ever felt on earth. “The Lord showed him the solution to the problem and the experiment erected before him like a little altar,” Mary says.
“He was so overwhelmed at seeing and feeling God’s presence so close,” she says. “At one point he turned around and looked over his shoulder as if He was standing there.”
This unusual encounter with Jesus – some 238,000 miles from earth, changed Irwin’s life forever.
After his return from the moon, Irwin rode in a ticker tape parade through the streets of New York. “There were thousands of people lining the street and he was trying to see all their faces,” Mary recalls. “God dropped it in his heart that he had a responsibility to mankind to share Jesus with everyone after that.”
Like other men in church history who have experienced dramatic encounters with God, the result was an increased power to witness for Jesus Christ, a confidence and boldness that fueled his passion to become an emissary for Jesus Christ to the nations.
Within a year of Irwin’s return from space, he resigned from NASA and formed High Flight Foundation, which is on a quest to reach the world as “goodwill ambassadors for the Prince of Peace.”
“God decided that He would send His Son Jesus Christ to the blue planet,” Irwin said, “and it’s through faith in Jesus Christ that we can relate to God. Jesus Himself said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes unto the Father except through me.’
“As I travel around I tell people the answer is Jesus Christ, that Jesus walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon.”
For two decades, Irwin traveled the world and presented small flags he carried from the moon to the leaders of various countries. “These flags were so powerful,” says Bill Dodder, a close friend to Irwin. “He took flags to each country as a means to witness for Jesus Christ.”
Dodder traveled with Irwin on several expeditions to Mt. Ararat in search of Noah’s Ark. “We ran the Great Wall of China together,” Dodder recalls.
Irwin continued to suffer heart problems after he left the space program. On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 15 mission, he spoke in Aspen, Colorado. The next day he took a long bicycle ride to the Maroon Bells near Aspen. After the ride, he collapsed due to a massive heart attack and went to live forever with the God he loved – the same one he encountered on the surface of the moon.
It is ironic, perhaps, that his heavenly homecoming was within hours of the 20th anniversary of his earthly homecoming from the moon.
Dodder was with Irwin on the day he passed away. “The day before he died he said, ‘All I want to do is be faithful.’”