The Apollo Prayer League
Map of Apollo Prayer League members in 60% of US
postal zones and 16 countries around the world.
During his duties as a NASA chaplain, Reverend Stout grew especially close to a young Christian astronaut by the name of Edward White II. White was the first American to walk in space. He was a devout Methodist, an Olympic hopeful, and West Point graduate who put God, family, and country first in his life. During his 1965 Gemini 4 spacewalk, he carried in his left leg pocket the Star of David, a St. Christopher medal, and a gold crucifix, because, as he said, “while I couldn’t take one for every religion in the country, I could take the three most familiar to me.”
White had hoped to be the first to land a Bible on the moon on board Apollo 1. “The best all-around volume of literature you could take would be the Bible. I do plan to take one.” [The Danville Register, January 29, 1967]. White died with his two crew mates, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, on January 27, 1967, when a flash fire erupted inside the Apollo 1 on Launch Complex 34 during a routine test on the launch pad.
Reverend Stout’s own brother, Joe, had recently been killed while trying to prevent the robbery of a friend’s store in South Fork, Colorado, and the needless death of the two young men had a profound effect on him. He and Helen had planned to retire to Florida at the end of two years, but John vowed to stay on and see White’s dream fulfilled.
Seeing the grief and need to provide a vehicle for prayerful support to the broad base of people involved in the space effort, John’s wife, Helen, suggested he form a group to pray for the program like the small group of NASA wives she hosted in La Porte, TX. The larger group, however, would enfold hundreds of thousands of employees and offer a powerful prayer base for the safety, skill, and protection of the astronauts, as well as the skill, foresight, and ingenuity of NASA employees who supported them.
Thus, the Apollo Prayer League was born. In 1968, prior to the launch of Apollo 7, a small group of NASA employees banded together to form the Apollo Prayer League (APL). Bylaws were drawn up and a board of directors formed consisting of Harold Hill, Rev John Stout, and Rev Byron Price. Harold Hill was a NASA employee charged with preparation of the command module and decontamination of the module after its return from space. Rev Byron Price was a Presbyterian minister who attended the seminary with Stout and later named as Secretary of the league. Reverend Stout was elected as its director. All three board members were affiliated with Faith Presbyterian church in nearby Pasadena, TX. Hill was an elder in the church, Price was the church pastor, and Stout was a substitute pastor. It was licensed as a 501(C)3 nonprofit organization operating under the auspices of Price’s Faith Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, TX
The only criteria for membership was the belief in the power of prayer, regardless of denomination. The group was perpetuated by a uniquely American enterprise whereby each member would select five other members who believed in the power of prayer, who would then in turn select five others, and so on. Before long, Apollo Prayer League members were popping up at NASA locations, ships, and remote tracking stations around the world.
The multi-faceted organization grew to encompass many ministerial and public media roles:
- A faith-based organization committed to prayerful support of the Apollo astronauts and the skill of NASA employees who built the rockets they flew.
- An outreach group for NASA employees to provide disaster reflief support to local, national, and international locations.
- A newswire service and public broadcasting outlet through Voice of America.
- A central non-denominational coordination point for thirteen pastors of various religions within NASA.
- A ministry support resource for Apollo astronauts and their families during a highly ambitious space program fraught with risk.
- A buffer for religious inquiries/organizations and NASA, including US dignitaries, heads of foreign countries, and religious adversaries such as the renowned atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
but most notably -
- To land a Bible on the moon in honor of fallen Apollo 1 Astronaut Ed White who had planned to carry one.
Battling an Atheist
Membership in the APL swelled after the Apollo 8 astronauts read from the book of Genesis while circling the moon on Christmas eve 1968. Notorious atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair sued NASA to halt religious acts by astronauts in space. O’Hair, who had succeeded in banning prayer in all public schools, said she had now gathered 28,000 signatures protesting prayer and religious endeavors by astronauts “on government business and on government property.” The Apollo Prayer League resolved to challenge O’Hair on her own terms. As news of the lawsuit flashed across the airwaves, an army of Christian activists and Apollo Prayer League volunteers canvassed the country wielding steno pads and clipboards.
Funds and letters of support came from such notables as John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, and APL member ranks began to swell beyond NASA personnel, contractors, and subcontractors. They were now being joined in mass by ordinary citizens—mechanics, physicians, plumbers and homemakers—from across the country and around the world. The APL’s national petition drive ballooned, and before Madalyn O’Hair could utter another vulgarity, the drive obtained nearly ten million signatures and letters supporting the astronauts’ freedom of expression and contributing visibility to the court case poised to guarantee that freedom. The list of petitions was presented to President Nixon by NASA PIO Paul Haney.
At the time of O’Hair’s case dismissal in November of 1969, APL members could be found in sixty percent of all regional postal zones in the United States and sixteen foreign countries,