Our SpaceFlight Heritage: The atheist and Apollo 8
When most people think of Apollo 8, they think of how the Book of Genesis was read from the vicinity of the Moon and the well-wishes the trio of astronauts gave the world. The year 1968 was not a good one in terms of U.S. history, and Apollo 8 ended that dark year on a high note – for most Americans. One exception, an atheist who opted to sue the U.S. government over violations of the first amendment by reading from Genesis on a government-sponsored mission. Who was this person and what happened to them?
Madalyn Murray O’Hair was an activist who founded the American Atheists and served as the organization’s president from 1963 until 1986. Murray is, perhaps, best known for the Murray V. Curlett lawsuit which led to a Supreme Court ruling ending the reading of passages from the Bible in public schools.
As was noted by Valeri Williams, O’Hair was comfortable using vulgar language in a professional setting (an interview in her case). She also had a number of pseudonyms and appears to have had no qualms about issuing lawsuits (as many as 10 cases have been attributed to O’Hair).
As was noted on Newsweek, Murray was named “the most hated woman in America” by Life Magazine in 1964, a designation she received due to her actions and demeanor.
What happened to O’Hair? As was noted by the NY Times, her crusade ended at the hands of one the very people involved with her organization.
O’Hair (who died aged 76), her son Jon Garth Murray (40 at the time of his death), and granddaughter Robin Murray O’Hair (30 at the time of her death) disappeared on Aug. 27, 1995. A note on the locked door of the American Atheists’ office read as follows:
“The Murray O’Hair family has been called out of town on an emergency basis. We do not know how long we will be gone at the time of the writing of this memo.”
A search of O’Hair’s home found her diabetes medication on the kitchen counter and breakfast dishes on the table. Her dogs were also there, but no one apparently had been charged with taking care of them.
The trio was heard from again, via phone calls. During these conversations, they stated that they were away on “business” in San Antonio, Texas.
A few days later, Jon ordered some $600,000 worth of gold coins (American eagles, Maple Leafs, and Krugerrands), eventually taking possession of approximately $500,000 worth of coins.
American Atheist employees received phone calls from the O’Hair siblings through September 27. During these calls, they were described as sounding strained – but they provided no details as to why they had left nor when they would return.
David Roland Waters, a former typesetter for American Atheists, had a history of violent crimes, and there were a number of suspicious burglaries during his time with the group. It would be discovered that he was at the center of the O’Hairs’ disappearance.
O’Hair had become aware that Waters had stolen some $54,000 from American Atheist and had lashed out at him in a section of the group’s newsletter (Waters plead guilty to the theft in 1995). The string of crimes that could trace their various trajectories back to Waters included an alleged attack on his own mother and the murder of a teenager when he, himself, was still a teen (he was 17 at the time).
Speculation from members of law enforcement was that Waters and a group of accomplices had kidnapped the O’Hairs, forced them to withdraw the funds, and then murdered and dismembered them had proved to be correct.
Waters was joined in these crimes by Gary Paul Karr and Danny Fry (as was noted by the Dallas Observer, Fry was also murdered by his accomplices before being decapitated, having his hands cut off and then dumped in a riverbed).
Karr eventually talked – stating that Waters was to blame for the murder of the O’Hairs (Karr was transferred to Austin, Texas, where he stood trial for their deaths and was subsequently found guilty after a trial that lasted three weeks).
Waters was found guilty of kidnapping, robbery, and murder before eventually being sentenced to 80 years in prison. He died from lung cancer at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina, on Jan. 27, 2003.
After he had been convicted and imprisoned, Waters told law enforcement officials where the bodies of the O’Hairs were located (on a ranch in Texas). It was found that the bodies had been mutilated and dismembered – so much so that their remains had to be identified via dental records, DNA testing, and by other means. Fry’s head and hands were also discovered at the site.
In 1968, the Vietnam War still raged and Americans watched as the death toll from the conflict mounted. Senator Robert “Bobby” Kennedy was fatally shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Martin Luther King Jr. was also assassinated by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, and riots took place in Baltimore, Chicago (at the Democratic National Convention), Kansas City, Louisville, Washington D.C., Wilmington, and elsewhere. It is not an exaggeration to state that 1968 was a bad year for the United States.
At the time, many appreciated the lift in spirits that Apollo 8 provided to the nation. While O’Hair busied herself with a lawsuit, another woman, Valerie Pringle, sent a telegram to NASA. It didn’t contain the threat of litigation; rather, it said, simply, ”You saved 1968.”
The crew of Apollo 8 – Commander Frank F. Borman II, Command Module Pilot Jim A. Lovell Jr., and Lunar Module Pilot William A. Anders – were the first crew to ever launch atop a Saturn V Moon rocket from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A on Dec. 21, 1968. They reached lunar orbit on Christmas Eve and read verses 1–10 of Genesis, chapter 1, of the King James version of the Bible. The trio splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 27, 1968, where they were recovered by the U.S.S. Yorktown.
Video courtesy of NASA
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.
Although the Supreme Court rejected O’Hair’s lawsuit, citing a lack of jurisdiction, NASA tacitly accepted O’Hair’s point. Seven months later, NASA did not allow Aldrin’s religious statements to be broadcast from Apollo 11, though Atheist Neil Armstrong was a captive audience.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair certainly had her flaws, but she did the United States a great service by forcing the courts to uphold the US Constitution and remove religious proselytizing from public schools. Sadly, the forces of superstition keep trying to impose their brand of religion on the rest of us. But as long as the Constitution is in effect, any gains they make will be fleeting.
Merry Christmas to everyone on this good Earth.
Nice article. Thanks.
But, this is a Public Forum, and the First Amendment still allows Free Speech; MERRY CHRISTMAS! PEACE ON EARTH AND GOODWILL TOWARDS MEN.
Go to a couple of the supposedly “public forums” on certain space blogs and try commenting negatively about a certain entrepreneur or his company and come back and comment again on free speech.
If she ever was, Ms O’hair is no longer an atheist.
Well, she’s most certainly *not* religious at this point.
As a 12 year old boy in 1969 living in the UK, I sat enthralled with my grandparents watching this incredible event. In many ways, this was the definitive of the Apollo missions, with so many ‘firsts’, opening the way and proving the technologies for those missions that followed. It was also so much more, with the astronauts capturing the historical significance by the message of peace which was the underlying message that the reading from Genesis symbolised. It was an amazing Christmas gift to the world and one which I personally will never forget. I count myself as lucky to have been alive to witness this and the following Apollo missions as they happened. Thank you NASA and the American people for the gift of Apollo and for financing mankind’s first tentacles steps to becoming a true spacefaring species.
I did not become very interested in space until the 21st century. After I had read a couple stacks of books on Human Space Flight, Apollo, and the Shuttle, it was my view that Apollo 8 was the really important first achievement and actually landing on the Moon was, for me, anticlimactic. Just my view.
When I comment on Human Space Flight it seems to enrage a certain group that I characterize Low Earth Orbit as not really being spaceflight after Apollo 8. I would say Low Lunar Lunar Orbit (LLO) is the place we should always have been going to and should be focused on now. The ice on the Moon, utilized by robot landers and ferried up to LLO as cosmic radiation shielding, is in my view the way to go.
Why though? There was no reason to spend the billions and billions additional dollars, plus the safety risks to go that much father into space for what they were doing. Low Earth Orbit was still zero gravity, which is what most of the experimentation from the late 70s until now needed. The minimal additional benefits of conducting experiments all the way to a lunar orbit would have been FAR eclipsed by the additional costs. After all, we only went to the moon in the first place as part of a pissing contest.
Another benefit from O’Harr is that it forced Christians to recognize that atheism was conducting itself as a religion. Sadly, those forces of fear and self-loathing continue to promote secularism, but a long as the Constitution remains in effect, that civil religion must permit Christians freedom of religion to continue to share the truth and try to help atheists gain eternal life.