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Colonel Jim Irwin: From Doubter to Defender of the Faith

5 min

On the morning of July 26, 1971, millions of Americans had their eyes glued to their television sets. On Merritt Island off the coast of Florida, a Saturn V rocket pointed toward the heavens. Perched high atop the rocket was a lunar module called Falcon, destined for the moon! The Apollo program had already successfully landed six men on the moon. This mission was designated Apollo 15 and was headed for an area of the moon known as the Hadley Plain, near a lunar mountain range that rose 14,000 feet above the moon’s surface.

In her living room, Mrs. Mary Ellen Irwin watched with her children as the countdown for launch began. Her husband, Colonel Jim Irwin, was aboard Saturn V. At exactly 9:34 a.m., the blastoff lifted her husband from the bounds of earth and propelled him and the other astronauts toward the moon, 240,000 miles away! She and the children watched and prayed that he would return from his space mission safely.

James Irwin was born on March 17, 1930, in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His parents were devout Christians who taught their son the ways of the Lord. His father was a veteran of WWI. As a young boy, Jim was fascinated by the night sky. Around the age of twelve, he told his mother that he would like to go to the moon someday and would perhaps walk on its surface. The mother smiled at the boy’s enthusiasm, little dreaming that his ambition would one day become a reality!

At school, teachers scoffed at the old-fashioned notion that God created the earth in six literal days. Already, the pernicious teachings of evolution were eroding the faith of young people such as Jim, causing him to doubt the teaching of his parents and question the accuracy of the Bible. As Jim pursued his quest for scientific knowledge, he gradually abandoned the faith of his parents. After graduating from high school in 1947, he attended the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1951, earning a degree in aeronautical engineering.

He eventually became a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force, flying the Lockheed YF-12 and then the SR-71. This spy plane flew in advance of Mach 3, and although its fastest speed was never published, the Air Force acknowledged that the plane could fly in excess of 2,000 miles per hour and cruise in excess of 80,000 feet above the earth. The aircraft was so fast that it simply accelerated to outpace any enemy missile launched against it.

Colonel Irwin was severely injured in a crash in 1961, when a student pilot under his instruction made an error. Amazingly, God spared Irwin from death, although he sustained life-threatening internal injuries, a concussion that gave him temporary amnesia, and a compound fracture in his leg that almost resulted in amputation.

This terrible injury gave the test pilot an opportunity to slow down and reflect upon the brevity of life on earth, the dawn of eternity, and the claims of God’s Word that he had abandoned. A failed marriage that ended in divorce contributed to the humbling of his proud heart, and Irwin began to seek God again. A skillful doctor was able to save his leg, and the Lord gave Jim Irwin a renewed opportunity to glorify His name.

When fully recovered from his crash, Colonel Irwin was amazed to be selected by NASA in April 1966 for the Apollo program. He was part of the astronaut support crew for Apollo 10 and then a backup lunar module pilot for Apollo 12. After these valuable experiences as part of the support crew, Colonel Jim Irwin was chosen to be one of three astronauts to go to the moon with Apollo 15. This mission would be the first that employed a Lunar Roving Vehicle to allow the astronauts to venture farther from the landing site.

By this time, Irwin had remarried. His wife Mary Ellen and the children watched as the rocket carried him into the skies. The mission was not without incident; a water leak on board caused considerable concern for a time. Disaster threatened again when the lunar module Falconalmost tipped over upon landing. The module perched upon the edge of a crater and almost toppled over. But at the last moment, Falcon righted itself and settled successfully upon the moon!

Colonel Jim Irwin became the eighth man to walk on the moon’s surface. The mission successfully explored the Hadley Rille area and collected valuable rock samples, including the famous “Genesis Rock.” The deployment of the Rover was a grand success, and famous video footage was taken of the wild ride Astronauts Irwin and Scott took in the vehicle as they bounded over rocks and craters. After one particularly harrowing bump when the Rover almost flipped over in the slight gravity of the moon, Commander Scott broke the tension by saying, “Somebody forgot to put up the ‘Dip’ sign back there.” Colonel Irwin responded by adding, “. . . we’d be sitting here a long time waiting for a wrecker.”

One of the most memorable moments of the Apollo 15 expedition occurred when the astronauts performed an experiment in honor of Galileo. The Italian scientist had proposed five hundred years earlier that, in a vacuum, a heavy object and a light one would fall to the ground at the same rate. The astronauts of Apollo 15 dropped a hammer and, fittingly, a falcon feather at the same moment. As the world watched on their television sets, Galileo was proved correct as the feather and hammer hit the surface of the moon at the same time!

As Falcon prepared to launch from the lunar landscape and rejoin the command module in orbit above the Moon, the astronauts placed on the lunar dust a sculpture of a fallen astronaut, dedicated to the men who had given their lives for the cause of lunar exploration in previous expeditions. Then, as the world watched, Colonel James Irwin came to attention and saluted the American flag. Two hundred and forty thousand miles away, sitting beside his wife in their Pennsylvania home, an elderly Mr. Irwin, a veteran of World War I, watched his son on television with misty eyes. His son Jim had done as he had dreamed of so many years before: he had walked on the moon! More importantly, his son had become a committed Christian who would champion the literal nature of the Biblical account of Creation.

After his return from the moon, Colonel Jim Irwin told the world of his experience, “I felt the power of God as I’d never felt it before.” He continued, saying of his lunar achievements, “Jesus walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon.”

For the rest of his life, Colonel Irwin dedicated his time and energy to the cause of giving glory to the King of Creation. He led expeditions to Mount Ararat to explore the resting place of Noah’s Ark. On one of these missions, he was severely injured and had to be evacuated from the mountain. Irwin also wrote a book titled More Than Earthlings, in which he testified of his salvation and gave glory to God as Creator of the universe. In the book, he also reminded readers that man is born in time and space but destined for eternity.

Colonel Jim Irwin died of a heart attack in June 1986. His testimony as a NASA astronaut who gave glory to the Lord as Creator and Redeemer continues to live on today as a witness to many!

Sources and Further Reference:
Irwin, James B. More Than EarthlingsAn Astronaut’s Thoughts on Christ-Centered Living. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1983.
Thomsen, Paul. Flight of the Falcon. Santee, CA: Institute for Creation Research, 1991.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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