by Elaine Ervin
General Robert L. Stewart, a decorated Army combat pilot, test pilot, and former astronaut, has flown 38 types of airplanes and helicopters. Born in Washington D.C. and raised in Alabama, he received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Southern Mississippi, and a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. He served his country in Vietnam, where he flew UH1-B gunships and saw comrades fall in battle. He earned numerous medals, including two Purple Hearts, four Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star, and a Meritorious Service Medal. After the war he flew cutting-edge, experimental aircraft and completed Army aviation programs that prepared him for selection as a NASA astronaut. He flew on the shuttles Challenger and Atlantis, and was one of two men who first walked in space without a tether. A member of Reasons To Believe’s Speakers Bureau, General Stewart has blended his scientific and military training with a calling to ministry by making apologetics presentations throughout the world.
FfF: You’ve lived an exciting and dangerous life. What was it like to fly armed helicopters in Vietnam?
General Stewart: In Vietnam it got to where I feared the words, "Sir, you've got to see this," because one time I had a crack in the pitch change horn (the linkage which controls the main rotor). That pitch change horn should never have held together, but it did. If I had ever lost that pitch change horn, I would have lost control of the vehicle, and we would have all died. Another time the 42-degree gearbox was shot out. The gears should have seized but didn't.
Having been in constant danger, did you think about life and death?
Before I became a Christian death was something that I wanted to avoid, but I didn't fear it. Now I know that if I had been killed in Vietnam, or had I been killed in an accident as a test pilot, then I would have had to spend an eternity away from God.
Did this realization bring you to faith in Christ?
No. That realization came afterward. During the war I was determined that I would not be a "foxhole Christian." I was at such a point in my life that I said that this is not going to drive me to believe something just to take out a "fire insurance policy" on my own soul. My conversion came years later.
Tell us about it.
One day my daughter was bitten by a squirrel that she had been feeding by hand. Squirrels have been known to carry rabies, of course, so my wife [Mary] and I immediately consulted the NASA doctors. We were told that the chances of contracting rabies were remote so we opted not to treat her. On the morning I had to leave Houston for Denver to train for an aspect of my first space flight, my daughter awoke with a high fever and a very sore throat––two possible symptoms for rabies! As I flew to Denver, I couldn’t get it out of my head that I might have killed my daughter. When I got to Denver and checked into my motel, I was distraught with fear because it wasn’t my life at risk but that of my daughter. I said my first real prayer: “God, if you are really there, I don’t know why you want my daughter now, but please don’t take her that way.” I called home to find that Jenny [my daughter] was fine, the fever had broken, and the sore throat was gone. I then got down on my knees and said, “Thank you, Lord, now what will you have me do?” I realized that all those times I should have been dead [in Vietnam], it was He who was with me even though I refused to acknowledge Him.
People are fascinated with the many aspects of space travel. Describe some of the sensations of the launch.
You are enveloped in a noise and vibration far beyond your training, as over seven million pounds of thrust hurl you off the pad. Astronauts are trained to know the character of the event but cannot be trained to its true magnitude. It is a noise that is felt more than heard¾a sharp, staccato noise that hammers directly at the core of your being! Once in space, your second impression is “Boy, are we going fast.” In an airliner you travel at 500 mph, 40,000 feet above ground, and it hardly seems like you’re moving. In a shuttle, however, at speeds over 17,000 mph, you know you are smoking along!
You’re one of very few people who has seen the earth from the unique perspective of space. Can you describe it for us?
Your first view of the home planet is breathtaking. Maybe that’s how God intended it to be viewed. You see the lovely azure of the Atlantic overlaid by the pristine white of swirling clouds, and here comes the green of Africa, the whole floating in a velvety black universe. The colors come alive, and the visible detail is far beyond that which can be brought back on film or tape. It is truly an experience that borders on indescribable.
After having spent some time in space, what does it feel like to be back home?
The thing that you notice right away is the oppressive feeling of gravity. On one of my flights, we landed on a Saturday. I got up Sunday morning to go to Sunday school and almost couldn't walk because I was stumbling over my feet. I found that the way that I got to the floor was completely different. In space, I actually had to pull myself to the floor, using one set of muscles, whereas on Earth you relax muscles and gravity pulls you down. There is a little bit of muscular weakness but not any worse than if you got sick for a week and had to stay in bed.
How did you become involved with Reasons To Believe?
I had been teaching a Sunday school class here at High View Baptist Church in Woodland Park [Colorado], and the class had decided that they wanted to study Genesis. So I began research into Genesis with scientific as well as religious publications. One of the books that I came across was Dr. Ross' The Creator and the Cosmos. The more I read [of Dr. Ross’ books], the more fascinated I became. The books became a part of my class. Then, I went to the Web site where I learned about RTB’s apologetics course. I applied, and the rest, as they say, is history.
What do you hope to communicate as a Christian apologist?
The message I hope to get across is that you don’t have to give up your intellect to be a Christian. I am afraid that the church in the past has evangelized only the third world. It seems that the poor and the poorly educated have received priority in church evangelism because they are the easy problem. It gets harder to reach a person for Christ when that person is highly educated and sure of the primacy of science in this world. Reasons to Believe is the first organization I know of that attempts to tell those people that there is no conflict between religion and science. They both use their own peculiar language to communicate the same eternal truths: that this universe was brought into existence out of nothingness; that it is especially fine-tuned for the existence of life on this rare, if not unique planet; and that God did it.
How do you approach this challenge?
I try to learn as much as I can about the Scriptures and about science so that I can communicate at whatever level is required to advance the good news of Jesus Christ. I learned from [the apostle] Paul that you have to approach people where they are if communication is to take place. When I began to teach Genesis in my Sunday school class, I led off with a primer on relativity so my class could see the historical and logical background of this theory and lose their fear of it. This was necessary because I intended to talk about the creation event in terms of the big bang, and I wanted my class to understand that this was not just something physicists thought up in a vacuum. I wanted to approach the existence of human beings on this planet from the standpoint of their unique relationship to the Creator and back that up with some modern numerical biology statistics concerning the probabilities of life existing at all from random processes.
I hope to continue to challenge the person who is scientifically oriented with the idea that life would be prohibitively unlikely unless it were created by God. I also hope to reassure those not conversant with modern science that the truth of the Scriptures is still intact and even stronger as a result of real, objective science.
In my life I have made a remarkable transition from a person whose faith was in science to the exclusion of religion, to being a person who holds the Scriptures to be truth with science just catching up after 4000 years.