NASA and the Missing Day in Time

The Earth and the Sun
Mark Garlick/Stock Illustration/Getty Images

In which we are asked to believe that NASA scientists inadvertently proved that the biblical account of God causing the sun to stand still for a day actually happened as described.

Description: Urban legend
Circulating since: 1960s
Status: False (details below)

Example:
Email text contributed by R. Dean, Nov. 12, 1998:

Did you know that the space program is busy proving that what has been called "myth" in the Bible is true? Mr Harold Hill, President of the Curtis Engine Company in Baltimore Maryland and a consultant in the space program, relates the following development.

I think one of the most amazing things that God has for us today happened recently to our astronauts and space scientists at Green Belt, Maryland. They were checking the position of the sun, moon, and planets out in space where they would be 100 years and 1000 years from now.

We have to know this so we won't send a satellite, up and have it bump into something later on its orbits. We have to lay out the orbits in terms of the life of the satellite, and where the planets will be so the whole thing will not bog down. They ran the computer measurement back and forth over the centuries and it came to a halt. The computer stopped and put up a red signal, which meant that there was something wrong either with the information fed into it or with the results as compared to the standards.

They called in the service department to check it out and they said "what's wrong ?" Well they found there is a day missing in space in elapsed time. They scratched their heads and tore their hair. There was no answer. Finally, a Christian man on the team said, "You know, one time I was in Sunday School and they talked about the sun standing still."

While they didn't believe him, they didn't have an answer either, so they said, "Show us". He got a Bible and went back to the book of Joshua where they found a pretty ridiculous statement for any one with "common sense."

There they found the Lord saying to Joshua ,"Fear them not, I have delivered them into thy hand; there shall not a man of them stand before thee." Joshua was concerned because he was surrounded by the enemy and if darkness fell they would overpower them.

So Joshua asked the Lord to make the sun stand still! That's right--"The sun stood still and the moon stayed---and hasted not to go down about a whole day!" The astronauts and scientists said, "There is the missing day!"

They checked the computers going back into the time it was written and found it was close but not close enough. The elapsed time that was missing back in Joshua's day was 23 hours and 20 minutes--not a whole day.

They read the Bible and there it was "about (approximately) a day" These little words in the Bible are important, but they were still in trouble because if you cannot account for 40 minutes you'll still be in trouble 1,000 years from now. Forty minutes had to be found because it can be multiplied many times over in orbits. As the Christian employee thought about it, he remembered somewhere in the Bible where it said the sun went BACKWARDS.

The scientists told him he was out of his mind, but they got out the Book and read these words in 2 Kings: Hezekiah, on his death-bed, was visited by the prophet Isaiah who told him that he was not going to die.

Hezekiah asked for a sign as proof. Isaiah said "Do you want the sun to go ahead 10 degrees?" Hezekiah said "It is nothing for the sun to go ahead 10 degrees, but let the shadow return backward 10 degrees.." Isaiah spoke to the Lord and the Lord brought the shadow ten degrees BACKWARD! Ten degrees is exactly 40 minutes! Twenty three hours and 20 minutes in Joshua, plus 40 minutes in Second Kings make the missing day in the universe!

References:
Joshua 10:8 and 12,13
2 Kings 20:9-11


Analysis: Though it has been debunked countless times over the past several decades, there are no doubt some Christians who still believe this tale and perhaps even find it rife with irony. Who would have thought that science, the nemesis of faith, would inadvertently be harnessed to prove one of God's cosmic miracles true? Certainly not the scientists themselves, who work so hard to undermine biblical values with their secular theories on the origins of man and the universe.

The person ultimately responsible for the story didn't see it that way, however. I'm talking about Harry Rimmer, a Presbyterian minister and amateur archaeologist whose life's mission, succinctly summarized in the title of his 1936 book The Harmony of Science and Scripture, was to bring the two seemingly incompatible world views together. That he had to forge said "harmony" out of speculation and hearsay doesn't seem to have troubled him much.

Totten vs. the Astronomer

Rimmer told of an encounter that took place toward the end of the 19th century (well before the advent of NASA, obviously) between a Bible-believing Yale professor named C.A. Totten and a skeptical British astronomer named Sir Edwin Ball. Having pored over a set of mystifying calculations for hours on end, Ball approached Totten and confided that he had discovered an entire day "lost out of time" -- 24 missing hours that he couldn't account for scientifically.

Totten suggested that the answer might be found in the pages of the Holy Bible.

Intrigued by the suggestion, Ball began working his way through the scriptures and found a tentative solution in the tenth chapter of Joshua, where it is written that God caused the sun and moon to stand still for one day. But there was a discrepancy. According to Ball's own calculations, a day only lasted 23 hours and 20 minutes in Joshua's time, the astronomer told Totten. "If the Bible made a mistake of forty minutes, it is not the Book of God!" Unruffled, Totten pointed his skeptical friend back to the scriptures, where in due time Ball discovered, in the second book of Kings, the account of God turning the sundial back 10 degrees.

"This settled the case," Harry Rimmer concluded, "for ten degrees on the sundial is forty minutes on the face of the clock! So the accuracy of the Book was established to the satisfaction of this exacting critic."

Unfortunately, Rimmer could offer no documentation for this anecdote and no one has ever been able to find record of it outside of his book. As it happens, C.A. Totten himself had published a volume in 1890 purporting to prove the biblical accounts of the missing day and the backward-moving sundial true mathematically, but in it he made no mention of an encounter with a skeptical astronomer.

And far from grounding his argument in science, Totten used calendrical calculations based on the assumption that the universe was only 6,000 years old.

Harold Hill and the Missing Day

After Rimmer, the "missing day" story languished in comparative obscurity for decades, turning up now and again in Christian tracts and sermons until the 1960s, when it was revived by Harold Hill, an engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland who later went on to serve as president of the Curtis Engine Company. Hill, who died in 1986, always maintained that his version of the story was true, but given the glaring similarities between his account and Rimmer's there can be little doubt that Hill simply updated it for a space-age audience and claimed it as his own.

In How to Live Like a King's Kid, an inspirational book published in 1974, Hill explained how the story became common currency.

He often told it, he wrote, when lecturing to high school and college students on the subject of science and the Bible. Apparently someone liked it so much they transcribed it and mailed it around, and by 1970 versions naming Harold Hill as their sources began appearing in midwestern newspapers. Indeed, when we look at examples of those news stories from 36 years ago (the one below is from the News Journal of Mansfield, Ohio, dated April 11, 1970), there is verbiage exactly matching what we find in the emails still circulating today:

Did you know that the space program is busy proving that what has been called "myth" in the Bible is true? Mr. Harold Hill, President of the Curtis Engine Company, in Baltimore, Md., and a consultant in the space program, relates the following development:

I think one of the most amazing things that God has for us today happened recently to our astronauts and space scientists at Green Belt, Md. They were checking the position of the sun, moon, and planets out in space where they would be 100 years and 1,000 years from now. We have to know this so we don't send a satellite up and have it bump into something later on in its orbits. We have to lay out the orbit in terms of the life of the satellite, and where the planets will be so the whole thing will not bog down!

They ran the computer measurement back and forth over the centuries and it come to a halt. The computer stopped and put up a red signal, which meant that there was something wrong either with the information fed into it or with the results as compared to the standards.

And so on. Unsurprisingly, Hill, like his predecessor Harry Rimmer, could not document the story. In a form letter he sent out in response to public queries, he claimed to have "misplaced" relevant details such as names and places. "I can only say," he wrote, "that had I not considered the information to be reliable, I would not have used it in the first place."

NASA Scientists weigh in

NASA scientists addressed the reliability of Harold Hill's information from a technical standpoint in a March 25, 1997 website feature entitled "Ask an Astrophysicist," essentially pooh-poohing the very premise of the story.

The future orbits of the planets aren't calculated by going "back and forth over the centuries" to plot their past positions, they explained. It's done with simple, highly accurate formulae that can predict any future position of a planet based on its current position. "This calculation would not cover any time before the present, so some missing day many centuries ago, if it had occurred, could not be uncovered with this method," the scientists wrote.

"In general," they concluded, "trying to prove events that are said to have occurred in the Bible, using scientific principles, doesn't work. Most scientists draw a clear distinction between things that are taken on faith, and those that are testable and therefore falsifiable. Science deals with the later, and religion with the former."

Sources and further reading:

Holy Bible: Joshua 10:12-13
King James Version

Holy Bible: 2 Kings 20:9-11
King James Version

Has NASA Discovered a 'Missing Day'?
Reason & Revelation, May 1991

The Missing Day
ABC Science, 9 July 2007

Has NASA Established the Missing Day of Joshua?
StephenJayGould.org

A Legend in His Own Time
The Skeptical Review, Jan.-Feb. 1999

Did Scientists Discover a 'Missing Day' as Predicted in the Bible?
The Straight Dope

Brunvand, J.H. "The Missing Day in Time." The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.