Our secular endeavor of space exploration is flush with religious observance. Why is that?
by Rebecca J. Rosen - Before the launch this weekend of three human beings into the ether of space around the Earth, before they boarded their Soyuz spacecraft, and before the rockets were fired, precautions were taken. Not the humdrum checklists and redundancies of space exploration — assessing the weather, the equipment, the math — but a preparation with a more mystical dimension: the blessing, by a Russian Orthodox priest, of the spacecraft, as it sat on the launchpad on the Kazakh steppe.
The scene, as shown in NASA photographs such as the one above, presents a tableau that seems incongruent, but may just be fitting.
The discordance is obvious: Here we are, on the brink of a new expedition to space, a frontier of human exploration and research that is the capstone of our scientific achievement. “The idea of traveling to other celestial bodies reflects to the highest degree the independence and agility of the human mind. It lends ultimate dignity to man’s technical and scientific endeavors,” the rocket scientist Krafft Arnold Ehricke once said. “Above all, it touches on the philosophy of his very existence.” His secular existence.
And yet here is a priest, outfitted in the finery of a centuries-old church, shaking holy water over the engines, invoking God’s protection for a journey to near-earth orbit. That these two spheres of human creation co-exist is remarkable. That they interact, space agencies courting the sanction of Russian Orthodox Christianity, is strange.
For reasons both straightforward and opaque, the secular, scientific work of space exploration cannot shake religion, and over the last few decades of human space travel, astronauts of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith have taken their religious beliefs into orbit, praying out of duty, in awe, and for their safe return.
That latter reason — risk — is perhaps the most basic explanation for the religious appeals of space explorers. On the ground, people led by popes, presidents, and their own instincts pray for astronauts’ safe deliverance. Is there any supplication more succinct than what astronaut Scott Carpenter radioed to John Glenn, as the rockets powered him off the ground? “Godspeed, John Glenn.” The Book of Common Prayer includes astronauts in an optional line in its Prayer for Travelers: “For those who travel on land, on water, or in the air [or through outer space], let us pray to the Lord.”
And of course, astronauts pray for their own safety. It’s hard to imagine atheists in foxholes; it is at least as hard to imagine them in space shuttles. In his memoir, astronaut Mike Mullane recalled the night before launch, lying in bed wracked by fears. He checked his nightstand for a Bible and found that there wasn’t one. But he writes, “I didn’t need a Bible to talk to God. I prayed for my family. I prayed for myself. I prayed I wouldn’t blow up and then I prayed harder that I wouldn’t screw up.”
But prayers for safety are basic. Astronauts’ religious practice in space has played out in more beautiful and complicated ways. There is no more moving example of this than when the astronauts of Apollo 8 — the first humans to orbit the moon and see the Earth rise over the moon’s horizon — read the first 10 verses of Genesis.
Here’s the scene: It’s Christmas Eve, 1968. The spaceship with three men on board had hurtled toward the moon for three days, and they have now finally entered the moon’s orbit, a move requiring a maneuver so dicey that just a tiny mistake could have sent the men off into an unwieldy elliptical orbit or crashing to the moon’s surface. But all went smoothly, and they are orbiting the moon. On their fourth pass (of 10), astronaut William Anders snaps the famous Earthrise shot that will appear in Life magazine. On their ninth orbit, they begin a broadcast down to Earth. Astronaut Frank Borman introduces the men of the mission, and, then, this:
“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and God said, ‘Let there be light,” Borman read.
And it was so.
Through this broadcast and this photograph, I think we can begin to taste the kind spiritual experience astronauts must have as they travel to distances, and perspectives, so few have known.As John Glenn said, “To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible. … It just strengthens my faith. I wish there were words to describe what it’s like.”
This ultimate scientific endeavor does not answer the questions religion seeks to answer; it brings humans into a close encounter with their own smallness, the Earth’s beauty, and the vastness of the cosmos. Faced with these truths, is it any wonder that some astronauts turn to religion? Some surely find comfort in the words of secular philosopher-scientists like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. But others will find that the ancient religions of Earth have some greater power, some deeper resonance, when they have traveled safely so far from their homes. Astronaut James Irwin put it this way: “As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.”
This is in part the sentiment Buzz Aldrin relays in his 2009 memoir as he recounts how he took communion in the minutes between when he and Neil Armstrong became the first humans on the moon’s surface, and when Armstrong set his foot down on the dust. Aldrin says he had planned the ceremony as “an expression of gratitude and hope.” The ceremony was kept quiet (un-aired) because NASA was proceeding cautiously following a lawsuit over the Apollo 8 Genesis reading, but it proceeded with a tiny vial of wine and a wafer Aldrin had transported to the moon in anticipation of the moment (personal items were strictly restricted by weight, so everything had to be small). He writes:
During those first hours on the moon, before the planned eating and rest periods, I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out the communion elements along with a three-by-five card on which I had written the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” I poured a thimblefull of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the moon. My comments to the world were inclusive: “I would like to request a few moments of silence … and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” I silently read the Bible passages as I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given.
Neil watched respectfully, but made no comment to me at the time.
He continued, reflecting:
Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion. Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind — be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God. It was my hope that people would keep the whole event in their minds and see, beyond minor details and technical achievements, a deeper meaning — a challenge, and the human need to explore whatever is above us, below us, or out there.
I think in there, Aldrin gets at the heart of religious experience in space: This achievement is so momentous, so other-worldly (nearly literally), that the rituals and words of one’s own religion become, as he says, “deeply meaningful.” Other astronauts of other faiths — Jewish and Muslim — have also brought their religious practices into orbit, resulting in some thorny questions at the intersection of theology and practicality. For example, how often should a Jew who experiences 15 sunrises and 15 sunsets every 24-hour period observe the sabbath? Every seventh “day” — which means every 11 hours or so — for just 90-ish minutes? When Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon was on the Space Station, rabbis decided he could just follow Cape Canaveral time. Unfortunately, Ramon was killed during the space shuttle Columbia’s re-entry, so we don’t have his post-mission reflections on what that experience was like. At least in anticipation of his journey, he said that though he was not particularly religious, observing the sabbath in space was important because as a representative of Jewish people everywhere and the son of a Holocaust survivor, bringing those traditions into space, into the 21st century, represented a spirit of continuity. “I’m kind of the proof for my parents and their generation that whatever we’ve been fighting for in the last century is becoming true,” he told the BBC.
Similarly, Muslim astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor had to figure out how, exactly, one faces Mecca during prayers when you are moving at about 17,000 miles per hour and its location relative to you is changing minute to minute, sometimes as much as 180 degrees in the course of one prayer. It was decided that Shukor, who was on the International Space Station during Ramadan, could do no more than the best of his abilities, in trying to face Mecca, kneel, and perform ritual washing. A video from the Space Station showed how this wound up working, and, in a way, just how hard and odd it is to bring religion into space exploration, in a way not unlike that of the Russian Orthodox priest preparing a spaceship for launch.
For many people, space represents its own religion, a spiritual experience on its own, secular terms, with no help from the divine or ancient rituals. But for those who believe and travel into space, the experience can endow their faith with greater significance. There is awe in science because, simply, there is awe in reality. We use science to discover that reality, and some use religion to understand it, to feel it deeply.
There is perhaps nothing more human than the curiosity that compels exploration. But paired with that curiosity is a search for meaning — we don’t want to know just what is out there, we want to turn it into something with a story, something with sense. We turn to the gods for that meaning, and we turn to them for our safety as we go. Same as it’s always been, same as it ever was. As President Kennedy concluded his speech on our mission to the moon at Rice University in 1962, “Space is there and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and planets are there and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.”
Rebecca J. Rosen is an associate editor at The Atlantic. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly, where she spearheaded the magazine’s In Essence section.
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