At the 2011 Aerospace Sciences Meeting sponsored by the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics in early January 2011 I will be giving a paper with the title of this post. My abstract for this conference is below. I’m interested in any feedback on this idea. Let me know what you think.
Much attention has been given to the influence of the Cold War in explaining Americans’ attachment to space exploration. While this may be true there is a religious quality to advocacy for the investment in and support for human space exploration, lending to human space exploration a “higher purpose” that helps to explain both the generous nature of the actual investment and the ultimate unwillingness of public officials to reduce space budgets. This unusual and potentially blasphemous proposition may disturb the faithful (those who embrace the spacefaring dream as well as accepting the faith claims of various religious denominations), but I argue in this paper that it helps explains much of the hold human space exploration has enjoyed within its supporting community.
The term religion carries several connotations, chief among them being the practice of faith and worship, the existence of a set of beliefs inspiring reverence and allegiance, trust in an alternative arrangement of human affairs that cannot be physically demonstrated, a frequent promise of immortality, an explanation of the creation, and conviction in a message of salvation. Human space exploration fits these characteristics well. It inspires faith, worship, reverence, alternative futures, and a quest for secular immortality. Being like a religion, space exploration receives special treatment accorded only a few American movements. This helps to explain why human space exploration occupies such a central place in American culture and receives the levels of public support that it does.
All of the elements of religion are present among those who advocate for aggressive space exploration activities. The belief system has saints, martyrs, and demons; sacred spaces of pilgrimage and reverence; theology and creed; worship and rituals; sacred texts; and a message of salvation with humanity insuring its future through expansion of civilization to other celestial bodies. Chris Kraft, a leading NASA official during the Apollo era, characterized his support of space exploration in overtly religious language: “This step into the universe is a religion and I’m a member of it.” Others have seen this as well. As Charles Johnson wrote to McGeorge Bundy on May 21, 1963, “There is already too much religion in the space program.” This paper lays out this perspective on the history of human spaceflight.