Escaping Earth: Human Spaceflight as Religion


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.

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7 Responses to Escaping Earth: Human Spaceflight as Religion

  1. mike shupp says:

    Hmm.. I’d certainly like to see an ambitious (and successful) manned space program that leads on to human colonies on the moon and planets, and perhaps reaches the stars — just like all those 40 year old SF paperbacks on my shelves show things! I think it’d be be basically a Good Thing; I can even conceive of circumstances in which it might come true.

    But that is, of course, gut feeling rather than something which can be rigorously demonstrated. It’s a personal and emotional thing, a psychological trait. It’s Hope of a sort, Optimism of a kind, Faith in a way — but I don’t know that I’d call it “religion.” Religion, to me, is inherently tied to the concept of superior beings — God or Zeus or Lord Khrishna or what have you; it’s a vague term in some ways, but it’s pinned down in others, and it’s a useful term to retain. Linking it with progressivism and support for science and belief in the value of spaceflight, as all being the same thing, would make “religion” a very poorly defined and not esecially useful term, in my estimation.

    I think these sentiments come out of the same box, so to speak, as religion; they’re generated by human minds — or human souls, if you prefer; they have features in common. I’ve no objection to making that sort of link. It seems fair, and even a bit flattering to space buffs.

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    • launiusr says:

      Great thoughts. Thanks so much for your insightful comments. The issue of a deity is an important observation, but I think I would suggest that the mystery, greatness, etc., of the cosmos fills that role. Anyone this is something very important to consider. I should add that I just gave the paper and it was really well received. I got lots of suggestions, and some push back on some of my ideas, as I had hoped. This project may not go anywhere, I’m just trying to give voice to some of the conceptions that I see in the space community.

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  2. James says:

    I think human spaceflight and religion have similar emotional appeal and both offer a sense of purpose in life. A difference I see is that you don’t have to believe in anything supernatural, a creator, or an ancient text to support human spaceflight. You don’t have to listen to any preachers, etc., although I think that people idolize astronauts as being heroes of our time.

    I started a blog that will focus a lot on this topic. http://thecosmicparadigm.blogspot.com/

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  3. Jason says:

    Roger,

    I’m sorry I missed this post, it’s a personal passion of mine but for different reasons that you might imagine.

    My education at St. John’s was a bit odd. We study the ancient mathematicians and philosophers. The mathematicians were often concerned with “the heavens” and “the wanderers”–planets, we call them now. One of the most amazing mathematical books ever written was The Almagest by Ptolemy, which allowed description of the planets’ movements through convoluted use of perfect circles.

    Only it didn’t.

    The movements of Mercury could not be predicted accurately until much, much later. It took Copernicus and Kepler and Galileo, too, to describe the motions perfectly well.

    Only they didn’t do it successfully, either.

    It takes Einstein’s theory of relativity (I think the general theory, but I don’t remember for sure) to describe Mercury’s movement, because it’s so far down in the Sun’s gravity well that it’s movement is affected by the relativistic effects of the acceleration.

    What does this have to do with religion, you ask?

    Well, most of these people were interested in the heavens because they were, well, the heavens. To a large extent, the ancient world saw the night sky as Heaven.

    Ptolemy used perfect circles to describe the motion of the planets because the gods wouldn’t use anything imperfect to build the universe. (He also said he used perfect circles because it was more beautiful, which is interesting. I’ll say why in a moment.)

    It was shocking to the Catholic church that Galileo would say that the Earth moved, and the ellipses of Kepler and Copernicus were quite shocking as well.

    Yet Einstein said that we put the Sun at the middle and used ellipses to describe the planets’ motion because _it’s more beautiful_.

    What happens to the ancient concept of Heaven when Neil Armstrong steps on a Heavenly Body?

    Somewhere in between Ptolemy and Armstrong, we ceased being ancients and became modern. Somewhere in there, the heaves retreated…because we could reach them, and there wasn’t anything there except airless desert.

    We reach out to the heavens because we’re still searching for them. Some of us see salvation for what would otherwise be the inevitable destruction of our race, others see big rockets that are amazing engineering feats, some of us want to be on the bridge when the Captain says “engage”.

    Some of us want to explore the final frontier, some of us want reassurance that we’re not alone, others want to make a buck.

    There isn’t anything left on the Earth that has such limitless potential for our imagination, whether we be imagining Heaven or hell, profit or loss, success or failure, companionship or the lack thereof.

    Those who do not find religion somewhere in there are simply unimaginative.

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  4. Steven says:

    Sir: I encountered your blog while researching a program for a DARPA program I am supporting, the 100 Year Star Ship Study. If this is already familiar to you, please forgive the redundancy.

    The 100 Year Starship Study seeks to begin the ambitious journey of getting humans engaged in long duration space exploration. More information can be found at the web site: http://www.100YSS.org

    The 100YSS project is having a public symposium September 30th – October 2. One of the 7 tracks is the religious and philosophical considerations in interstellar space exploration. A call for abstracts was issued early this month with a deadline of July 8th.

    I think you may find the program of interest.

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    • launiusr says:

      Thanks for your note. I have read about this study and I’m quite interested in it. I might be a great opportunity to try out some of my ideas at this conference. I’ll check the web site about it. Thanks, Roger Launius

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  5. Pingback: Science Times – Daily Science News | Science Times – Information of Innovation Earth's backup: Sending religious texts to the moon » Science Times - Daily Science News | Science Times - Information of Innovation

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