Wednesday’s Book Review: “To Touch the Face of God: Religion and the American Space Program, 1957-1975”

to-touch-the-face-of-god-the-sacred-the-profane-and-the-american-space-program-1957-1975To Touch the Face of God: Religion and the American Space Program, 1957-1975. By Kendrick Oliver. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

There is something ethereal in the enterprise of spaceflight. Oliver Kendrick’s To Touch the Face of God: The Sacred, the Profane, and the American Space Program, 1957-1975 makes the sublime its central theme of investigation. This is important, I believe, because it is an underappreciated aspect of the ideology of human spaceflight. While historians have expended great effort to understand the influence of the Cold War in explaining the United States’ embarkation in the difficult task of exploring space with humans, we have done little more than tangentially recognize that there seems to be something more to the support for human spaceflight than just practicality and Realpolitik.

There may be what I would call a deeply religious quality to advocacy for the investment in and support for human space exploration, lending to the endeavor a “higher purpose” that helps to explain both the generous nature of the actual investment and the ultimate unwillingness of Americans to eviscerate space budgets. Accordingly, I believe that human spaceflight may be viewed as something akin to a religion with similar attributes to those present in religious belief systems.

In To Touch the Face of God Oliver lays out a powerful connection between religion—both the expression of a traditional Christian faith among the astronauts and the search for the sacred in the broader way—and the very secular, very scientific, very modern American space program. At some level he agrees with the Oriana Fallaci argument that a rocket launch is a blasphemous act, one in which humans seek to become gods.

Alternatively, Norman Mailer observed along with Oliver that spaceflight was just as much about communing with gods as anything else. Mailer experienced what he considered the full transcendental nature of this experience during a Saturn V launch. He gushed, it seemed “like a ball of fire, like a new sun mounting the sky, a flame elevating itself,” and that finally humanity “now had something with which to speak to God.” Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury put this same experience more eloquently in a fashion reminiscent of a jeremiad: “Too many of us have lost the passion and emotion of the remarkable things we’ve done in space. Let us not tear up the future, but rather again heed the creative metaphors that render space travel a religious experience. When the blast of a rocket launch slams you against the wall and all the rust is shaken off your body, you will hear the great shout of the universe and the joyful crying of people who have been changed by what they’ve seen.”

Oliver systematizes these observations and applies the experience of the ethereal to the space program in an explicit analysis of everything from rocket launches to lunar landings. He insists that there seems to be something about human spaceflight that is consonant with sacred purpose. It simultaneously reveals the sacred and the secular, the modern and the mediaeval, the obscene and the consecrated. He believes the dualities might have defined the space age itself. In such an observation, Oliver moves the discussion of the exploration of space during that early “heroic” age in a new direction that offers fascinating possibilities for future investigation.

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2 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “To Touch the Face of God: Religion and the American Space Program, 1957-1975”

  1. As an agnostic, I take great issue with arguments like Orian Fallaci’s that “a rocket launch is a blasphemous act, one in which humans seek to become gods”.

    Arguments such as this, have been proposed even before the advent of the Space Age. In a foundamental and deep level, their root can be traced back to the notion of the ‘original sin’, that equals the pursuit of knowledge with blasphemy and sin against God, leading to the ‘fall of Man’. If the pursuit of knowledge per se is considered such an act of sin in the Christian doctrine, then I guess every single scientific advancement and understnading throughout the history of humanity that has enabled modern civilisation, must be considered as such, as well.

    It is really funny that foundamentalists that embrace such ideas, enjoy the technology that science has enabled. And this technology was brought forth by a pursuit of knowledge, which to such foundamentalists is such an act of sin against God.

    This type of thinking is not only counterproductive to humanity’s progress as a whole, but really dangerous to its long-term survival as well. If the launch of a rocket can be considered such a ‘blasphemous act’ for many, let as regress as a civilisation and turn our backs to the future. Let us dwell in misery and superstition. I guess that can better guarantee our future as a spieces..


  2. David DeFelice says:

    Thanks for the review. I’ll take the Christian counterpoint that there have been and are many Christian scientists who advocate(d) for exploration of creation in response to the awe and wonder of God’s handiwork. (See: List of Christian thinkers in science I guess I’ll have to read the book for quotes and citations, but I have never heard a person of faith challenge rocket launches or space exploration as an affront to God or as trying to elevate humanity in a spiritual way (becoming gods). An accurate understanding of Judeo-Christian Scripture shows an embracing of knowledge: Proverbs 1:7 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.”


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