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.