The Holy Cosmos: The New Religion of Space Exploration
Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson are high priests, astronauts are like saints that ascend into heaven, and extraterrestrials are as gods -- benevolent, wise, and capable of manipulating space and time.
Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson are high priests, astronauts are like saints that ascend into heaven, and
extraterrestrials are as gods -- benevolent, wise, and capable of
manipulating space and time.
Think about how you feel when you see the Earth from space or the Apollo astronauts walking on the moon. These images are achievements of science, sure, but they also have a religious feel to them; they tug at something deeper than engineering, something sublime. When viewed as a whole, space exploration has a lot in common with religion. It offers us a salvation narrative, for instance, whereby we put our faith in technology in order to be delivered to new worlds. Its priests, figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson, extoll its virtues in what sound like sermons. In its iconography, astronauts are like saints that ascend into heaven and extraterrestrials are like gods---benevolent, kind, wise, capable of manipulating space and time.
This idea of seeing space exploration as a religion has a long history, dating back to the Russians of the early twentieth century, many of whom self-identified as "Cosmists." From there it migrated to German rocket scientists like Werner von Braun, who took his ideas about space travel to America after the Second World War. Americans were slow to warm to space exploration. They saw it as a fantasy, but that changed as Americans began to regard technology with a new reverence in the postwar period. Today Americans are the most fervent Cosmists on the planet, even if manned space exploration seems to have stalled for the time being.
Albert Harrison, a professor of psychology at U.C. Davis, has been working on the psychology of space exploration since the 1970's, when he did research for NASA about the psychological effects of long-term space travel. Harrison was kind enough to send me a chapter of his forthcoming book about Cosmism, and the complex psychological motivations that underlie space exploration. What follows is our conversation about the past, present and future of space exploration as a religious quest.
In what ways does Cosmism resemble a religion?
Harrison: Well, the roots of this extend back to antiquity in early notions of sky gods and that sort of thing; it's telling, for instance, that the polytheistic gods of yesteryear lent their names to planets. In the modern era, Cosmism is generally thought to have originated with early twentieth century Russians. There are a couple different ways that you see the religious aspects of Cosmism. One place you see it is in the tremendous faith that both Russians and Americans have in technology; specifically, the idea that technology can solve the problems of humanity, and that we need to leave Earth to create a better society, to find, in some sense, perfection in space. You see this idea over and over when space exploration is discussed, the idea that we can leave behind the problems that plague society here on Earth and we create these wonderful new societies in space. There's a general resemblance in this thinking to religious views of heaven, and in particular notions of salvation.
Russian Cosmism actually preceded the Bolshevik Revolution, which meant that the first instances of it were culturally intermingled with the Russian Orthodox Church, which may have lent it some of these religious overtones. You see this kind of messianic approach to space flight, with people touting this deliverance that awaits man in the cosmos. In the twenties, Russian Cosmists talked a great deal about redeeming deceased individuals in space by reassembling the atoms of their bodies, bringing them back to life and letting them enjoy the "ideal society" of the Bolsheviks.
Now if you skip forward to SETI, which I conceive of as a part of space exploration, though it's certainly exploration at a distance, you find that it's premised on this view that any alien civilization capable of persisting long enough to make themselves evident to other civilizations will have passed through a bottleneck of technological adolescence, and as a result they're going to be very old and wise and almost godlike. There's a guy named Ted Peters who has done some great work on religious symbolism in SETI. He argues that it's pure mythology, this idea that these beings exist, that they're out there and they're smarter than us, and that they're good-natured and they're going to help us. From his point of view, it has all the markings of a religious myth. This religious, godlike aspect of extraterrestrials is particularly evident in the culture surrounding UFOs, especially in the 1950's and 60's.
You open your chapter on Cosmism with a quote from the rocket scientist Krafft Arnold Ehricke, where he says "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. Above all, it touches on the philosophy of his very existence." What do you take from that quote?
Harrison: I actually came across that quote in a paper by Marsha Freeman, who has done a lot of great work in the anthropology of space exploration. There's this recurring idea in the literature of space exploration, the idea that we can realize our human potential in space---with the implication that staying here on Earth would be to stagnating in some sense. Space, in this line of thinking, is a kind of ultimate challenge for the intellect and capacities of mankind. This idea of self-actualization, and of exercising your potential, was very popular in humanistic psychology during the time when some of the threads of Cosmism were coming together.
You point out is that although we tend to view space travel as an activity that transcends borders, we also see it as something distinctly shaped by national identity. Why is that?
Harrison: Well, one reason is that it takes a particular society to sponsor a space mission. Space exploration is pursued on a national scale, and so as a result you see that it can have these nationalistic overtones.
If you look at the way Americans think about space, you see different ideas at play, than those that motivated Russian Cosmists. American space exploration is informed by ideas about westward expansion and manifest destiny, this sense that Americans are explorers and pioneers. We put a lot of emphasis on the individual, on individual initiative and accomplishment, on freedom and democracy---these are the kinds of things that come out when we talk about our ideals, and they're reflected in our ideas about space exploration.
Russia is very different; going back to the Czarist era, Imperial Russia was quite large and successful and expansionist, but after the Bolshevik Revolution the Russian Cosmists looked even further----they hoped to spread their revolution around the world and then eventually out into space, uniting everyone under a common political framework.
"Our triumph in space is the hymn to Soviet country"
You identify Russian Cosmism as the first example of this kind of thinking. I wonder why Cosmism would have started in Russia and not the British Empire, given that you had institutions like the Royal Society there.
Harrison: That's really interesting; I haven't looked at it from that specific angle. From what I can tell about early Russian Cosmism, it seems to have come on through the spread of literacy, through a reading revolution so to speak. There was interest in trying to elevate the thinking of people in Russia, including people of humble origins and means, and so in the late 19th century, popularizers of space started appearing in Russian culture, early Carl Sagan types, and they found fertile ground because through literacy the population had become interested in a lot of different things---in astronomy, in the natural sciences, physics and chemistry and so forth.
The real pioneer of Russian Cosmism was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who had come up with some seriously good ideas about rockets and space travel---he was kind of the Russian equivalent of Robert Goddard. Tsiolkovsky had well-developed ideas about what it might be like to actually ride in a rocket and go to the moon in terms of microgravity and weightlessness and things like that. Also, you have to remember that the Russians of the twenties weren't yet completely sealed off culturally, and so they had heard about Robert Goddard and Herman Oberth, the German rocket pioneer, and that stoked their enthusiasm as well.
From the point of view of the Soviet state, there was a great desire to bring science to the masses, partly in order to establish Russian superiority in science in technology, but also as a way of modernizing Russia at a time when huge amounts of people were leaving farms for cities. The state even sponsored these special exhibits with sleek rocket ships and eerie simulations of distant planetary surfaces---they would create a landscape like you might find on the Moon or on Mars, with lighting and effects in order to make it seem real, and then you could walk through it.
After the Russians, you pick up the thread of Cosmism with the Germans, particularly German rocket scientists like Werner von Braun. Why did Cosmism bloom so effortlessly in German culture during the 30's?
Harrison: That was due to the strenuous efforts of a number of German scientists who were fascinated by rocketry; they went way out of their way to generate publicity by infiltrating the arts and music, and by forming rocket clubs and that sort of thing. They would write a lot, and try to have their ideas included in books and movies. Eventually they made a deal with the German government, and became associated with the military. Interestingly a number of the German rocket scientists were interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
When you get into the Nazi era, some of that interest seemed to wane---I'm not sure if Nazi Germany had much interest in using rockets to go to space. A lot of people considered it crazy and economically wasteful to try to go into orbit, or go to the moon, and of course the Nazis eventually had their hands full with other things.
You identify the "von Braun paradigm" as the vision of long-term space exploration set out by Werner von Braun. What is that paradigm and why does it remain so influential in our thinking about space today?
Harrison: The von Braun paradigm was set in the 1950's, and the basic idea was that space exploration would follow a logical sequence, beginning with suborbital flights, then orbital flights, and then the Moon and Mars. And for a while this paradigm looked pretty successful---we did have suborbital flights, then orbital flights, and we got to the moon pretty quickly afterwards. If you look at the discussions that followed, and the discussions today, you can still see this paradigm at work; people say we should go back to the moon, or on to Mars.
A lot of the success of this paradigm reflects von Braun's energy and insight and personability; he went out and mounted this massive campaign in the public media to get Americans interested in space. They did it through books, but also through magazine articles; they would recruit high quality artists to do artistic renditions showing these realistic spacecraft on the Moon and on Mars. Von Braun even worked with Walt Disney to produce Tommorowland in order to exhibit the promise of spaceflight, and he did a lot of straightforward lobbying, talking to politicians and so forth. One thing to remember about these rocket scientists like von Braun, Oberth and Ehricke is that they were renaissance men; they read widely in philosophy and religion and a variety of other topics, and they worked very hard to become good American citizens and to get along with neighbors, and as a result they were able to convince people that a lot could be accomplished in space.
But the predictive power of von Braun's paradigm didn't last. We haven't gone back to the Moon, or to Mars. My father's generation had an old saying "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations," the idea being that if you were a blue collar worker who worked your way up the ladder, from mechanic to CEO let's say, it wouldn't last. You might be fine, you might leave some money to your kids, but they wouldn't be as responsible and motivated and so the generation that followed them would be back on the shop floor. And you see the same thing with space exploration---low Earth orbit to low Earth orbit in less than three generations.
An artist's rendering of a Mars base (NASA)
You note that, apart from the early work of Robert Goddard, space travel was considered a fantasy in America in the 1920's and 1930's. Why was American Cosmism so slow to take off?
Harrison: Well, for one, Goddard did a lot of his work in secret; he was very worried about patents and things like that. But the other thing you see is the rise of science fiction during that era, with comic books and newspapers and movies, and these actually made it harder for Americans to imagine space flight in the near term. There would be these artists' renditions that were very hard to take seriously. I'll give you an example: if you look at a lot of the drawings of rocket ships from the 1930's, what you'll see is something that looks like an airplane fuselage, except with windows all along the sides, as though the whole thing was a cabin. But where does the propellant come from? Comics like Flash Gordon went even further towards reinforcing the idea that this was fantasy or fiction, not reality.
Things changed during the Second World War. There was this rapid advancement in technology, with amazing developments like the atomic bomb and the V2. After the war people felt that we were starting afresh, that it was a brave now world---there was a sense that these technological fantasies could now be taken seriously and that led to new expectations for what science and technology could accomplish, which rendered the culture more hospitable to the idea of space travel. And then in the late 40's and early 50's the German rocket scientists really got to work in trying to win the American imagination.
How has American Cosmism been informed by broad cultural ideas about America, particularly the popular conception if its destiny?
Harrison: As I said before ideas like frontierism and manifest destiny were very influential, but also the idea of American Exceptionalism; the idea that we're special or different, and that it's up to us to take a leading role in world politics, and that it's up to us to set an example---space is of course a prime arena for this sort of thing. Again the imagery used was very important; the Americans that were supportive of space exploration were encouraged by these pictures that made it look very doable, whereas in reality some of these objectives weren't doable, or if they were they were extraordinarily expensive. NASA always released these fantastic artist's renditions, and it still does; there are great images on the web, convincing and awe-inspiring images of Moon bases and Mars bases and future spacecraft, things like that. The imagery surrounding the space station is especially interesting. The artist's depicted this large, clean, comfortable futuristic space station, whereas the actual space station is this cramped kind of place with wires and hoses running this way and that way. When the reality doesn't keep up with the imagination, people can lose interest.
A similar disconnect caused Russian Cosmism to lose a lot of support in the 20's; people didn't understand that these things were still far off, they thought that rockets would be going to the moon within just a few years.
You argue that space advocacy groups have taken up the mantle of American Cosmism in recent years---which organizations are the most emblematic of this effort?
Harrison: Well, what's interesting is how much the von Braun paradigm has driven the vision of these various space advocacy groups. There is a serious emphasis on Mars, for instance. The NASA Space Society is one example; the Frontier Foundation is another; and then you have organizations like the Mars Society, which is really quite rigorous---they put people through realistic Mars simulations in the desert to teach them how to accomplish the kinds of tasks that would be useful to a Mars expedition. You even see this in the government; every U.S. President that has articulated a "new" vision for space exploration has done so according to the terms of the von Braun paradigm: first, back to the Moon, and then on to Mars.
There have been some changes, especially with the shift to the private sector; it used to be that people thought that only the government could bring these things about. But overall, the ideas of the 1950's still propel a lot of this activity. Roger Launius, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, has written a lot about this, and he's argued that the von Braun paradigm doesn't really work anymore, because we're not getting results with it. We have to come up with a new vision for space exploration and it has to be one that doesn't depend upon humans going out there and doing all of the work. An ideal vision would involve a mix of optical and radio astronomy along with robotic missions, probes and flyby's and that sort of thing, a more modest role for humans in space, and then, finally, a new kind of probe---probes with human-level intelligence. A mix like that would have a much better chance of reanimating the space program.
What are the main documents or myths of Cosmism? Does it have anything we might recognize as scriptures? I'm thinking of something like the film Contact.
Harrison: Contact is a good example; if you look at it you see that the beings, the extraterrestrials it depicts, are superior to us. They have godlike properties even if we don't call them gods, despite the fact that they're benevolent and they can manipulate space and time and so forth. When you look deeper you see that Jodie Foster's character in Contact has this transcendental experience, and it has all the hallmarks of a religious epiphany; she even interacts with her deceased father at one point, much in the way that religious myths usually involve a reunion with dead relatives.
Another place you see this phenomenon is in the way we have made astronauts into saints. We see them as these icons that ascend into heaven, and we're loath to admit that they might have imperfections--- you especially saw this during the Apollo era. They were cultural exemplars and to some extent they still are.
It seems to me that over the past several years Neil deGrasse Tyson has become the most popular, high profile advocate of space exploration. Do you consider him to be a kind of high priest of American Cosmism?
Harrison: I'm not sure I'd use that term, partly because I worry about labeling specific individuals. I would say that there are people out there who are still preaching the gospel, the gospel that we should be moving into space because of these various benefits, etc. There are people who popularize this stuff; certainly Carl Sagan was one, Neil deGrasse Tyson is another, and then there are others who are less well known. One of the recurrent salvation themes you see with this group is the idea that space exploration will solve all of our problems, especially through the various technologies it will yield. Those are some of the hallmarks of Cosmism as I conceive of it.
Last question---are you a Cosmist?
Harrison: Yes, I think so. For me, I see space as an opportunity, a tough opportunity, a challenging opportunity, but an opportunity nonetheless. I see SETI, both in its present and future manifestations, as a valuable activity, and I identify more and more with the cosmos the more I learn about it. We're going to have some neat technologies in the future and there are going to be some extraordinary discoveries as a result. If I had one magic wish, it would be to come back every five hundred years just to see how things are going for humanity out in space.
Some spoiler-y speculation on the final three episodes
With only three episodes left to go, Game of Thrones looks as though it once again has a lot of ground to cover before wrapping up a season. And so, for the curious and impatient among you, I’ll do my best to offer some quasi-informed speculation about what we might reasonably expect in these final weeks.
Note: I haven’t seen any of the remaining episodes, but I have read the books. The first five items below are spoiler-y, but the predictions in them do not derive from the George R. R. Martin novels. Rather, they’re guesswork based on what’s already happened on the show and on tidbits scattered across the web: a behind-the-scenes photo here, a close-read of a trailer there. (They could all, of course, turn out to be completely wrong.) The last four items, however, are based at least in part on events that take place in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, so non-book-readers may want to skip them. And obviously anyone, book-reader or not, who’d prefer to go into these final episodes without preconceptions—who doesn’t want to know at least some of what will (probably) happen—should stop reading now.
People look to Amy Schumer and her fellow jokers not just to make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And maybe even to help fix it.
This week, in a much-anticipated sketch on her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby in “the court of public opinion.” Schumer—her character, at any rate—played the role of the defense. “Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake here,” she argued to the jury. “If convicted, the next time you put on a rerun of The Cosby Show you may wince a little. Might feel a little pang. And none of us deserve that. We don’t deserve to feel that pang.”
Her conclusion? “We deserve to dance like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping.”
Ooof. This is the kind of thing that gets Inside Amy Schumer referred to as “the most feminist show on television,” and her act in general called, in a phrase that reveals as much about her craft as about Schumer herself, “comedy with a message.” But while Schumer’s work is operating at the vanguard of popular comedy, it’s also in line with the work being done by her fellow performers: jokes that tend to treat humor not just as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for making a point. Watch like no one’s raping.
We're all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.
In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it's haunting nonetheless.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?”he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
A challenge based on four words of the law amounts to little more than politics dressed up as a legal argument.
The Supreme Court is about to decide another blockbuster case arising under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The specific issue is whether federal-tax subsidies are available to people who purchase health insurance from exchanges operated by the federal government or instead whether such subsidies are available only from exchanges established by the states. A decision in favor of the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell would most likely cripple the ACA in over thirty states and deprive millions of people of health insurance.
That the Supreme Court even agreed to hear the case is the result of an improbable conjunction of events. Two committed opponents of the ACA seized upon four words of the law out of almost 1000 pages, and through their persistent and energetic work, created a powerful soundbite that appealed to die-hard opponents of the ACA. They then took that sound bite and dressed it up in highly technical arguments about statutory interpretation that might well change how healthcare is paid for in the United States. But the soundbite is inaccurate, and the technical window dressing shouldn’t obscure the fact that the argument is based on a faulty reading of the text of the entire law as well as a misleading account of how and why the law was passed. At bottom, King v. Burwell is a political challenge to the ACA dressed up in legal garb.
The former speaker of the House is charged with lying to federal agents and evading financial reporting requirements in what appears to be a case of blackmail.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been indicted on charges of lying to FBI agents and evading federal financial-reporting requirements.
Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was speaker from 1999 to 2007. BuzzFeed’s John Stanton, who first reported on the indictment, notes that there were several high-profile congressional scandals in those years. Illinois is also a notorious hotbed for political corruption, as Roland Burris, Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan, and Jesse Jackson Jr. can attest.
But reading between the lines of the indictment against Hastert suggests a darker story than political corruption. In or about 2010, according to the indictment, Hastert—a former high-school teacher and coach—met with an unnamed individual from Yorkville, Hastert’s hometown. They “discussed past misconduct by defendant against Individual A that had occurred years earlier.” In effect, Hastert fell victim to blackmail, the indictment alleges: He “agreed to provide Individual A $3.5 million in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.” (Since leaving the House, Hastert has become a highly paid lobbyist.)
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life. We've grown more adept at shaping these underground shelters and passages over the millennia, and today we dig for hundreds of reasons. We excavate to find both literal and cultural treasures, digging mines and unearthing archaeological discoveries. We use caverns for stable storage, for entertainment, and for an effective shelter from natural and man-made disasters. And as the planet's surface becomes ever more crowded, and national borders are closed, tunnels provide pathways for our vehicles and for smugglers of every kind. Collected below are more recent subterranean scenes from around the world.
To be far from home in a major, diverse metropolis such as New York or Los Angeles is one thing. But those who have landed in small cities across the Midwest face a whole other sort of isolation.
CINCINNATI—When they were deciding where to settle down and raise a family, Lorena Mora-Mowry, a lawyer from Venezuela, and her husband Paul, a mechanical engineer from California, performed extensive research. Based on reports they read in magazines and brochures, they decided that Cincinnati, with its low cost of living, access to arts and the outdoors, and strong schools, would be a good place to live. They moved here in 1995.
It was a difficult transition from (relatively) open-minded, Latino-heavy Southern California to Cincinnati, where just about everybody was either white or black, and where immigrants were a rarity. Mora-Mowry tried to speak to people in stores, but they could never understand her accent, and she hated the long, cold winters.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Can a political system be democratically legitimate without being democratic?
The flaws in China’s political system are obvious. The government doesn’t even make a pretense of holding national elections and punishes those who openly call for multiparty rule. The press is heavily censored and the Internet is blocked. Top leaders are unconstrained by the rule of law. Even more worrisome, repression has been ramped up since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, suggesting that the regime is increasingly worried about its legitimacy.
Some China experts—most recently David Shambaugh of George Washington University—interpret these ominous signs as evidence that the Chinese political system is on the verge of collapse. But such an outcome is highly unlikely in the near future. The Communist Party is firmly in power, its top leader is popular, and no political alternative currently claims widespread support. And what would happen if the Party’s power did indeed crumble? The most likely result, in my view, would be rule by a populist strongman backed by elements of the country’s security and military forces. The new ruler might seek to buttress his legitimacy by launching military adventures abroad. President Xi would look tame by comparison.
Our roundtable on "Mhysa," the 10th episode in the HBO show's third season.
Every week for the third season of HBO's fantasy series Game of Thrones, our roundtable of Ross Douthat (columnist, The New York Times), Spencer Kornhaber (entertainment editor, TheAtlantic.com), and Christopher Orr (senior editor and film critic, The Atlantic) will discuss the latest happenings in Westeros.
Orr: It seems only fair. After Arya's brutally aborted reunion with her family last week, tonight we were offered a few literal and metaphorical homecomings. In descending order of satisfaction: Sam and Jon find each other once again at Castle Black; Daenerys adopts a city's worth of new dependents; Davos is accepted back into Stannis's embrace about five minutes after the latter sentenced him to death; Jaime (or most of him) reunites with a less-than-entirely-ecstatic Cersei; and Theon (or at least his self-described "best part") is delivered to his dad in a box. Oh, and Tywin Lannister is restored to his rightful place as the man in Westeros on whose bad side you least want to be, king or no king. (Paying attention, Joffrey?)
We've been here before, of course, in both Seasons One and Two: The penultimate episode overturns the Game of Thrones playing board—Ned loses his head, the Lannisters turn the tide on the Blackwater—and the season finale picks up the remaining pieces.