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.

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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?

"American space exploration is informed by ideas about westward expansion and manifest destiny, this sense that Americans are explorers and pioneers."
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. 

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"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. 

"Von Braun even worked with Walt Disney to produce Tommorowland in order to exhibit the promise of spaceflight"
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. 

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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.

"Another place you see this phenomenon is in the way we have made astronauts into saints."
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. 

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Ross Andersen is a senior editor at Aeon Magazine. He is based in California.

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