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.
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
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.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
25 years ago, Roseanne Barr sparked national fury when she delivered an off-key rendition in San Diego. But the reasons behind outrage and praise for various interpretations have as much to do with politics as musical talent.
On July 25, 1990, the comedian Roseanne Barr stood in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium before a baseball game, grabbed a microphone behind home plate, and, with her shirttails hanging out and sleeves rolled up, barked out what many consider to be the most unpatriotic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in history. In a screech not unlike a fork being scratched across slate, Barr garbled her way through the lyrics, missed notes intentionally, and capped off the whole affair by grabbing her crotch and spitting on the ground. In her defense, those final gestures were meant as a parody of ballplayers’ behavior, but many of the 27,285 paying fans didn’t see it that way. What they saw was utter disrespect for the national anthem, and thus, the country. She had exercised her freedom of speech, so they exercised their right to boo her off the field.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
On Sunday, citizens will vote on how to move forward in the country's financial crisis.
On Sunday, the people of Greece will help decide the financial future of their country. With the nation already in default and capital controls in place to prevent a run on the banks, it’s up to Greece’s citizens to decide what road the country will take from here.
The referendum—which asks Greeks to either vote yes or no to a current proposal from Eurogroup leaders to extend financing to the deeply indebted country— was called for by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras amid meetings of Eurozone leaders as they tried to come up with a deal that would allow the country to avoid default. The call for a vote effectively ended discussions.
Opponents of thecurrent proposal from the Eurogroup feel that the austerity measures put forth by the Eurogroup’s leaders—which would includes things like tax hikes, pension cuts, and reductions in government jobs—are overly harsh and punitive, and could hurt Greeks more than help them.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
The retired general and former CIA director holds forth on the Middle East.
ASPEN, Colo.—Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus pioneered America’s approach to counterinsurgency, led the surge in Iraq, served as director of the CIA for a year, and was sentenced to two years probation for leaking classified information to his mistress. On Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he was interviewed by my colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, about subjects including efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program; the civil war in Syria; ISIS and the threat it poses to the United States; and the Iraq War.
Here are several noteworthy moments from their conversation, slightly condensed:
The Risks of Attacking Iran
Jeffrey Goldberg: So you believe that, under certain circumstances, President Obama would still use military force against Iran?
David Petraeus: I think he would, actually. I know we’ve had red lines that didn’t turn out to be red lines. ... I think this is a different issue, and I clearly recognize how the administration has sought to show that this is very, very different from other sort of off-the-cuff remarks.
Goldberg: How did the Obama administration stop Israel from attacking Iran? And do you think that if this deal does go south, that Israel would be back in the picture?
Petraeus: I don’t, actually. I think Israel is very cognizant of its limitations. ... The Israelis do not have anything that can crack this deeply buried enrichment site ... and if you cannot do that, you’re not going to set the program back very much. So is it truly worth it, then?
So that’s a huge limitation. It’s also publicly known that we have a 30,000-pound projectile that no one else has, that no one else can even carry. The Massive Ordinance Penetrator was under design for almost six years. ... If necessary, we can take out all these facilities and set them back a few years, depending on your assumptions.
But that’s another roll of the iron dice, as Bismarck used to say, and you never know when those dice are rolled what the outcome is going to be. You don’t know what risks could materialize for those who are in harm’s way.
You don’t know what the response could be by Iran.
There’s always the chance that there will be salvos at Israel, but what if they decide to go at the Gulf states, where we have facilities in every single one.
This is not something to be taken lightly, clearly.