Our secular endeavor of space exploration is flush with religious observance. Why is that?
Before the launch this weekend of three human beings into the ether of space around the Earth, before they boarded their Soyuz spacecraft, and before the rockets were fired, precautions were taken. Not the humdrum checklists and redundancies of space exploration -- assessing the weather, the equipment, the math -- but a preparation with a more mystical dimension: the blessing, by a Russian Orthodox priest, of the spacecraft, as it sat on the launchpad on the Kazakh steppe.
The scene, as shown in NASA photographs such as the one above, presents a tableau that seems incongruent, but may just be fitting.
The discordance is obvious: Here we are, on the brink of a new expedition to space, a frontier of human exploration and research that is the capstone of our scientific achievement. "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," the rocket scientist Krafft Arnold Ehricke once said. "Above all, it touches on the philosophy of his very existence." His secular existence.
And yet here is a priest, outfitted in the finery of a centuries-old church, shaking holy water over the engines, invoking God's protection for a journey to near-earth orbit. That these two spheres of human creation co-exist is remarkable. That they interact, space agencies courting the sanction of Russian Orthodox Christianity, is strange.
For reasons both straightforward and opaque, the secular, scientific work of space exploration cannot shake religion, and over the last few decades of human space travel, astronauts of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith have taken their religious beliefs into orbit, praying out of duty, in awe, and for their safe return.
That latter reason -- risk -- is perhaps the most basic explanation for the religious appeals of space explorers. On the ground, people led by popes, presidents, and their own instincts pray for astronauts' safe deliverance. Is there any supplication more succinct than what astronaut Scott Carpenter radioed to John Glenn, as the rockets powered him off the ground? "Godspeed, John Glenn." The Book of Common Prayer includes astronauts in an optional line in its Prayer for Travelers: "For those who travel on land, on water, or in the air [or through outer space], let us pray to the Lord."
And of course, astronauts pray for their own safety. It's hard to imagine atheists in foxholes; it is at least as hard to imagine them in space shuttles. In his memoir, astronaut Mike Mullane recalled the night before launch, lying in bed wracked by fears. He checked his nightstand for a Bible and found that there wasn't one. But he writes, "I didn't need a Bible to talk to God. I prayed for my family. I prayed for myself. I prayed I wouldn't blow up and then I prayed harder that I wouldn't screw up."
But prayers for safety are basic. Astronauts' religious practice in space has played out in more beautiful and complicated ways. There is no more moving example of this than when the astronauts of Apollo 8 -- the first humans to orbit the moon and see the Earth rise over the moon's horizon -- read the first 10 verses of Genesis.
Here's the scene: It's Christmas Eve, 1968. The spaceship with three men on board had hurtled toward the moon for three days, and they have now finally entered the moon's orbit, a move requiring a maneuver so dicey that just a tiny mistake could have sent the men off into an unwieldy elliptical orbit or crashing to the moon's surface. But all went smoothly, and they are orbiting the moon. On their fourth pass (of 10), astronaut William Anders snaps the famous Earthrise shot that will appear in Life magazine. On their ninth orbit, they begin a broadcast down to Earth. Astronaut Frank Borman introduces the men of the mission, and, then, this:
"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the
face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the
waters and God said, 'Let there be light," Borman read.
And it was so.
Through this broadcast and this photograph, I think we can begin to taste the kind spiritual experience astronauts must have as they travel to distances, and perspectives, so few have known. As John Glenn said, "To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible. ... It just strengthens my faith. I wish there were words to describe what it's like."
This ultimate scientific endeavor does not answer the questions religion seeks to answer; it brings humans into a close encounter with their own smallness, the Earth's beauty, and the vastness of the cosmos. Faced with these truths, is it any wonder that some astronauts turn to religion? Some surely find comfort in the words of secular philosopher-scientists like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. But others will find that the ancient religions of Earth have some greater power, some deeper resonance, when they have traveled safely so far from their homes. Astronaut James Irwin put it this way: "As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God."