For decades, outer space has been described by U.S. leaders as the final frontier, and so it has been infused with the characteristics that are often said to have defined other frontiers in American history: wilderness, lawlessness, unknowable perils but ample opportunity, and the stubborn, pioneering will to conquer it all. “We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people,” John F. Kennedy said in 1962, as he declared that the United States would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade.
Then there was Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1967, two years before the country followed through on that plan:
We are all the descendants of those voyagers who found and settled the New World … Today we stand here at the gateway to another and a more glorious New World … We must be the space pioneers who lead the way to the stars.
And George H. W. Bush, in 1989:
Why the moon? Why Mars? Because it is humanity’s destiny to strive, to seek, to find. And because it is America’s destiny to lead. From the voyages of Columbus to the Oregon Trail to the journey to the moon itself, history proves that we have never lost by pressing the limits of our frontiers.
And George W. Bush, in 2004:
Two centuries ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left St. Louis to explore the new lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. They made that journey in the spirit of discovery, to learn the potential of vast new territory, and to chart a way for others to follow. America has ventured forth into space for the same reasons.
This kind of language, the invocation of past conquests to promote future ones, persists to this day, and the current White House has described the aspirations of the American space program in similar terms. But it has added an extra layer to the rhetoric, courtesy of the vice president. Since the Trump administration was sworn in, Mike Pence has been the unofficial spokesperson for the U.S. space program, touring NASA centers and delivering remarks about the country’s ambitions on behalf of the president. Even now that NASA finally has an administrator—it took nearly 15 months after the inauguration to get a Donald Trump nominee into the job—Pence remains the headliner at space-related events.
And when Pence speaks of space exploration, he speaks not only of the frontier, but of faith. His speeches sometimes sound more like sermons.
Here Pence was at the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council, in October of last year:
As President Trump has said, in his words, “It is America’s destiny to be the leader amongst nations on our adventure into the great unknown.” And today we begin the latest chapter of that adventure. But as we embark, let us have faith. Faith that, as the Old Book teaches us that if we rise to the heavens, He will be there.
And then, in April of this year, at a gathering of space-industry professionals:
And as we renew our commitment to lead, let’s go with confidence and let’s go with faith—the faith that we do not go alone. For as millions of Americans have believed throughout the long and storied history of this nation of pioneers, I believe, as well, there is nowhere we can go from His spirit; that if we rise on the wings of the dawn, settle on the far side of the sea, even if we go up to the heavens, even there His hand will guide us, and His right hand will hold us fast.
And earlier this month, at a press conference about Trump’s proposed Space Force:
Just as generations of Americans have carried those who have taken to the skies in the defense of freedom borne upon their prayers, I want to assure all of you, who will be called to this enterprise, that you can be confident. You can be confident that you will go with the prayers of millions of Americans who will claim on your behalf, as generations have claimed before, those ancient words, that if you “rise on the wings of the dawn, if [you] settle on the far side of the sea,” even if you go up to the heavens, “even there His hand will guide [you], His right hand will hold [you] fast.” And He will hold fast this great nation in the great beyond.
No leader before Pence has injected this much religious rhetoric into speeches about the space program, according to space historians. Which makes sense, since Pence is an Irish Catholic turned evangelical Christian, and outspokenly so. Pence has a long record of presenting his political beliefs in the context of his religious ones; even before he was elected to any office, Pence liked to say he was “a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” As a congressman, he cited scripture to explain his votes and prayed with his staffers.
It should have come as no surprise that Pence would bring the same style to his role as the Trump-appointed cheerleader for the space program. “Trump is giving Pence tasks, whether he wants them or not,” says Joshua Ambrosius, a political-science professor at the University of Dayton who studies the confluence of space travel and religion. “But then he’s making them his own and using the kinds of language he would use in other areas.” Ad astra, amen.
Pence uses fairly generic terms in his references to biblical passages, Ambrosius says. “He doesn’t refer specifically to Christian concepts; he says, If we rise to the heavens, He will be there, the old book, the ancient words, his spirit,” he says. “He’s alluding to things that could also fit with the American civil-religious tradition, and that is the In God we trust, one nation under God—the language in our founding documents.”
A tinge of gospel is not to everyone’s taste, of course, and Pence’s remarks risk alienating members of the NASA community and others who do not share his beliefs. Indeed, Pence’s speeches have prompted grumbling from those who say overt religious references have no place in policy, especially NASA policy. “Yes, space is wondrous and brings out romantic and transcendent elements in people’s thinking, but not necessarily linked to Orthodox Christian doctrine,” says John Logsdon, a space historian and a former director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “How would a Buddhist or a Muslim react to this particular language?”
But religion and the cosmos, two seemingly disparate realms, have long been intertwined. First, by the ancients whose religious beliefs often sought to explain strange occurrences in the sky, and more recently, by the “Cosmists” of the early-20th century, who believed venturing beyond Earth to conquer space was a necessary Christian undertaking. Religious tradition was there at NASA during its very inception in the 1960s, hidden in the lining of the country’s wild plans to go to the moon.
The race to the moon unfolded in the shadow of several conflicts between the Americans and the Soviets, including their ideological differences. “When the United States was competing against the Soviet Union for domination of the skies, one of the strongest cultural contrasts between Americans and Soviets—one that was emphasized frequently in the U.S.—was that Americans were God-loving Christian people while the Soviets were ‘godless commies,’” explained Deana Weibel, a cultural anthropologist at Grand Valley State University who studies space travel and religious belief, in an essay at The Space Review last year. “This meant that space exploration became a competition between those who loved and feared God, and those who sought to defy God’s existence.”
On Christmas Eve in 1968, the Apollo 8 astronauts took turns reading from the Book of Genesis as their spacecraft rounded the moon. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” a crackly voice said over the radio at mission control. “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: And there was light.”
In his famous speech, Kennedy had asked for God’s blessing: “As we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” Buzz Aldrin, who followed him, brought a small plastic container of wine and a piece of bread, and actually took Communion on the moon. The stunning success of the landing strengthened the notion that the United States was favored by God over other would-be spacefaring nations, Weibel says.
“It was not clear for a long time who was going to do it,” she says. “If you see it as Team Atheist and Team God, and Team God wins, what does that tell you from their perspective?”
Weibel says Pence’s remarks remind her of the language used by evangelical astronauts, a small but passionate group of people for whom spaceflight had an intense spiritual impact. Jim Irwin, the late Apollo astronaut, became an outspoken evangelical Christian after his lunar mission in 1971. In his memoir, Irwin wrote that he felt God was with him during his mission, like when he prayed for help with a mechanical problem instead of contacting mission control in Houston, and the solution came to him right after.
Jeffrey Williams, who flew to the International Space Station four times, has spoken similarly of sensing God’s presence in space. He also wrote of the experience of seeing Earth at a distance, as God would. “In order to give you a glimpse of the wonders of God’s creation from this vantage point that I’m talking about, I need to give you a perspective of what the vantage point is,” Williams told a Christian radio program in 2011. “So imagine yourself on the International Space Station, traveling 17,500 miles an hour, orbits the Earth every 90 minutes … Imagine yourself going outside perhaps once in a while and hanging on to the outside and viewing God’s creation, we call Earth, down below.”
Most of the evangelical astronauts emerged from the Apollo and space-shuttle eras, Weibel says. In the decades following the moon landing and first shuttle flights, the rhetoric around space exploration that had dominated during the Cold War began to fade. The mission shifted away from national defense and toward scientific discovery. Weibel says younger astronauts she has interviewed are less likely to invoke their predecessor’s convictions about the future of American space travel. “Part of it is more recent astronauts have had to cooperate with the Russians,” she says. “You have crews on the ISS now that are multinational. For the Americans involved in that, they’re not under the sway of this idea of American exceptionalism.”
Eventually, even Aldrin had second thoughts about partaking in a Christian tradition on the moon. “Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion,” Aldrin wrote in his 2009 memoir. “Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind—be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists.”
For Pence, there’s a small twist. The vice president comes from a community that cares little about space travel, according to a 2014 study by Ambrosius, the University of Dayton professor, based on data from surveys that gauged knowledge, interest, and support for space exploration among different religious groups. Ambrosius found that evangelicals are the least knowledgeable, interested, and supportive of space-exploration efforts, compared to Catholics, Protestants, Jews, those of Eastern religions, and those with no religion.
However, Ambrosius did find one measure on which evangelicals edged out the other groups: support for space nationalism. In other words, evangelicals may be likely to view space exploration favorably if it is framed as something essential for a successful country. Pence’s oratory approach to space exploration may seem out of place, and even out of step with his own president, who has been known to poke fun at Pence for his frequent praying. But when Pence pairs that faith with a hint of nationalism, it’s right on message.