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James Irwin
Apollo astronaut Jim Irwin was one of several astronauts who had their evangelical beliefs reinforced by flying in space. (credit: NASA)

Space exploration as religious experience

Evangelical astronauts and the perception of God’s worldview

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In his 2015 and 2016 writings on the impact of religion on the future of humans in space, political scientist Joshua Ambrosius analyzed publically available research surveys that asked United States citizens about their religious beliefs and their attitudes about space exploration. Respondents included Catholics, evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Jews, followers of Eastern religions, and those espousing no religion. Based on the data in these surveys, Ambrosius concluded that of the different types of religions practiced in America that were surveyed, evangelical Protestants appeared to be the least likely to support American efforts toward space exploration and, in fact, the least likely to be interested in space exploration in general.

Although an interest in space exploration may be understood by some evangelicals as demonstrating a lack of faith, there do exist outliers for whom exploration of space is seen as reinforcing and stemming from religious faith.

Ambrosius argues that the findings demonstrate what he calls “space pessimism,” which he defines as “lower expectations of future events related to space.” One factor in this attitude stems from many evangelicals’ certainty that human life on planet Earth will be limited in terms of time, with, as an example, more evangelical Protestants believing that Jesus will return within 40 years than believing humans will walk on Mars in the same period. To illustrate this perspective, Ambrosius quotes famous creationist Ken Ham, who argues against space exploration, stating, “The search for extraterrestrial life is really driven by man’s rebellion against God in a desperate attempt to supposedly prove evolution!” Despite this view, Ambrosius concludes that if the American space program is to garner more support among the public in general, it needs to work harder in terms of outreach to American evangelicals, especially pastors, who, Ambrosius believes, have a strong influence over the beliefs of their flock.

Although an interest in space exploration may be understood by some evangelicals as demonstrating a lack of faith, there do exist outliers for whom exploration of space is seen as reinforcing and stemming from religious faith. Ambrosius has conducted interviews with a Bible study leader named Steve King, for example, who believes humanity’s future is in outer space, and that it is the destiny of human beings to colonize the far reaches of the universe, spreading God’s message. In my own research on space and religion, I have had the good fortune to interview an astronaut to whom I have referred in published work, following anthropological convention, by the pseudonym Tom Calvin. Tom is an American astronaut, now retired, who was most active with NASA during the 1970s and 1980s. Tom is a self-described evangelical and feels that human space exploration is something that God absolutely approves of, and that it is only through the exploration of God’s creation, including outer space, that humans can truly come to understand God.

When anthropologists attempt to study outer space as a human habitation (albeit an extremely challenging one) and examine the behavior of humans in space, including religious activities and rituals, we face a difficulty that we don’t face on Earth. Namely, the important anthropological technique of “participant-observation” is made almost impossible to do in outer space. NASA, for example, does not count a PhD in anthropology (or any of the social sciences) among the fields of study they will accept in applications for astronaut positions. (Archaeologists Justin Walsh and Alice Gorman are seeking to sidestep this through mining digital data from the ISS, however (Gannon 2017).) Moreover, any attempt to do ethnographic research as a participant-observer through private spaceflight would be extremely cost-prohibitive.

This means that some anthropologists (Valerie Olson (2010) is an example) have done fieldwork in NASA training sites, such as the NEEMO Undersea Laboratory; others, such as myself, have arranged to interview astronauts and others involved in space exploration; while still others, such as Debbora Battaglia (2012), have sometimes turned to the study of literature produced by astronauts, cosmonauts, and private space travelers as a source of what anthropologists call “emic” information, the cultural knowledge held by members of a particular society. The accumulation of information from different sources is often very helpful in putting together a complete picture, and one with more cultural content than is found in large surveys.

Books written by Apollo-era astronauts and others involved in NASA’s space program, in addition to data gleaned from interviews, demonstrate, for example, that the space agency is probably more religious in character than not. During the early part of the Space Race, 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 US—was that Americans were God-loving Christian people while the Soviets were “godless commies.” This meant that space exploration became a competition between those who loved and feared God, and those who sought to defy God’s existence. Seen from within this framework, Americans were bound to win.

Those evangelicals who have experienced space exploration first-hand seemed to have found it an experience that confirmed and reinforced their belief in God.

In one of my interviews with Tom Calvin, he discussed a famous quote from cosmonaut Gherman Titov, sometimes attributed to Yuri Gagarin. Tom said, “He was asked if he saw God and he said, ‘No, I didn’t see God in outer space,’ and John Glenn was reminded of this and John said, ‘My God is not so small that I would expect to see him in outer space!’ So that was the counter to that. So, yeah, that was a society that didn’t believe in God and they felt as though the cosmonauts were an authority who helped promote that negativism.” Tom has spoken openly in public speeches about American exceptionalism as part of what drove Americans to space and as what will be necessary for NASA to “rise again.” This view sees the United States as being especially favored by God and the success in our endeavors in outer space, such as the Moon landing, being the result.

Obviously not all of NASA’s astronauts have been Christian. There have been many exceptions, including Buddhist, Jewish, and Hindu astronauts who have all flown for the United States. Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell provides an example of a non-Christian astronaut who had an intense religious experience in space that led him to open an organization called the Institute for Noetic Sciences. The Institute’s website explains:

The term noetic sciences was first coined in 1973 when the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) was founded by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who two years earlier became the sixth man to walk on the moon. Ironically, it was the trip back home that Mitchell recalls most, during which he felt a profound sense of universal connectedness—what he later described as a samadhi experience. In Mitchell’s own words, “The presence of divinity became almost palpable, and I knew that life in the universe was not just an accident based on random processes. . . .The knowledge came to me directly” (“What are the Noetic Sciences?” 2015).

However, despite Mitchell’s unorthodox religious experience and despite Ambrosius’s work suggesting that evangelical faith is less compatible with space exploration than other faiths, those evangelicals who have experienced space exploration first-hand seemed to have found it an experience that confirmed and reinforced their belief in God.

One of the more famous evangelical astronauts was Apollo astronaut Jim Irwin who, after his Apollo 15 mission, became an outspoken advocate for Christianity and even spent many years searching for Noah’s Ark in the Turkish mountains. In his 1974 memoir, To Rule the Night: The Discovery Voyage of Astronaut Jim Irwin, he writes about experiences he had during his Moon mission that made him confident that God was with him. In one such example, Irwin discusses a mechanical problem he faced with a project on the lunar surface. He could have contacted Houston for help, but he decided instead to pray, and the solution came to him in a flash.

Irwin is praised on the website for the Institute for Creation Research. They quote his 1984 work More than Earthlings: An Astronaut’s Thoughts for Christ-Centered Living, which says, “I am now more than an earthling, because I have walked on the moon. Being on the moon had a profound spiritual impact upon my life. Before I entered space with the Apollo 15 mission in July 1971, I was a silent Christian, but I feel the Lord sent me to the moon so I could return to the earth and share his Son, Jesus Christ.”

In a similar way, evangelical astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams, who published a book of photographs taken from the International Space Station called The Work of His Hands: A View of God’s Creation from Space, writes about his sense of God’s presence and his joy in experiencing God’s creation from outside the boundaries of the Earth, seeing it in a way that may approximate God’s own perspective. Although evangelical Protestants with whom I have spoken, including Tom Calvin, are hesitant to consider space exploration as akin to pilgrimage (a concept they tend to associate with Islam and Catholicism), Williams’ description of seeing the Holy Land from orbit resonates with work done by anthropologist of pilgrimage and Holy Land tour guide Jackie Feldman, who discusses the importance of seeing the panorama of Jerusalem to the groups of Protestant pilgrims he guides.

Feldman writes, “The panoramic view is an expression of power... Protestants prefer vistas, panoramic views, and open spaces to enclosed shrines... 19th century Protestant pilgrims remained vertical: upright in their saddles, seeking the most extensive pictorial vista, the largest possible view.” He continues, “The distance from the site expresses and marks repulsion toward immersion in the Orient and sensuality of Catholic (and Orthodox) shrines and the ritual associated with them. Thus the outlook is a practice constituting the Protestant pilgrim as Western. Almost every Protestant pilgrimage to Jerusalem begins with an outlook from the Mount of Olives, and many sites visited offer mountaintop vistas” (Feldman 2007, 362).

With this image in mind, consider this quotation from astronaut Williams: “Among my favorite portions of the earth to observe was the Middle East. The significance of redemptive history recorded in the Bible was brought to mind when I could see, in a single panorama, the entire area in which it took place. All of that history – from Abraham to Moses to David, the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the subsequent journeys and work of the apostles in the spreading of the Gospel – was, in a sense, made visible in a fresh, tangible way when the biblical lands were in view out the window. I know I will never look at the maps in the back of my Bible the same way” (Williams 2010, 153).

While Feldman may be right that his Protestant pilgrims prefer to view the landscapes in the Bible from a distance, both as a show of power and a way to differentiate themselves from other Christian groups they may see as being more exotic or even “idolatrous,” evangelical astronauts like Williams, Irwin, and Tom Calvin, who experienced the most removed view currently possible for humans, may have other motives.

For Tom, whatever Ambrosius’s findings may be, Christians have a duty to go into space because God wants us to explore the universe and he wants us to understand as much as we can.

In my discussions with Tom, it has become very apparent that being in space has been a way for Tom to better understand God—to put himself in God’s shoes, if you will. In one of our interviews, Tom said, “You see yourself as a lot smaller part of this universe when you’re up there then when you’re down here… you can see all of the stars, more of ’em than you ever saw before, and realize that you’re a pretty small thing in a big place. And that somehow it still works together pretty harmoniously. So it’s not something that would have happened by chance, there must have been a master designer, master engineer, creator, manager, who makes this thing work. And so that’s the kind of reinforcement I guess you might say that I got from being there” (Weibel 2014, 251).

More recently, in a public talk, Tom expanded the skills God possesses, explaining that when he was in space he could see the “beautiful colors of the Earth” and knew that “the master painter painted them.” For the evangelical astronauts who have been in space and have chosen to write or speak about the experience, being able to see the Earth, and specific parts of the Earth, in a way no human had ever been able to do before aligned them with God. Before the space program, only God had seen the Earth from a significant distance, and now our technology has permitted certain select humans to share in that view.

The idea that certain humans have been given the rare opportunity to see the Earth from God’s perspective, and can thereby understand him better, might strike other Christian denominations (or other Abrahamic religions) as going a bit too far. After all, God is above man for a reason. God rules and humans are his subjects. But contemporary ethnographic research into evangelical Protestantism, such as that by Tanya Luhrmann, helps illuminate the perspective expressed by Tom Calvin. Luhrmann, describing the evangelical parish in Chicago where she conducted much of her research writes, “Our pastor explicitly encouraged us to experience God as a friend… He asked people to talk out loud about their human best friends, and then told us to think of God as like that, but better. He explained that many of us thought of God as distant and magnificent, but that God wanted to be intimate with each of us, as if he were a buddy. He explained that we should be familiar with God… that we should hang out with God” (Luhrmann 2012, 74).

Tom’s approach is very similar. In one of our interviews, talking about how seeing the Earth from space was like seeing the earth the way God does, he said, “And so just pretend for a moment you were God. And you’re up there and you’ve got this big wide angle lens and you see these people down here on planet Earth, one of several billion galaxies and there’s this little planet going around this mediocre star, and so here’s these three astronauts. They’re setting a record… If you were God looking at this whole universe, three guys just set a record for distance, and his eyes they haven’t even gone anywhere. And if you think of time from eternity to eternity like God does—we all think in our own terms, it’s a little arrogant to think that way—the guys up here for two months, what’s that with respect to eternity? … God thinks in a lot bigger terms than we do” (Weibel 2014, 253). By spending time in space, not only did Tom get a chance to see the earth in the way that God sees it, he got to share God’s joy in his own creation and know that God had, in him, someone else to see what God had made, appreciating God as everything from a “master engineer” to a “master painter”. More subtly, Tom was also given authority in some ways to speak as someone who had shared God’s perspective.

Not everyone who has been in space has the right take on it, however. I spoke to Tom about Edgar Mitchell, the aforementioned Apollo astronaut who had a samhadi experience in space. Tom had placed a flower on Mitchell’s memorial after he passed, and liked and respected him. However, when I commented to Tom that Mitchell had had his own spiritual experience in space, Tom’s eyes narrowed a bit and he remarked, “He said he did!” I must have looked surprised, because he followed with, “So I guess he did.” It was very clear, though, that in Mitchell’s case, Tom was skeptical.

Tom is not skeptical of his own experience. He knows his life’s path was chosen by God and that his experience in orbit gave him the opportunity to better understand the earth, the universe, and even time from God’s perspective. When I asked him about the conclusions of Ambrosius’s articles—that there is less support for space exploration among evangelical Protestants than among other religious groups—he asked why that would be true. I mentioned that more evangelicals in the surveys had thought Jesus would return within 40 years than thought humans would walk on Mars and he was dismissive: “No one knows the moment. That day will come unexpectedly.” Too many people think they know it all, he continued, recalling a pastor who had introduced him at a talk once by saying, “You know, there are people who believe there might be life elsewhere in the universe; I’m sure you don’t believe that!” Tom had to respectfully disagree.

Tom considered the idea that evangelical Christians just might not want to spend the money to conduct space exploration, but was very clear in his own opinion. For Tom, whatever Ambrosius’s findings may be, Christians have a duty to go into space because God wants us to explore the universe and he wants us to understand as much as we can. From this perspective, the more we understand space, the more we understand creation. And, to quote Tom, God is “really proud of his creation!” (Weibel 2014, 246). For evangelicals uninterested in space exploration, the future is limited and the time we have left is confined to Earth. For those evangelical outliers like Tom and astronauts like him, however, space exploration is about intimacy with God. God wants humanity to take to the heavens, and see creation on his scale; in this view, our future is far from limited.


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