May 31 2009

10 Spiritual Connections of the Human Exploration of Space

As we celebrate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first astronomical use of the telescope, we’re also reminded of his serious troubles with the Vatican regarding the theological implications of his observations.

Given the international focus on Galileo’s example, plus the fact that 94% of Americans believe in God or a Higher Power — see Gallup, 5/8/08 — and that such powerful symbols and belief systems operate on at least the subconscious level to influence our perceptions of physical reality —

It’s of particular interest now — in the spirit of Galileo — to consider 10 spiritual connections of the human exploration of space.

One of the most important photographs ever taken — Apollo 8’s Earth-rise from lunar orbit — continues to subconsciously encourage the spirit of human space exploration. Click apollo08_earthrise.jpg.

10. Galileo and the Spirit of Science: This is a special week in the often-turbulent 400 year history of Galileo-Vatican relations: The Niels Stensen Foundation, a Jesuit-run cultural center in Florence, Italy has assembled world-class experts this week (May 26-30, 2009) to re-examine the historical, philosophical, and theological aspects of the Galileo affair.

“For the first time after 400 years, members of the Vatican Observatory, the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Sciences Academy and many other Institutions, that were historically involved in the Galileo affair, are among the experts invited… (to show) how ‘recent scientific and historical research’ might alleviate the ‘tension and conflict’ still clouding the relationship between the church and science.”

Four hundred years ago Galileo actually set us on our course to space exploration and colonization via his telescopic observations of the Moon, Sun, and planets, and his famous experiments with falling bodies that were spectacularly verified in the vacuum of the Moon’s surface during Apollo 15 (see Video).

In particular, Galileo became the “Father of Modern Science” through his spirit of honest intellectual inquiry, and especially because of his insistence on the primacy of observation in the scientific process. He risked his life for these principles –courageously defying powerful authority figures in favor of observations and experimentation. As we approach the 2015 Maslow Window and contemplate human expansion into the cosmos and related science issues of global importance, we would do well to emulate Galileo’s example.

9. The Overview Effect: Frank White’s profound 1987 book has become the unofficial philosophy of human space exploration.

White believes that as we move into space we are creating “a series of new civilizations that are the next logical steps in the evolution of human society and human consciousness.” And in addition to our own expansion, we are “performing a vital function for the universe as a whole.”

All astronauts are profoundly affected by their trips into space but their destination also has a large impact, in fact Gene Cernan (Apollo 17) thinks there are two different space programs: Earth orbit and beyond. In Earth orbit, astronauts feel small compared to the stunningly beautiful Earth and are impressed by the lack of visible political boundaries and the interconnectedness of Earth’s systems. According to White, “The lunar astronaut sees the Earth as small and feels the awesome grandeur of the entire universe.” Michael Collins (Apollo 11) felt that “100,000 miles out” is a perspective that world leaders should experience. Gene Cernan (Apollo 17) had a religious experience while standing on the Moon; what he saw was “too much logic, too much purpose — it was just too beautiful to have happened by accident…”

White believes that the lunar astronaut “begins to sense that an underlying purpose may lie behind it all.” Comparing the symbolism of the famous Earth-rise picture taken from Moon orbit on Apollo 8 (December 1968) to the cross, White suggests that “To millions of Christians all over the planet, the cross is a sign of unity in spite of deep divisions of race, language, and political beliefs. Because symbols work at a subconscious level…it makes sense that this new symbol (lunar Earth-rise) might be having a quiet, though dramatic effect too.”

8. The Noetic Sciences of Apollo 14’s Edgar Mitchell: MIT Doctor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and former U.S. Navy test pilot, Mitchell was the lunar module pilot on the Apollo 14 mission to Fra Mauro along with Alan Shepard, the first American in space.

Famous for his interests in consciousness and paranormal phenomena, Mitchell conducted private ESP experiments with friends on Earth while returning from the Moon.

Mitchell also had a religious experience while returning from the Moon, “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.”

In 1973, he co-founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (Petaluma, CA) to generate interest and conduct research into extended human capacities (e.g., creativity, meditation), integral health and healing (e.g., mind-body medicine, placebo effects), and emerging worldviews (e.g., spiritual awareness, science of wisdom).

Mitchell’s synthesis of science and spirituality in the Institute of Noetic Sciences provides an impressive example of how personal experiences in space can powerfully expand consciousness. This trend should accelerate as we approach the 2015 Maslow Window and more space travelers — government as well as private — experience the cosmos first-hand.

7. New Earths and the Gaia Hypothesis: Planet Earth is the most complex, awe-inspiring system known in the Universe today. From its mysterious magnetic field – core connection, to its earthquake- and volcano-riddled drifting continents and oceans and its chaotic atmospheric and climate processes, as well as its finely-tuned cosmic connections (e.g. Sun, Moon, Jupiter), not to mention its stunning biosphere and the presence of the highest form of life known in the entire Universe: humans the Earth really stands out in the cosmos!

Because of Earth’s proximity, complexity, habitability, durability, and cyclic regularity, the Earth itself has always inspired wonder and even worship, and for some this continues today.

During the ebullient 1960s Maslow Window, a British scientist — James Lovelock –working with NASA on techniques to detect life on Mars, proposed the Gaia Hypothesis, named after the Greek goddess of the Earth. Lovelock sketched Gaia as “a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.” This controversial idea has been criticized by a variety of scientists including Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. For example, the “Strong Gaia” form of the model — where living systems make the environment more stable, for the purpose of enabling the flourishing of all life — has been criticized as being untestable and therefore unscientific. This speculative form of Gaia is adopted by some as a spiritual doctrine.

NASA’s interest in the Earth has been to study geological, geophysical, atmospheric, and space processes and to try to understand how they interact to produce Earth’s complex environment, including its changes (e.g., climate studies). More recently NASA has also focused on the discovery of planets orbiting nearby stars, with special interest in finding Earth-like worlds. The PlanetQuest site at JPL indicates that presently we know of 347 exosolar planets orbiting 293 stars, with a total of 0 known Earth-like planets; Kepler was recently launched to search for new Earths.

An even more robust scientific mission — the Terrestrial Planet Finder concept — is currently under study. In 2001, the National Research Council explained the motivation for and the high priority of finding Earth-like planets: “The discovery of life on another planet is potentially one of the most important scientific advances of this century, let alone this decade, and it would have enormous philosophical implications.” As we approach the 2015 Maslow Window, the detection and exploration of Earth-like planets and the search for extraterrestrial life — the two fundamental drivers of human expansion into the cosmos — will become even more riveting as raw human exploration passions, in the spirit of Apollo, begin to engulf the global public.

6. Astronauts as the Prophets of Space: According to comparative sociologist Fred L. Polak (The Image of the Future, 1961), writing during the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window, the Jewish prophets are the “Founding Fathers of Utopia” and bring renewed faith. They can foresee the future and respond to the challenge of the times.

Likewise, astronauts serve as uniquely credible messengers from space to the people. According to White, “Astronauts fit into the mythical subconscious archetypes of the gods and heroes of old…who perform feats of daring no one else is able or willing to do.” Because space is a unique, holistic experience, it cannot be totally expressed by words alone. Thus only astronauts can really communicate the space “truth” to others. Their implicit promise is of a utopian civilization among the stars.

5. Space as the Promised Land: In Genesis, God promises to give Canaan (The Promised Land) to the descendants of Abraham. As long as the Israelites keep the Covenant they can remain in peace and security.

According to former NASA historian Roger Launius (2005), the Apollo program has similar elements, including “articles of faith and a theology of salvation that allowed humanity to reach beyond Earth and populate the cosmos … The promise of a utopian Zion on a new world, coupled with immortality for the species resonates through every fiber of the space exploration community.”

Shortly after I joined General Dynamics in San Diego, Bill Strobl — who worked on EMPIRE in the early 1960s with Krafft Ehricke for NASA in Huntsville, and in the 1980s directed the GD Advanced Launch System (ALS) program — assured me that Wernher von Braun and the German rocket scientists fully intended to “open the planetary worlds to mankind,” and that even their routine mutual interactions consistently reflected that lofty purpose.

4. Raiders of the Lost Ark: According to biblical accounts, the Ark of the Covenant was a sacred container built at God’s direction to hold two tablets with the 10 Commandments (the Covenant). The Jews, and later the Gentiles, are promised the blessings of God as long as they honor the Covenant. The Ark’s is a powerful tool, as was demonstrated during the parting of the Jordan River and during the battle of Jericho.

The Space “covenant” is the promise of spectacular discovery and adventure in space, including the specific, powerful benefits flowing from new science and technology and the expectation of space colonization itself. In space exploration we control our own fate, although if we ignore space we cease to receive many of its key benefits. While space and God are certainly not synonymous, numerous biblical references to the sky or nonterrestrial topics (e.g., the “Kingdom of Heaven“; “My kingdom is not of this world.”) have created at least subconscious connections in many minds.

The Ark of the Covenant was the focus of the monumentally popular 1981 movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with Harrison Ford. This is an example of how knowledge of the Covenant and other prominent biblical themes is not limited to scholars or church members, but is now an integral aspect of popular culture. Thus it is clear why subconscious (and conscious) links between biblical concepts and space are sociologically powerful.

3. Messianic Expectations: Both Christians and Jews expect their Messiah to appear at some unpredictable time in the future and to establish his Kingdom on Earth. For example, traditional Judaism expects the Messiah’s activities on Earth to include an end to wickedness, sin and heresy, and a reward to the righteous.

Perhaps the most obvious space parallel is contact with intelligent extraterrestrial beings. ETs that visit Earth will be much more technologically advanced than we are, and their technologies will seem like magic. Most people believe they exist and that it’s only a matter of time until they arrive (or return) and dramatically change the course of human history.

ETs have been envisioned in a variety of ways. Astronomer Carl Sagan was particularly enthusiastic about the spectacular benefits that ET visits might bring, especially in the technology and science arenas; e.g., see his novel and movie “Contact.” On the other hand, UFO abduction accounts as recounted by Jacobs and others suggest a darker side; this view has reached popular culture through movies like “Fire in the Sky” (1993). “The Mothman Prophesies” (2002) and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (2008) — a movie and sequel apparently influenced by the long wave — also portray ETs as threatening.

Much more popular was Spielberg’s “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial“; released in 1982, it became the most successful movie ever up to that time. Although this ET didn’t share much about technology, he did become “the subject of analogies for Jesus.”

Indeed, as we approach the 2015 Maslow Window, when Moonbases, international competition in space, and the possibility of alien life, begin to take center stage again, the public may insist that all information about UFOs be revealed by government sources. As the 2015 economic boom elevates the public to higher Maslow hierarchy levels, the desire to explore and know the truth increases.

2. The Apocalyptic Writings: Throughout the Old and New Testaments, predictions are made of extreme disasters on Earth. For example, in Isaiah it is forecast that the Earth will be reduced to a desert (13:9); “What will you do…when from far off, destruction comes (10:3).

Revelation alludes to stunning celestial and terrestrial effects: “The stars of the sky fell onto the Earth…the sky disappeared like a scroll rolling up… (6:13); plus “There was a violent earthquake…the Sun went black…the Moon turned red as blood (6: 12-17).

From a 21st Century perspective, a few astrophysical effects suggest themselves. For example, former Livermore nuclear physicist Dr. John Hardy (1993) suggests that a large cosmic dust cloud colliding with the Solar System (including the Earth) and blocking sunlight could produce the solar and lunar effects. “Falling stars” suggest the cloud has a supply of meteors, and the large earthquake implies “a large asteroid. A massive system is required, if the crust of the Earth is to be disturbed.”

It’s interesting that last year scientists reported archeological evidence that the impact of a half mile-wide asteroid caused the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, as recorded in Genesis 19.

As we approach the 2015 Maslow Window, public attention is again — as it was one long wave ago in the 1950s just before Sputnik was launched and NASA was born — being attracted plans for large-scale human operations in space, including how to mitigate a potential atomic weapon-style disaster associated with an impact of a football field-size asteroid or comet. Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart has formed the B612 Foundation and is working with the United Nations and individual countries to draw international attention to the space impact threat as well as to begin discussions on how to globally coordinate planetary defense.

1. Ray Bradbury and the Eucharist: Celebrated novelist Ray Bradbury is explicit about space as a religious experience, “Too many of us have lost the passion and emotion of the remarkable things we’ve done in space. Let us not tear up the future, but rather again heed the creative metaphors that render space travel a religious experience…”

According to Launius (2005), Bradbury regards a space launch as a personally transformative experience. “Like the Eucharist, the ritual of the launch offers a recommitment to the endeavor and a symbolic cleansing of the communicant’s soul. The experience … is both thrilling and sanctifying.”

Equally importantly, Launius (2005) reminds us that “Apollo’s history has also been depicted as a missed opportunity for the next step in human evolution.” Indeed, Apollo can be thought of as an analog for Bradbury’s concept of the personally transformative space launch, where Apollo represents the transformative “launch” of humanity into space — which has faltered since then.

It’s intriguing that macroeconomic data and historical trends — over the last 200 years — point to the decade between 2015 and 2025 as the resurrection of the 1960s. Indeed, there is every reason to expect that the long-awaited 2015 Maslow Window will feature unprecedented space and technology spectaculars with a Camelot-like zeitgeist.

One response so far

One Response to “10 Spiritual Connections of the Human Exploration of Space”

  1. Matthewon 01 Jun 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Thanks for the thought provoking article. You weave the themes together nicely. I particularly like your inclusion of the Michael Collins quote “too much logic, too much purpose — it was just too beautiful to have happened by accident…” because the statement speaks from a larger point of view that can be arrived it by physical exploration (as Collins did), through a scientific understanding of the universal laws, or through a spiritual expansion of awareness as mystics have concluded for millenia. Thanks for sharing.

    Matthew at

    Hi Matthew,

    This is the first time I’ve done a post focused on spirituality, religion, and God and I’m glad you liked it. I’ve had readers react to this site by asking me questions about these topics, so I thought this might be a good way to start the discussion.

    BTW, I took a brief tour of your site and enjoyed it.

    Best regards…

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