In a recent Providence article called “The Political Theology of Space Exploration: Between Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” Mark Royce argues that we need to question our utopian language about the benefits of space exploration. He said the tendencies to characterize space exploration as the supreme manifestation of human rationality “were not sufficiently resisted at the time, nor are they properly understood today.”
What may come as a surprise to those of us who have learned about the great victory of America winning the space race is that the race was won amid critical bombardment on many of the same points Royce raises today about the money being spent and the rationale behind exploring Mars. I do find it interesting, however, that today’s “time of such profound domestic and international disorder, when… the very foundations of the liberal tradition are threatened with collapse,” bears a striking resemblance to the 1960s when the space race was in full bloom.
With the Cold War and Red Scare driving efforts to defeat communism, the US began playing catch-up to the Soviet Union after Sputnik revealed that the USSR’s rockets were bigger and more threatening than any in the US arsenal. Sputnik II followed a month later, and the next year the US finally launched Explorer I into orbit after some fiery failures.
In 1959 the Soviets focused their sights on the moon, putting three satellites into the moon’s atmosphere, taking pictures, and touching the surface. Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth in April 1961, followed a month later by Alan Shepard, who was in technology that couldn’t yet maintain an orbit. So John F. Kennedy went before Congress on May 25, 1961, asking for more efforts and finances to be put into the space program to get a man to the moon by the end of the decade. But were questions being asked about the appropriateness of these efforts in 1961, or as Royce seems to suggest, was the Red Scare and scientific utopian thinking forcing the hand of the government?
NASA’s press relations efforts varied with different directors. Initially, NASA was very controlling with the information it released. When things were going well they shared openly, but when problems occurred, the press struggled to get information from them. In Media, NASA, and America’s Quest for the Moon, Harlen Makemson shows that NASA feared bad press because it caused congressional purses to tighten and made the political will less accommodating to the space race. It was only in the latter part of the 1960s that openness with live audio or video of NASA missions became common.
If we look at one of the iconic magazines of the day, The Saturday Evening Post, we find evidence that reporters tended to be skeptics of the space efforts. The magazine was described as a “dominant force in middle-class culture,”[i] and though magazines were losing audience to TV, they were still a force in the 1960s. Life magazine boasted about their exclusive first-person accounts of all seven astronauts of Project Mercury, followed with similar profiles of the Apollo 11 astronauts years later. So while the public may remember the larger-than-life hero-worship of Life due to the ultimate success of the space efforts of NASA, The Saturday Evening Post was a thorn in the side of NASA and the government.
Many themes at the magazine opposed the space race. These included:
- The US is wasting too much financially
- Ongoing failures and disorganization in the space program negated any future success
- Space exploration was too dangerous and unnecessarily risked lives
- The US is so far behind it will never catch up
To counter this, both NASA and the Johnson administration countered with interviews and editorials for the magazine. In these they emphasized the scientific advancements that the space program would bring, their efforts to make space exploration as safe as possible to avoid undue risks, and the opportunity for multiple nations to work together in the name of peace.
Some of the writing labeled the space program a monstrous boondoggle and called the speedy pace to get to the moon a “crash program.”[ii] But President Lynden Johnson countered the boondoggle claim with an editorial for the Post that said, “We have reached for the stars above us without forgetting the slums here among us.”[iii] What was not said clearly then, nor in Royce’s article concerning the cost of space exploration (he noted $2.5 billion as the cost of the latest Mars rover), is that contrary to the claims that the US was “wasting billions in space,”[iv] every dollar in the program was spent on earth. The money was invested in research and development, paying engineers, funding reports and accounting, and supporting the mathematicians and analysts like those shown in the movie Hidden Figures.
But if we question the “political theology of space exploration,” we also need to question the same in relation to other types of exploration. When Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott, Richard Byrd, and others went to the Antarctic continent in the early 1900s, they engaged in the same level of risk, lavish expense, and what many perceived as a limited reward, as the space race required. In fact, Byrd’s second Antarctic expedition was in the midst of the depression years, another time when society was threatened with collapse. Couldn’t that money have been spent better on the poor or other societal needs?
The fact is many on the expedition needed jobs, and some, like Charles Murphy, the CBS announcer on the trip, took the job because his family needed money to spend back in New York. No money was spent in the Antarctic, either.
Turning to another aspect of space exploration suggests we question it theologically: Is reaching further and further into the unknowns of the world about support of a god of science or humanism? Surely for some people it was and is. In the Antarctic, Byrd’s men studied the biology, the aurora, radio waves, meteors, etc. Were these explorers seeking a religious experience—there is no evidence of that in Murphy’s diary or other published accounts.[v] Their most religious behaviors seemed to be celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In space, many have been more overt about the spiritual dimension of leaving the bonds of earth. The Apollo 8 crew read from the book of Genesis. The second man on the moon asked for radio silence and took communion after landing. An article on the Apollo 11 communion describes the scripture he read, the chalice that was used, and the annual remembrance communion services at Webster Presbyterian in Houston.[vi]
But why do we explore? Is there a spiritual or theological dimension? Dr. Hugh Ross, the astrophysicist founder of the organization Reasons to Believe, often talks about the two books that reveal God. The book of scripture, and the book of nature. As we explore beyond our limits—be that in new music composition, in faster machines, in healthier foods, in better economic systems, or in understanding things currently beyond our grasp, we are exercising our God-given creative abilities. We are reflecting the image of the Creator God, and we are seeking to read more of his book of nature.
In chapter 14 of Mark’s gospel, Jesus said, “The poor you will have with you always.” By extension, we can expect that times of profound domestic and international disorder we will have with us always too, especially now that communication and transportation have condensed time and space. While we deal with the present troubles, we must always reach for the stars. In fact, it is the hope in the future that helps us thrive in the present.
[i] John Tebbel & Mary Ellen Zuckerman. The Magazine in America 1741-1990. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 155-156.
[ii] Stuart H. Loory, “Are we wasting billions in space?” The Saturday Evening Post, 1963, p. 13.
[iii] Lynden B. Johnson, “The politics of the space age,” The Saturday Evening Post, 1964, p. 22.
[iv] Loory, “Are we wasting,” 1963, p. 13
[v] Charles J. V. Murphy, Unpublished personal diary, Gotlieb Archives, Boston University, 1934-35; Richard E. Byrd, Alone (New York, NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1938). Richard E. Byrd, Discovery: The story of the second Byrd Antarctic expedition (New York, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1935). Stephen D. Perry, “CBS’s long distance radio experiment: Broadcasting the Byrd Expedition from Little America,” Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 21(1), 2014.
[vi] Federer, William, “Apollo 11 moon landing & communion on the moon,” American Minute, July 20, 2020, Americanminute.com.