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The Ascent of the Saints: Space Exploration

1997

The text, published in 1997, highlights unprecedented aspects of the 1960s US space race, revealing that much of the ideal push towards the "new frontier" was actually motivated by the religious spirit of many of its protagonists.  The reader can find here the documented proof of a serious religious sense, specifically Christian. Its strong points are the praise of God the Creator and the awareness of the human being created in His image and likeness, and his witness in the cosmos.

The army project for what would have been the world's first manned spaceflight –a suborbital flight on a ballistic trajectory using a modified Redstone rocket–was called Project Adam. (Also that spring, the ABMA began work on the Saturn booster, which would send men to the moon a decade later). This time the army project was lost in the shuffle to establish a new civilian space agency; the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) was created that summer. Before long, NASA had established its own first manned space mission, dubbed Project Mercury. From the start, however, Mercury was modeled upon Adam. NASA quickly worked out an agreement with the army for collaboration with Huntsville and for the use of the Redstone rocket as the Mercury launch vehicle. The first Mercury mission, Alan Shepard's suborbital flight of May 1961, was nearly identical to the one proposed in Project Adam. (Indeed, at Huntsville that mission was still informally referred to as Project Adam, with ABMA's official sanction). Because of the political delays, however, Mercury's maiden spaceflight came only after that of the world's first –by the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin–a month earlier. Thus what was probably the world's earliest –and, despite the political delays, ultimately successful–effort to put a man into space was called Adam.

As the biblical name chosen for this first heavenly ascent attests, religious inspiration, coupled with Cold War competition, fueled the manned-spaceflight effort. Unmanned space vehicles like Explorer, after all, might just as well have provided the scientific and surveillance capabilities sought through manned rockets, and with greater economy and efficiency (in manned efforts, much of the engineering effort and cost was dedicated just to keeping the astronauts alive). Why, then, send men into space? It was God's purpose, wrote von Braun (who named both Adam and Explorer), "to send his Son to the other worlds to bring the gospel to them." Von Braun had come to view spaceflight as a millennial "new beginning" for mankind, the second and final phase of his divinely ordained destiny. The astronaut, the mortal agent of this new "cosmic" era, was thus another Adam, conceived to extend the promise of redemption across the celestial sea.

"Only man," von Braun observed, echoing Kepler, "was burdened with being an image of God cast into the form of an animal," a being at once earthly and heavenly. "And only man has been bestowed with a soul which enables him to cope with the eternal." In 1959 –the proposed year of Adam's first flight–von Braun suggested an apocalyptic purpose for mankind's venture into space. "If man is Alpha and Omega, then it is profoundly important for religious reasons that he travel to other worlds, other galaxies; for it may be Man’s destiny to assure immortality, not only of his race but even of the life spark itself […] By the grace of God, we shall in this century successfully send man through space to the moon and to other planets on the first leg of his last and greatest journey […]” [1]

Like his counterparts in the nuclear-weapons business, von Braun had come to view his lethal missiles in millenarian terms. He labored to perfect long-range weapons-delivery systems (his Redstone was the first medium-range nuclear weapon and the first to detonate an atmospheric atomic weapon) and even extolled the virtues of space-based warfare (which "would offer the satellites' builders the most important tactical and strategic advantage in military history".) Nevertheless, at the same time he steadfastly maintained that the ultimate end of mankind's conquest of space was its own salvation. "Here then is space travel's most meaningful mission," he argued shortly after his arrival in Huntsville. "On that future day when our satellite vessels are circling Earth; when men manning an orbital station can view our planet against the star-studded blackness of infinity as but a planet among planets; on that day, I say, fratricidal war will be banished from the star an which we live [...] humanity will then be prepared to enter the second phase of its long, hitherto only Tellurian history-the cosmic age." [2]

The religious foundation for von Braun 's millenarianism was explicitly Christian. "When man, about 2000 years ago, was given the opportunity to know Jesus Christ, to know God who had decided to live for a while as man amongst fellow men, on this little planet," von Braun later wrote, "our world was turned upside down through the widespread witness of those who heard and understood Him. The same thing can happen again today ." [3]

Von Braun's religious convictions were confirmed, not contradicted, by his scientific and technological undertakings. Throughout his American career, he adamantly insisted that science and technology were compatible with, and essential to, the achievement of religious ends. "In this reaching of the new millennium through faith in the words of Jesus Christ, science can be a valuable tool rather than an impediment," he maintained. "It has frequently been stated that scientific enlightenment and religious beliefs are incompatible," he said in a commencement speech in 1958; "I consider it one of the greatest tragedies of our times that this equally stupid and dangerous error is so widely believed ." "Science and religion are not antagonists," he later argued. "On the contrary they are sisters. While science tries to learn more about the Creation, religion tries to better understand the Creator. Speaking for myself, I can only say that the grandeur of the cosmos serves only to confirm my belief in the certainty of a Creator." "Today, I am a Christian," he wrote to a correspondent. "Understanding the nature of creation provides a substantive basis for the faith by which we attempt to know the nature of the Creator. My experience with science, then, led me to God–it was as if I was putting a face on God. " [4]

Like so many of his faithful scientific forebears, von Braun held to a firm belief in immortality–"the continuity of our spiritual existence after death"–which was grounded upon the precedent of Christ's resurrection. "In our search to know God," he explained, "l have come to believe that the life of Jesus Christ should be the focus of our efforts and inspiration. The reality of this life and His resurrection is the hope of mankind." In this spirit, he supposed that "a human being is so much more than a physical body that withers and vanishes after it has been around for a number of years. It is inconceivable to me that there should not be something else for us after we have finished our earthly voyage." [5]

It can be claimed that Wernher von Braun was an opportunist who delivered death, if need be, in the name of, and in determined pursuit of, extraterrestrial transcendence. Thus, he became a rocket warrior for the Third Reich and, in the process, a Nazi Party member and SS officer. Thus, he later was the architect of the U.S. Army's long-range ballistic-missile arsenal and, in the process, a patriotic born-again Christian. Nevertheless, and even though his religious pronouncements sometimes seem a bit prepackaged, it is quite likely that his belated beliefs became genuine.

"The significance of religious thinking dawned on me rather late," he told a newspaper reporter in 1968. "I started reading religious books and the truth of Christ's teaching emerged like a revelation." At Huntsville, he joined the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, enrolled his daughters in Bible study, and wrote and spoke publicly about his religious convictions, especially to youth groups. His closest friends and neighbors attested to his religious sincerity. In Huntsville, he attended prayer breakfasts at the Redstone Arsenal and the Marshall Space Flight Center, which had been initiated by the International Christian Leadership, and gave a keynote address at that organization's thirtieth-anniversary convention in 1965.[6]

At least some of von Braun's scientific colleagues had misgivings about his religious inclinations, precisely because of his sincerity. "It was surprising to some of von Braun's associates that in spiritual matters, he would reach so deeply into the realm of the irrational," physicist Ernst Stuhlinger, one of von Braun's closest scientific collaborators at both Peenemünde and Huntsville, recalled. "His entire work for space was built upon the exact laws of the natural sciences [...] In his religious beliefs, it was different. He did not enter into discussions of the points he made […] 'Matters of faith are not really accessible to our rational thinking,' he would say, 'I find it best not to ask any questions, but simply to believe [...] It is best not to think [...].'" Despite the doubts of some scientists and engineers, however, von Braun was by no means alone in his religiosity. Indeed, among the space community at Huntsville and elsewhere, his beliefs were widely shared, and he was more the norm than the exception. [7]

Perhaps most important, von Braun enjoyed the full support of his commanding officer at the ABMA, General John B. Medaris, who was himself a devout Christian. Medaris is sometimes called the true father of the U.S. space program because of his role in overseeing the pioneering development of the Redstone and Jupiter rockets, the first U.S . satellite (as well as Project Adam, which he justified as a means of troop transport), and the Saturn booster. In 1960, Medaris resigned from the army in frustration over interservice space rivalries and the establishment of NASA, which obstructed and finally put an end to the ABMA's role in space. After a stint in private industry, he became first a lay reader and deacon and then an ordained minister of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, near Cape Canaveral, Florida, and later an Anglican Catholic priest. "I think it was in England in 1942 or 1943 that I became convinced of the power of the Lord," Medaris recounted. The responsibilities of his postwar commands, as well as repeated trials with cancer beginning in 1956, heightened his religious convictions. "No one could have had the continuing success in the space area that I did without God's help." In 1957, at the time of the Project Adam proposal, Medaris wrote a prize-winning essay entitled "A General Looks at God." In the early 1970s, he headed an ultimately unsuccessful effort to establish a Chapel of the Astronauts adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center. [8]

 The religious environment of the space community at Huntsville was no doubt encouraged by such outspokenly devout leadership, as well as by the generally religious population of northern Alabama. In addition to the annual mayor's prayer breakfasts, the first of which was held at the Redstone Arsenal, prayer groups routinely met in the mornings, before the workday, at both the Redstone Arsenal and the Marshall Space Flight Center. In 1969, Billy Graham held a rally at the Redstone Arsenal. After the departure of von Braun as Marshall's director in 1970, this religious ethos was sustained by his successors, notably William R. Lucas, who became the director of the center in 1974. A metallurgist and veteran of the von Braun team since 1952, Lucas did pioneering work on the heat shield used for rocket-nosecone re-entry, and later served the Huntsville space program in various high-ranking scientific and administrative capacities. He was also a lay reader active in the Baptist Church and an articulate advocate of the integration of science and religion, about which he gave speeches at evangelical gatherings, including the Billy Graham crusade. As the "crown of God's creation," mankind was expected to learn all he could about creation, Lucas argued, and space exploration was one way to go about it. Like von Braun, Lucas also saw space technology as a means of spreading the good news, and suggested early on that rockets and satellites could be used with unprecedented effectiveness to broadcast the gospel.

"I didn't feel unusual in this community," Lucas recalled. "The vast majority of people at Marshall, and before that at the ABMA and the Redstone Arsenal, were Christian people." In the space community at Huntsville, "the oddity was not the believer but the nonbeliever." Huntsville NASA scientist Rodney W. Johnson, a planner for lunar missions, who likewise sought to bring science and religion more closely together, concurred. "My contacts indicate that a surprising number of scientists, engineers, and technicians associated with the space program have a deep and vital faith. More, proportionately, than in any other fields and professions." Johnson himself viewed the flights to the moon as a "reminder that man is made in God's image" and that the heavens are not just God's domain, but mankind's as well. [9]

 This same religious ethos of the space community clearly manifested itself at Cape Canaveral in the early 1970s, when General Medaris’s effort to establish the Chapel of the Astronauts garnered strong support not only from the robust local evangelical community but also from many within the Kennedy Space Center, NASA's prime site, including its director Kurt Debus, a veteran of the original von Braun team. After his retirement from the Kennedy Space electrical engineer Edwin Whisenant, who had also been involved in the early rocket launches as well as the moon- landing program, devoted himself to the analysis of biblical prophecy. In the 1980s, he wrote several books predicting (unsuccessfully) the time of the Rapture. "It's an obsession," he said. "The time is short. I'm telling people the end is near and to get their children and everyone they care about under the blood of Jesus."

The same spirit was amply evident at the Johnson Space Center, near Houston, the mission-control center for manned spaceflights and home base and training center of the astronauts themselves. Bible­study groups proliferated throughout Johnson, in the simulation and training departments, the astronauts' office, and Mission Control itself. "There are a lot of Christians at Johnson," noted Jerry Klumas, a veteran systems engineer and cofounder of the nearby NASA Church Nazarene. "The Christian community at NASA is not a minority; it is very significant, and NASA people are outspoken about being Christians.” [10]

In Klumas's view, following the prophecy of Daniel, the great in knowledge generated by space exploration signals that the end-times are at hand. Moreover, he observed, as the speed of space travel accelerates, aging decreases, and the traveler nears immortality. “The spiritual laws governing our salvation have always been in existence, but I had to discover them for myself and learn how to put them into action," declared lunar-landings project engineer Robert Bobola. "How can a man trained in the sciences believe in God? According to the evidence, I have to believe in Him, I've checked Him out personally, and He's for real."[11]

NASA aerospace engineer Tom Henderson was involved from the beginning in all of the manned space programs, designing mission simulators and training the astronauts. At the same time, for twenty­ five years he has been an active evangelical Christian, preaching the gospel of creationism throughout the hemi sphere. Many of his colleagues are also creationists, including Maury Minette, who helped to train Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin in their mission simulations for the first landing on the moon. "To me, science as a whole points to God," declared Tom Henderson. And it also contributes to a recovery of mankind's lost knowledge. "l think Adam was brilliant," Henderson noted, but the preflood civilization he started was lost, and "mankind has had to climb the hill of knowledge" once again. "When Christ returns," however, "to rule for a thousand years, the earth will return to its preflood state [...]. Either when I die or when the Rapture of the Church occurs, whichever happens first, I will return to earth with Christ; with a new immortal body I will live on earth but not as a man; I will be able to travel in space without a spaceship; I will meet with Robert Boy le and Isaac Newton." [12]

According to Jerry Klumas, expression of religious beliefs was quite acceptable at NASA. "NASA administrators do not discourage such behavior. NASA is not hung up about separation of church and    state. At Johnson, administrators encourage Bible-study groups, providing them with meeting rooms. Just about every leader of NASA is an active church member." This official sanction of religious practice     at Huntsville, Houston, and Cape Canaveral mirrored the sentiment at NASA headquarters in Washington.

Hugh Dryden, the first operational chief of NASA in its formative years, was a licensed Methodist lay preacher as well as an esteemed scientist, and, like so many others at NASA, he maintained that there was no necessary conflict between the two identities. A brilliant aerodynamicist, Dryden was a central figure in both the establishment of NASA and, in particular, the push for manned space-flight. He served for a decade as director of the National Advisory era. Committee on Aeronautics before becoming NASA's first deputy administrator in 1958, a position he held until 1965. Throughout his life, he was an active member of the Calvary Methodist Church, where he regularly gave sermons and taught Bible-study classes. In 1962, he was named "Methodist layman of the year."

Dryden's sermons resounded with the transcendent strains of the religion of technology. "Of all the expeditions of the human mind and soul into the great mysteries of life," Dryden preached, "I know of none so bold as the search of man to find God." One of his favorite themes, which he repeated in his sermons, was mankind's "birthright, creation in the image of God." We are "made in the image of God, a little lower than the angels," he insisted. It was this endowment which gave men "the ability to rise above life on a purely physical plane to the realm of the mind, and to increase his intellectual powers, his power to think, to comprehend, and to reason." "God has shared with us some of his creative power," Dryden declared, including the powers of science and technology. "By all means seek Him in nature. The more we understand of nature the more we comprehend the intellectual state of its Creator. "[13]

Much of this divine gift had been lost through sin, Dryden noted, "but like the old masterpiece of the painter, the original image can be restored. By patient, careful effort, we may, if we will, begin to bring out those elements in our character which are God-like. To this task we are challenged by the life of Jesus Christ, who demonstrated to us what we might hope to become." "Would that our leaders today and the rest of us who follow could discover and understand clearly our tasks, and pursue them with the aim that our hands, our lips, our brains might be the channels through which the Kingdom of God may come.” [14]

Equally fervent in his religious convictions was the only two­term NASA administrator, James Fletcher, a devout member of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). A physicist by training, Fletcher devoted much of his scientific career to the development of long-range weapons-delivery  systems, under the auspices of both the Department of Defense and private industry . At NASA, he was "generally recognized as one of the most influential administrators from the first three decades of space flight." According to NASA's own chief historian,  "Fletcher's approach toward  directing the U.S. space program  owed  something to  his  Western  American  and  Mormon conceptions  of the world. This heritage came into play throughout Fletcher's NASA career as an underlying philosophy of why humans should explore space," an endeavor he described as a "God-given desire." His Mormon beliefs led him to envision space exploration as "an intellectual frontier of expanding knowledge and the progress of understanding about nature and, by extension, about divinity." Because of his Mormon belief in the existence of a plurality of worlds, Fletcher strongly promoted space programs aimed at the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, such as the Viking mission to Mars and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Program. (In the same spirit, Bruce Murray, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, declared in 1979 that "the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is like looking for God.") More important, Fletcher's strongly religious orientation led him to lend full headquarters support to the various religious currents within NASA. By the time of Fletcher's appointment in 1971, public controversy about religion in NASA had      rendered such official support quite explicit. [15]

On Christmas Eve 1968, the astronauts on Apollo 8–the first manned mission to the moon-broadcast back to earth their reading of the first ten lines of the Book of Genesis. Three days later, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the militant atheist whose lawsuit had resulted in the 1963 Supreme Court ban on required prayers in the public schools, vigorously protested such religious display on the part of a governmental scientific agency. "It's incredible," she exclaimed, "men who are supposed to be scientists reading from Genesis like that ." Seven months later, in August 1969, she formally filed suit against NASA, seeking an injunction against its "permitting religious activities or ceremonies," which she decried as "an attempt to establish the Christian religion of the U.S. government before the world. " [16]    

The defendant in the suit was Fletcher's predecessor as NASA administrator, Thomas O. Paine, an Episcopalian. NASA's official legal position was that the astronauts were merely exercising their own religious rights and that NASA would neither direct nor restrict     any such activities. Speaking before the National Press Club on the day the suit was filed, however, Paine went a step further in his support of the astronauts' actions. "The fact that on Christmas Eve Frank Borman and his crew read aloud the opening lines of Genesis ... undoubtedly gave some offense to Mrs. O'Hair," Paine noted . "But to my mind, it was a proper and fitting thing to do." Behind the scenes, Paine's administration encouraged a show of public support for the religious reading, and soon received over a million citizen petitions from a religious radio network. [17]

O'Hair’s suit was dismissed by the Federal District Court in December 1969; her first appeal was denied by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seven months later, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear her last appeal in March 1971. (In March 1973, she filed another suit to prevent prayer services in Congress and the White House, which was also dismissed.) Although unsuccessful, the legal challenges did make Congress (and thus NASA) more cautious with regard to overt support of religious causes. It was no doubt for this reason that General Medaris’s effort to construct a Chapel of the Astronauts (dedicated to "worship of the Creator and Praise of the Almighty ") on public land adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center, which required congressional action, finally had to be abandoned, despite strong support from many members of Congress, the local community, and such leading religious figures as Billy Graham. Both Paine and Fletcher had strongly endorsed the project.

If NASA had to become somewhat more cautious in public, official expression of overtly religious sentiment continued in private, especially during Fletcher's regime.  For several years following the O'Hair litigation, NASA's Office of Public Affairs received and responded to many letters from private citizens regarding the religious controversy . Most of the responses  were quite general, and only hinted at the religious sentiments of NASA officialdom: "We thank you for your interest and know you will be relieved to know that the astronauts are now legally as well as spiritually free to express themselves." In June 1992, however, the director of the Office of Public Affairs, O. B. Lloyd, NASA's official spokesman, became far more explicit. A woman had written NASA to express her concern about the lack of "spiritual thought" in Apollo 16. Lloyd reminded her of the Apollo 8 Genesis reading and quoted from Psalm 8, the prayer that had been recited by Edwin Aldrin on Apollo II, the first lunar­ landing mission. He also referred to the recent decision by Apollo astronaut James Irwin to establish his own evangelical ministry. "These certainly demonstrate the spiritual emphasis brought to the space program by the astronauts,” Lloyd wrote. “We agree with you,” he wrote on behalf of NASA, “and I Know that astronauts do too, that the Apollo missions could not have succeeded without the help of God… I believe that you can be reassured that those who work in the space program are indeed aware of the presence of the Creator and are not neglectful of spiritual values.” [18]

  

Footnotes

[1] W. von Braun a M. J. Kemp, 3 gen. 1972, NASA HDC, Christian Century, Dec. 23, 1959, p. 20.

[2] E. Bergaust, Wernher von Braun, National Space Institute, Washington DC 1976, p. 177.

[3] W. von Braun, “Responsible Scientific Investigation and Application,” unpublished talk presented to the Lutheran Church of America, Philadelphia, Oct. 29, 1976, NASA HDC, p. 74.

[4] Ibid., pp. 70, 82.

[5] E. Stuhlinger, Von Braun Crusader for Space. An Illustrated memoir, Krieger, Malabor, 1994. P. 331.

[6] W. von Braun interviewed by A. Taft, Miami Herald, quoted in G.W. Cornell, “Space Travel Teaches God Much Greater”, Huntsville Times, July 18, 1969.

[7] E. Stuhlinger, Von Braun op. cit., p. 273.

[8] “Medaris Still as outspoken as Ever,” Today, April 16, 1978, p. 6E; R. Dunavant, “Military Could Have Carried Off NASA Space Program, Says Medaris,” Birmingham News, July 1, 1985.

[9] Author interview with Lucas, July, 7 1993; R.W. Johnson, quoted in L. R. Johnson, The Space Secret of the Universe, Robert and Son, Birmingham 1969, p. 159; W. von Braun a J. B. Medaris, 9 dic. 1971, NASA HDC; “Space Expert Heard in Pulpit,” Washington Post, 30 dic. 1968, p. B7.

[10] Author interviews with J. Klumas e T. Henderson, Clear Lake (Texas), Jan. 12-13, 1995.

[11] R. E. Bobola, “Examining the Evidence,” Full Gospel Business Men’s Voice, March 1982, pp. 11-15.

[12] Author interview with T. Henderson; “Tom and Judy Henderson Latin American Creation Conference”, May-June 1994; T. Henderson, “The Social Impact of Evolution,” unpublished manuscript, n.d., courtesy of T. Henderson.

[13] H. Dryden, unpublished sermons, “The Eternal Quest,” June 13, 1960; “In the Image of God,” Aug. 19, 1951; both in NASA HDC.

[14] H. Dryden, unpublished sermons, “In the Image of God,” Oct. 15, 1961; “Christian Emphasis for Today,” Feb. 11, 1951; both in NASA HDC; H. Dryden, “The Power of Faith,” Evening Star, June 1, 1963.

[15] R.D. Launius, “A Western Mormon in Washington D.C.: James C. Fletcher, NASA and the Final Frontier,” Pacific Historial Review, vol.64 (May 1995), p. 217 and passim; interview with R.D. Launius, Sept. 28, 1995; Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL News Clips, May 8, 1979.

[16] “Madalyn Murrat Protests Bible Reading from Space,” Washington Star, Dec. 28, 1968, p. A5; “Court Hears Suit to Bar Space Piety,” Washington Post, Nov. 25, 1969, p. A8; “Atheist Sues to Prevent Use of Religion in Space,” Washington Post, Aug. 7, 1969, p. A8.

[17] “Address by Dr. Thomas O. Paine Before the National Press Club,” unpublished manuscript, Aug. 6, 1969, Washington D. C., NASA HDC; “Mail Backs Astronauts on Space Sermons,” New York Times, Sept. 28, 1969, p. 4.

[18] O. B. Lloyd jr, Director, NASA Office of Public Affaris, a G. Madden, June 15, 1972, NASA HDC.

 

D.F. Noble, The Religion of Technology: the Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (London: Penguin Books, 1997)