One might assume that conquering space would undermine belief in God, but faithful fervor seems, if anything, to strengthen in space, albeit in mutated forms. Via the Atlantic:
Before the launch this weekend of three human beings into the ether of space around the Earth, before they boarded their Soyuz spacecraft, and before the rockets were fired, precautions were taken. Not the humdrum checklists and redundancies of space exploration — assessing the weather, the equipment, the math — but a preparation with a more mystical dimension: the blessing, by a Russian Orthodox priest, of the spacecraft, as it sat on the launchpad on the Kazakh steppe.
The discordance is obvious: Here we are, on the brink of a new expedition to space, a frontier of human exploration and research that is the capstone of our scientific achievement. “The idea of traveling to other celestial bodies reflects to the highest degree the independence and agility of the human mind. It lends ultimate dignity to man’s technical and scientific endeavors,” the rocket scientist Krafft Arnold Ehricke once said. And yet here is a priest, outfitted in the finery of a centuries-old church, shaking holy water over the engines, invoking God’s protection for a journey to near-earth orbit.
This ultimate scientific endeavor does not answer the questions religion seeks to answer; it brings humans into a close encounter with their own smallness, the Earth’s beauty, and the vastness of the cosmos. Faced with these truths, is it any wonder that some astronauts turn to religion? Some surely find comfort in the words of secular philosopher-scientists like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. But others will find that the ancient religions of Earth have some greater power, some deeper resonance, when they have traveled safely so far from their homes. Astronaut James Irwin put it this way: “As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.”
This is in part the sentiment Buzz Aldrin relays in his 2009 memoir as he recounts how he took communion in the minutes between when he and Neil Armstrong became the first humans on the moon’s surface, and when Armstrong set his foot down on the dust. Aldrin says he had planned the ceremony as “an expression of gratitude and hope.” The ceremony was kept quiet (un-aired) because NASA was proceeding cautiously following a lawsuit over the Apollo 8 Genesis reading, but it proceeded with a tiny vial of wine and a wafer Aldrin had transported to the moon in anticipation of the moment (personal items were strictly restricted by weight, so everything had to be small). He writes:
Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion. 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. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God. It was my hope that people would keep the whole event in their minds and see, beyond minor details and technical achievements, a deeper meaning — a challenge, and the human need to explore whatever is above us, below us, or out there.
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