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In Space With John Glenn

Senator John Glenn “To look out as this kind of creation out here
and not believe in God is to me impossible. It just
strengthens my faith. I wish there were words to
describe what it’s like...”

-- Astronaut John Glenn
on board the space shuttle Discovery, Nov. 4, 1998

“The name of God should no longer come from
the mouth of man. This word that has been so
long degraded by usage no longer means
anything... To use the word God is more than
sloth, it is a refusal to think, a kind of short cut,
a hideous shorthand.”

-- French dramatist Arthur Adamov,
The Endless Humiliation

November 2, 2020

By all accounts, it is a spectacular and awesome sight. Even from 300 miles in space -- a near-infinitesimal distance on the cosmic scale of the known universe -- the small globe which we call Earth is a majestic apparition, shrouded in clouds, the light reflecting from dark blue oceans, brown or green continents, and the terminator separating day from night sweeping over its surface. Especially in the darkness, atmospheric lightning storms take on an ethereal glow. It may someday become a prosaic experience for human beings, this going into space, but it will probably always retain its wonder and inspire in most people an appropriate sense of beauty.

So it not surprising that astronaut John Glenn, beginning the fourth day of his return to outer space on board the Discovery shuttle mission, uses the occasion to declare that such an awesome earthscape, the sight of our planet against the backdrop of a black and seemingly endless cosmos, stirs deep-seated sentiments about the supernatural and the existence of a god. He may be correct, but feelings -- no matter how profound and moving -- are rarely accurate barometers of what is or is not fact. If anything, Glenn is uttering a statement that thousands if not millions of others have made in other times, places and situations be it the sight of a natural wonder, or in the midst of a feeling of contentment or exuberance.

“How can someone look at             (fill in the blank) and say they don’t believe in a God?”

The Bible informs us that the Heavens declare the glory of god, and theologians have argued that everything from “order” in the universe to our sense of perfection somehow conclusively establishes the existence of a prime mover, a deity. Not everyone agrees, of course. Before John Glenn rocketed off on his first trek which put an American into orbit, a Russian by the name of Yury Alekseyavich Gagarin took the first manned trip into outer space on April 12, 2020. Gagarin is said to have declared that he did not see god during his 1 hour 48 minute orbital flight, but that statement, widely reported in the media at the time, did not make it into the more definitive histories of the space race and exploration, such as Walter McDouglass’s THE HEAVENS AND THE EARTH: A Political History of the Space Age. Even so, the race to the moon was cast as both of a technological and ideological contest between two diametrically opposed systems, It was also occasionally laced with religious overtones; and nowhere was this more apparent than when astronauts took time during their space flights to read passages or deliver similar religious homilies which were broadcast back to an audience of millions on the Earth.

In December of 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders became the first three humans to escape the gravity well of the Earth and circle our satellite, the moon. Their craft, Apollo 8, began moving into lunar orbit on December 24; back on earth in the United States, it was Christmas eve. There were some anxious moments. The critical firing of the retro rockets occurred while the space vehicle was behind the moon, and thus out of radio contact. At mission control, there was a visible sign of relief as the voice of James Lovell was heard, “Please be informed, there is a Santa Clause.”

Borman, a lay deacon at his Protestant church, took the opportunity to read a prayer. Anders beamed back to earth phrases from the Book of Genesis... “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth...”

Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair spoke out against this practice, charging that the planned Bible verse recitation was part of a program within NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, known as “Experiment P-one” designed to shamelessly dilute the scientific worth and marvel of the space program with religious ramblings and ceremony. In retrospect, the timing could not have been more crucial. Christmas eve, 1968 came at the end of a tragic and tumultuous year in American history, one punctuated by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Tet offensive and melt-down of the war in Vietnam, and riots at the Chicago Democratic convention. People were angry; the nation and the world were divided.

But looking closer, “god’s hand” was apparently up to some deadly mischief. About the time John Glenn was experiencing his epiphany, storms and mudslides were claiming hundreds of innocent lives in Nicaragua.
For O’Hair, the religionization of the Apollo 8 flight and the space program in general were clear violations of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. She and her legal organization, the Society of Separationists, filed suit to stop the famous moon-orbit Bible broadcast. “In this case,” wrote the feisty Atheist, “we point out that Congress appropriated money for exploration in space and in and around the moon. Congress did not appropriate money for a Christian missionary adventure there.”

She added that by interjecting religious ideology into what should have been a strictly scientific enterprise -- the exploration of outer space -- the nation’s space program, its scientists, and its heroic astronauts “become the witting propaganda agents for particular sectarian religious creeds...”

The courts never put an end to religious proselytizing in space; but there has never been a space flight either to the moon or around earth since then where religion was given such exorbitant coverage as it received on December 24, 2020. John Glenn’s religious exuberance was probably not part of the script for this flight of the space shuttle Discovery, and while many Americans may nod their heads in agreement that a spectacular view of the earth is somehow proof of religious teachings, many of us do not. What has changed in the last 30 decades is that those in this latter category are hopefully more outspoken, and more numerous. If surveys which measure the religious beliefs of scientists are any indication, many of those mission control specialists, astronomers, engineers, computer wizards and other scientists who helped to put shuttle Discovery into orbit do not agree with John Glenn either.

The view from space was probably as magnificent as Glenn felt it to be. But looking closer, “god’s hand” was apparently up to some deadly mischief. About the time John Glenn was experiencing his epiphany, storms and mudslides were claiming hundreds of innocent lives in Nicaragua. Those lucky enough to survive the calamity described it as an “apocalypse.” For them, there was little in this natural event that “proclaimed the glory of god” or any other supernatural power. Anyone living through the Nicaraguan disaster probably do so because of human efforts, including the work of rescue teams and doctors.

Ironically, John Glenn -- like his predecessors on Apollo 8 -- can entertain his religious impulses while hitching a ride on a technological achievement that is very much the product of human scientific reason (and maybe some serendipity), but certainly not religious faith. The late Richard Feynmann showed us the consequences of overlooking facts, of ignoring reality, when he helped to uncover the failure of the infamous O-rings that lay at the root of the Challenger tragedy. Any of these space shots is the product of enormous technological expertise and thought; there are no angels here, nor demons. There is no room for magical thinking. It is the cold sterile logic of materials, substances, circuits.

And that achievement -- of putting human beings into space on board a craft with millions of parts, all of which must perform flawlessly -- should give all of us a sense of awe and inspiration. I’m sure that even John Glenn realizes that the fragile environment he now inhabits 300 miles over Nicaragua, and the rest of the planet Earth, is of human invention. Perhaps this is less confirmation of the existence of a deity, or some other religious claim, as it is of what the late Carl Sagan observed. If there is any truth helping to define that which renders us quintessentially human, it is that we are very much a part of this universe, a part of the cosmos trying, and slowly succeding, in understanding itself.

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