- NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was launched on Christmas Day, and NASA administrator Bill Nelson used biblical language to describe the sight.
- The introduction of a religious passage seemed to devalue the scientific success to some viewers, particularly those who feel religion and science are irreconcilable.
- While this is a legitimate worry, it’s also worth noting that Nelson’s biblical analogies are part of a long history of religious discourse in the US space program.
It wasn’t only the fact that he referenced a religious occasion that piqued my interest. After all, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson wasn’t the only one who noticed that the long-awaited launch of the James Webb Space Telescope took place on Christmas Day after it was successfully launched last month. Nelson’s statements, on the other hand, aroused eyebrows because of their “spiritual tone.”
“It’s noteworthy that we had the delays, and it delayed us all the way until today, Christmas Day,” Nelson said immediately after the launch in a NASA video. “The heavens announce the glory of God,” he said, quoting Psalm 19. His workmanship is seen in the firmament.”
The mere mention of a religious passage seemed to undercut the narrative of scientific progress to some viewers, particularly those who feel religion and science are irreconcilable. The implication that the telescope had a Christian purpose or that its usage would encourage a Christian perspective appeared to contradict NASA’s claim to value inclusion in science. (The agency is currently dealing with the fallout from naming the telescope after James Webb, a man accused of complicity in the persecution of LGBTQ government employees.)
All of these are reasonable concerns. Nelson’s biblical themes, on the other hand, are part of a long heritage of religious discourse in the US space program. There’s a temptation to simplify this history by assuming that religious rhetoric is and has always been improper in scientific debate. However, it only takes a few decades to locate a moment when remarks like Nelson’s were not only acceptable in American space culture, but were also an integral part of the country’s scientific character.
From the 1950s until the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a decades-long conflict known as the Space Race, which converted the scientific and military realities of space exploration into a proxy war for cultural, political, and economic justification. The scientific achievements of each country were viewed as victories for one national ideology over another. The nations’ starkly divergent approaches toward religion were among the fighting ideologies.
The Soviet Union had formally declared atheism (though some Soviet citizens were people of faith). Victoria Smolkin, in her recent history of Soviet atheism, discusses how Soviet officials and cosmonauts utilized their achievements in the Space Race to raise a banner of anti-religion sentiment. According to Smolkin, Soviet cosmonaut German Titov, the second person in space, declared his atheism during a 1962 visit to the United States, claiming “that he had not seen ‘God or angels’ during his 17 orbits of Earth.” Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader at the time, made a similar joke to American reporters about God’s refusal to appear in space. The Soviet endeavor to strengthen official atheism and eliminate religion’s danger to state control was aided by the outspoken rejection of God.
However, on the opposite side of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union’s repudiation of religion sparked a response. American scientists opposed Marxism’s ideological dogmatism in subjects ranging from evolutionary biology to cosmology, stating that it hampered unfettered scientific investigation. While the Soviet Union was authoritarian and harsh, the American scientific elite portrayed an appearance of openness by promoting religious tolerance. The American scientific establishment, opposed to the Soviets’ rigid atheism but apprehensive of fundamentalist Christians’ alleged anti-science attitude, carved up a middle ground of respectable, generic – but nonetheless Christian-leaning – religion.
NASA astronauts were widely perceived as exemplifying this milquetoast religious identity, both as public personalities and as scientists. Some astronauts were open about their faith, while others were more evasive about the spirituality they encountered in space. Despite the fact that Neil Armstrong was a deist, he was regarded as a Christian role model who fulfilled a heavenly promise that mankind would one day reach the stars.
As the Sun rose beyond the Moon’s horizon on Christmas Eve in 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 broadcast themselves from lunar orbit reading from the opening chapters of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the universe and the world…. “Let there be light,” God commanded, and there was light.” The juxtaposition of those words with photos of the lunar dawn seems to represent the fusion of religious and scientific principles.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of the organization American Atheists, filed a complaint against NASA on Christmas Eve, claiming that the conduct infringed on their First Amendment rights. However, the case was unsuccessful, and since then, astronauts have been allowed to express their personal beliefs, carry religious artefacts among their personal things, and even celebrate holidays in space, which has been widely approved – and even included into NASA’s public outreach.
When discussing the Space Program, American presidents such as John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ronald Reagan all utilized religious rhetoric, frequently with implicit or outright condemnation of the Soviets. Finally, NASA, both Republican and Democratic leaders in the United States, and the general people in the United States built a narrative that America’s religion had aided the country’s victory in the Space Race against its godless adversary. Because it avoided the complicated specifics that may have caused tension with science or amongst theologies, this religiosity was effective.
Nelson is the personification of this fusion of space exploration and spirituality. Nelson traveled to space aboard the shuttle Columbia, the penultimate NASA mission before the Challenger catastrophe, in 1986, decades before he became NASA Administrator. His extraterrestrial visit, according to his 1988 memoir, was an eye-opening religious experience that contrasted sharply with that of his Soviet contemporaries. “When Yuri Gagarin, the first Russian cosmonaut, returned to Earth, he boldly said that he had searched for God but had not found him,” Nelson wrote (perhaps misattributing Titov’s 1962 statements). “I glanced around but couldn’t find anything else.” The Soviets may have been the first to reach the sky, but the Americans were the first to discover God there.
While aboard the Columbia, Nelson also remembered going into his pocket and pulling out his Bible:
“I remembered reading the old lines of the 19th Psalm as a Yale student, approximately 3,000 years ago, written by a shepherd lad in Israel.” What could David possibly know about space, I pondered in college? I was astounded that those words could so accurately convey my feelings: ‘The heavens testify the glory of God.’ ‘His workmanship is seen in the firmament.’
More than 30 years later, when reminiscing on the launch of the telescope, Nelson recited the same scripture practically identically. It’s a text that scientists and theologians have long used to represent the concept that there are realities that can only be discovered outside of scripture, truths that can only be learnt through nature’s craftsmanship. It’s been used to refute Biblical literalism and denial of science. And it appears to give expression to a sense of amazement and spiritual wonder at nature that Nelson has had since his days as an astronaut.
However, the United States’ scientific, religious, and political cultures have all changed dramatically since then. Christian nationalism has grown into a powerful and anti-democratic political force, one that has been used to undermine government-backed, science-based initiatives to combat the COVID-19 epidemic and climate change. God-talk from the Cold War period, as well as the embracing of generic religion, are no longer representative of America’s position in the current geopolitical globe. Although the words Nelson uses to express his connection to the universe haven’t changed since the 1980s, the country has changed.