Faith and the American Space Program
Kendrick Oliver. To Touch the Face of God: The Sacred, the Profane,
and the American Space Program, 1957–1975. Johns Hopkins, 2013.
Catherine L. Newell. Destined for the Stars: Faith, Future,
and America’s Final Frontier. Pittsburgh, 2019.
First Man. Directed by Damien Chazelle.
PROFANE IS AN INTERESTING WORD. Etymologically the word describes the ground outside—or, strictly, in front of (pro)—the temple (fanum). How do we understand the profanity, or otherwise, of space travel? Is earth the temple and outer space the outer (pro) fanum? Or could it be that the heavens are the temple, and it’s we who are stuck down here in a mundane, profane antechamber? Is the sense of wonder that attends space exploration fundamentally a religious impulse? Or is the achievement of Apollo a triumph of solidly non-spiritual science, engineering, technology, and materialism?
This matter is addressed by To Touch the Face of God, Kendrick Oliver’s absorbing social history of the space program. Oliver has sensible things to say about the limitations of simply mapping the religious convictions of NASA scientists and astronauts onto a project like Apollo, but nonetheless he assembles a convincing picture of just how interpenetrated the undertaking was by a kind of providentialist, Protestant ethos, exploring the pros and cons of considering spaceflight as a religious experience. He’s especially good on the way the program channeled national concerns about the separation of church and state, a debate that had been galvanized by the 1963 Supreme Court judgment ruling mandatory school prayer unconstitutional.
As Apollo 8 orbited the moon in December of 1968, astronaut Bill Anders informed “all the people back on earth” that “the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you.” They then read the creation account of Genesis 1 aloud. The reading, Oliver shows, had an enormous impact. The Christian Century ran an editorial declaring themselves “struck dumb by this event,” and Apollo flight director Gene Kranz wept openly in the control room: “for those moments,” he later recalled, “I felt the presence of creation and the Creator.”
Not everyone was so happy. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, one of the plaintiffs in the 1963 school prayer case and an advocate for the separation of church and state, objected, posing for photos before a filing cabinet containing letters and cards from twenty-eight thousand “sympathizers.” O’Hair’s specific petitions had little effect (they were, says Oliver, “received politely” by NASA “and then hastened quickly into warehouses”), but they represented an important aspect of the public animus against Apollo.
Political opposition pressed the “waste of national resources” case, arguing that the money would be better spent on America’s crumbling inner cities and ending the Vietnam War. Such opposition persisted. The collective global buzz of Armstrong’s small step dissipated quickly, and in the 1970s NASA increasingly struggled to articulate its raison d’être in the face of increasing public indifference. We’d gone to the moon. Why carry on? We know how that debate played out, of course. But might things have worked out differently?
One possibility, Oliver thinks, would have been for NASA to tap the widespread religious awe the whole undertaking provoked. Between 1968 and 1975:
NASA received more than eight million letters and petition signatures supporting the right of American astronauts to free religious expression during their mission in space. Of all the topics on which NASA received correspondence in the course of these years, religion in space generated the largest volume of mail, more than four times as much as any other issue.
According to Oliver, this was the opportunity NASA missed. Recruiting this national religious constituency and reconfiguring space exploration as “going for God” could have reenergized the program. Indeed, Oliver seems to think such a strategy might still work today. This is how his book ends:
The [Apollo] program simultaneously kindled thoughts of God and the death of God. When religion was absent from the program, its absence became a point of religious concern. When religion was present, its presence meant more, to more people, than it did in any other national undertaking of the time. Only for as long as that was true did Americans live in an age of space.
This touches on a curious absence in Oliver’s account: science fiction. The space age died because people lost interest in it, because the thrill of Apollo 11 gave way to the sheer undrama of Apollos 14 through 17, missions in equal measure functional, predictable, and dull. This was (of course) precisely what mission control wanted, but it turned off the larger global population. The point is that it was Apollo with which people grew bored, not space as such. The last Apollo flight (an Apollo-Soyuz mission) took place in 1975. That year George Lucas was in pre-production for Star Wars, which would, after its 1977 release, go on to become the most commercially successful motion picture franchise of all time. Star Wars gave outer space back to the general population as excitement and wonder—a mere simulacrum of space, of course, but it turned out people didn’t mind that. Star Wars killed the space race by feeding a more palatable, empty-calorie version of “space exploration and adventure” to an audience eager for those things and content with the pleasing copy rather than the arduous and tedious reality.
Not only did Star Wars jump-start a new age in science fiction blockbuster cinema (the list of the twenty top-grossing films of all time disproportionately features big-budget, special-effects-heavy science fiction and fantasy: Star Wars, Avatar, E.T., The Matrix, Avengers: Infinity War, and the like), but it also mediated a specifically religious impulse: the Force and the mystic-spiritual order of the Jedi are central to the appeal of the franchise. According to a 2001 census, there are more people who identify as Jedi in the United Kingdom than there are Sikhs, Buddhists, or Jews. Not all of these folks put Jedi on the census form as a joke.
Is it foolish to suggest that the success of cinematic science fiction might be, in any sense, a religious phenomenon? It is, after all, powered by the “fans,” a word which derives (like “profane”) from the Latin for temple. Fans are often extraordinarily dedicated individuals, and they aggregate into significant large-scale social as well as cultural forces. The total cost of the Apollo program was 25.4 billion 1960s dollars—something like 100 billion in today’s money. If we separate out the cost of Apollo 11 from the other manned and unmanned launches (an artificial exercise, but still) we end up somewhere in the region of 12 billion in modern money for that one mission. Disney recently bought Star Wars for 4 billion; the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grossed well over 20 billion at the box office over the last decade. Since 1977 humanity has, by some margin, spent more money on creating science fiction simulacra of space travel than it has on actually landing on the moon. Don’t misunderstand me. I love science fiction. But there’s something rather depressing about that fact.
The Force is the core belief of a fictionalized mystic community of outer-space warriors and priests. And maybe the problem with real-life space exploration is that the Christian God is simply not a sky-god. That is to say, he’s a sky-god in the sense that, for Christians, he’s an everything-God (a God of, or behind, or in everything) and the sky is part of everything. But in terms of specific focus he is not a Poseidon-like sea-god or a Uranus-like sky-god or a Zeus-like god of thunder. If anything, he’s a shepherd god, appropriately enough for the herdsman cultures of the Middle East out of which Judaism and, therefore, Christianity developed. Ascending through the atmosphere all the way to the palace of Luna-Diana-Selene is much more a matter of communing with Uranus or Zeus than an act of shepherding. Perhaps the problem with the Apollo missions as a religious experience is a mismatch of project to god-type. Science fiction has proved more adept at supplying cosmic deities, from Cthulhu to the Force. Perhaps it’s filling a gap.
The cultural dimension of the space race also interests Catherine Newell, whose Destined for the Stars: Faith, Future, and America’s Final Frontier is a study of American artist Chesley Bonestell. Newell describes “the popularization of the science of space exploration in America between the years 1944 and 1955,” a popularization she thinks owed much to “a culture that had long valued faith above other religious feeling and believed they were called by God to settle new frontiers and prepare for the end of time.” Newell finds continuity between Bonestell’s realist planetscapes with futuristic, technologically plausible spacecraft in flight—rendered with a clear-lined, uncluttered spaciousness—and the older Hudson School traditions of wild-west landscape painting.
Her book covers Bonestell’s early terrestrial architectural paintings and the commercial breakthrough of his 1940s paintings of Saturn, Bonestell’s collaboration with scientist and writer Willy Ley, and his work on the 1950 movie Destination Moon (he painted the matte images of the lunar landscape). Dozens of illustrations and seventeen full-color plates amply demonstrate the grandeur and clarity of Bonestell’s art. But in its final chapters, the book takes a right turn into the life and career of Wernher von Braun. Ostensibly this is because Bonestell collaborated with von Braun on the latter’s popular books, The Mars Project (1953) and First Men to the Moon (1958), but the rocket man soon crowds out the painter.
Newell’s account of this figure is long on detail and short on moral judgment. Von Braun’s only ambition, she says, was “to find a way for humankind to explore space”; but he remains “a contested figure” because “while his achievements were great, the cost of those achievements was morally questionable actions.” Morally questionable might strike some readers as weasel-wordage, but Newell doesn’t linger on that. Instead we get accounts of von Braun’s “deep and abiding faith in God,” his talents as a pianist, his “relentlessly precocious” youth, his “happy home life” with his wife and children, and of course his far-reaching technical and engineering know-how.
I found it hard to suppress a purely personal tetchiness as I read these chapters. I grew up in London in the 1960s and ’70s, and the roads along which I walked to school alternated buildings with vacant lots overgrown with vegetation, craters often still clearly discernible. (It’s all been redeveloped now, of course, but it took many decades for the UK to marshal the resources to repair all the bomb damage from the war.) It’s hard not to feel a little narked at the man behind the weapons that caused such damage to my hometown, killing nine thousand people, mostly civilians, into the bargain—that’s three 9/11s, right there. This is where the Apollo program started. It seems to me an abdication of moral responsibility to try to pretend otherwise.
Newell doesn’t omit the fact that von Braun was a member of the SS, but she downplays it, calling his a token affiliation and claiming he rarely wore his uniform (she imagines him “frantically searching through several closets” for it on the rare occasions Heinrich Himmler visited). That’s certainly what von Braun told the Americans after the war. But then again, he would, wouldn’t he? Newell doesn’t record that von Braun first joined the SS in 1933, that by 1940 he was a Sturmführer—that is, a lieutenant—and was promoted three more times during the war. According to Bob Ward’s biography, von Braun was a conventional Nazi and regularly wore his SS uniform to meetings. What’s not in dispute (though Newell doesn’t dwell on this either) is that up to twenty thousand people died at Mittelbau-Dora, the concentration camp that supplied most of the workers for the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile program. Von Braun later claimed, improbably enough, that he had no idea about any of that. Newell, improbably enough, believes him. He was, she thinks, focused solely on taking mankind into space and “in von Braun’s case, with focus comes myopia.” She and I are not going to agree on this matter.
I am not, I hope, sniping merely for the sake of it. This history matters to our conception of the space race, and matters doubly if we wish, as Newell does, to link space exploration and religion. Whatever else it may be, religion is a morality. Newell suggests that von Braun’s motivations were fundamentally humanitarian: “divine ordinance [was] his motivation for building rockets”; space exploration was a means “to save humanity from destruction”; religion was “a necessary check upon science.” Colonizing space was something “he hoped for with his whole heart.” Perhaps it was. And, perhaps, slaughtering the civilian population of London was also something he hoped for with his whole heart. We can’t know, because the human heart is famously opaque.
But surely a better take on von Braun would treat him as a soul alloyed of real good and real evil, something that is true, after all, of every human being. Not only would this more closely reflect human nature, it would be a more theologically interesting way of gauging von Braun’s relationship to the space race. Let’s agree he was the father of Apollo, and concede that Apollo is one of the great achievements of humanity. Biblically speaking, Adam is the father of mankind, and the main thing he passed on to his descendants was his primal sin. I try to imagine an account of Adam that stressed his loving attachment to his family, his skill at playing the psaltery, his work ethic and his closeness to God, mentioning only in passing some controversy concerning “morally questionable” frugivorous consumption. Adam von Rot. Mightn’t it be more interesting to contemplate the Apollo program as a stellar humanitarian ambition that also contained morbid Nazi DNA in its every cell? Might that interpretative labor be worth undertaking, not because it is easy but because it is hard?
After three chapters on von Braun, Newell returns, in an epilogue, to her main thesis: that Chesley Bonestell’s art “followed the spiritual path of Thomas Moran’s paintings of the American west” and “represented a possible future but also acknowledged a historical sense of moral conviction and religious faith.” Newell thinks this quality could unify the “resurgent interest in space” that she sees “bubbling up through culture” in film, TV, and social media, and make a new space age:
History moves in circles, and space exploration, with its emotional freight of faith and hope might be something that can return that sense of purpose to humanity.
Newell’s enthusiasm can’t help but be infectious, here and throughout the book, and she finds in the clarity and precision of Bonestell’s images a fitting correlative to her optimism. For her, the clean lines and sharp sunlight of Bonestell’s images correlate to a spiritual cleanness and renovation. But, considering the moral swamp that was the provenance of this marvelous machinery, perhaps cleanness is simply the wrong frame. Maybe Apollo was always more about our fallenness, and therefore our need for grace.
Which brings me to First Man (2018), directed by Damien Chazelle, with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Clare Foy as Janet Armstrong. The movie cost 70 million dollars to make, which it has barely earned back. (By comparison, Chazelle’s previous movie, La La Land, cost 30 million and earned 500 million worldwide.) I greatly admire First Man, but it’s not hard to see why it failed to persuade a larger audience. It is a masterpiece of claustrophobia, monotony, and melancholia only tangentially about the space program. Audiences expecting the accessible thrills and wonder of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995) or the slower-burn enjoyments of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) were liable to come away bored, baffled, or both.
It’s based on James Hansen’s 2005 biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, and manages commendable fidelity both to the facts of Armstrong’s life and to all the kit and tech of the Apollo program, lovingly reproduced by the filmmakers. But where the book is a lengthy account of the external details of Armstrong’s life, the film is a portrait of an outwardly functioning, inwardly collapsing marriage, a story whose unusual framing—few people, after all, are married to astronauts—manages not to compromise the sensitivity with which Chazelle traces that bitterly common state of affairs. Gosling’s Armstrong in particular is a masterclass in a kind of anti-acting, creating a compellingly plausible blankness where another actor might have emoted and projected. This Armstrong is inward, driven, repressed, more than a little machinelike, more than a little (we would say nowadays) on the spectrum.
By way of unlocking the enigma of the film’s subject, Chazelle and his screenwriter John Singer isolate one incident from Armstrong’s life: the death of his two-year-old daughter Karen of a brain tumor in 1962. The only time we see Gosling’s Armstrong express emotion is following this death, and the movie is bookended by early scenes of Armstrong hugging his dying child and grieving at her funeral and a brief but powerful scene at the end: Armstrong dropping his daughter’s hospital bracelet into the Little West crater a small distance from the lunar lander. The scene is fiction, although it may be more than that. Shortly before leaving the moon, Armstrong did make a private trip to this thirty-meter-wide crater, spending roughly two minutes at the site solus. James Hansen, consulting on the movie, discussed with Chazelle the possibility that Armstrong visited the crater precisely to leave a memento of Karen there. He was an intensely private man, especially where this grief was concerned; it is plausible he wouldn’t have told anybody about such an act.
First Man is a long film punctuated by several intensely rendered, mission-focused set-pieces: Armstrong test-piloting his X-15; inside a malfunctioning Gemini capsule as it whirls hideously about in orbit; and atop the Saturn 5 as it launches into space. Chazelle superbly recreates the claustrophobic feel of these spaces, their rodeo jolts and shakes, layering the soundtrack with an astonishing series of clangs, growls, roars, and bangs, as if metal was being rent around the spacemen by the violence of their travels. It feels authentic, and authentically terrifying.
Between these scenes are interspersed longer, lower-key, precisely observed domestic and bureaucratic interludes: dialed-down observations of home or professional life that often embed what we English call “stiff upper lip” responses to grief. None of the actors grandstand; there’s no villain and little traditional dramatic tension; but that’s fitting, because so much of the experience of being an Apollo astronaut was passive: sitting in meetings; sitting before job-interview panels; answering questions at press conferences; waiting around.
The claustrophobia of the astronauts in their tiny, precarious capsules becomes the movie’s objective correlative of an emotional claustrophobia, the sense of life lived under crushing constraints of conventionality, of Protestant understatement and restraint. Over and again the film shows connections between colleagues and friends, lovers and family, as construed by inarticulacy of feeling and spirit. This works artistically—which is to say, it is more than just dour or strangulated—because First Man is also about a strange suspension in the usual rules of normality, a moment in time when the impossible becomes—magically—achievable. We watch Armstrong holding his dying daughter and pointing at the moon, its circle as gorgeous as a screen print against the blue Californian sky; we see him years later, at home, moon-watching through his telescope rather than speaking to his wife; he waits for lift-off in the command capsule of his Saturn V, gazing on the moon through the cockpit window and trying to keep his eye fixed on it as the rocket shakes and blurs the world all around him.
We’ve all stared at the moon and been struck by her beauty. For millennia human beings worshipped her as a goddess, Selene in Greece, Luna in Rome, Coyolxauhqui among the Aztec, Chang’e in China—always revered from afar. To worship Poseidon is, sometimes, to immerse oneself in the sea; to worship Zeus is sometimes to see the strike of lightning set fire to trees nearby and to hear the rumble of thunder approach you. But to worship the moon has always been to stand a long way distant from the object of your adoration—to be deep in the pro of the fanum. Until, that is, 1969.
For his sequences inside the Apollo 11 capsule, Chazelle used a sixteen-millimeter camera to provide a sense of period-appropriate intimacy and roughness, but when Armstrong opens the hatch of the Eagle to reveal the lunar landscape—like a reverse Dorothy swapping real-world color for a Bizarro-Oz black and white—Chazelle switches to an IMAX seventy-millimeter camera. Watch these sequences on a big screen if you can, because they are breathtaking. The moon’s hypnotic barrenness, astonishingly recreated, figures both literally and metaphorically. After the euphoria of the launch and the landing, the film shifts gear, unobtrusively, into its beautifully understated emotional climax: Armstrong releasing his grief into the blackness at the bottom of the Little West crater.
What makes this scene so moving is the way it distills the spiritual as well as the emotional core of the movie. First Man asks one question in particular, the same question asked in their different ways by Oliver and Newell: what is the spiritual dimension of the space race? We might answer by talking about the grandeur of the undertaking, the sublime immensity of the realm we enter when we leave earth’s familiar round—which is to say, by talking about the overwhelming, infinite immensity of God. This is to read the space race as thrilling, as charismatic. In To Touch the Face of God, Kendrick Oliver argues that “to the extent that spaceflight was a charismatic enterprise…it owed much to religious archetypes and sensibilities.” He thinks the celebrity enjoyed by the early American space pioneers made them “like Catholic saints or the Puritan elect. [T]hese were men who seemed to be fully possessed of grace.”
Grace seems to me a good way of approaching First Man; not the grace reserved for saints and the elect, but, on the contrary, grace as something available to all, and especially (according to the Sermon on the Mount) to the poor in spirit and to those who mourn, who shall be comforted. As a portrait of mourning, First Man moves its protagonist to an extraordinary place to stage its encounter with the comfort that comes after long grief.
Indeed First Man is, I think, saying something quite radical about the blankness of grace, its opacity and incomprehensibility, what Graham Greene, in a rather different context, called “the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” It is indeed about (fittingly for the moon) the lunacy of grace. We are not clean. Whether we profess faith or not, we are profane. We say we come in peace for all mankind, but we are actually warriors, killers, contaminated by something malign and grievous. But still we come. And who knows what release might be found, if we make that journey?
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.