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date: 19 January 2019

Space Exploration

The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature

Daniel C. Noel,

Daniel C. Noel

Space Exploration 

Loren Eiseley called the return to Earth from space “the last miracle” in his book The Invisible Pyramid (Eiseley was a renowned paleontologist at the University of Pennsylvania; the most well received of his eloquent popular writings on evolution was The Immense Journey). But that is not the first thing that needs to be said in a discussion of space exploration, religion, and nature. So let me return to Eiseley's important insight later on. I want to begin, instead, with astronaut Michael Collins' comment about the Apollo program: he said it was all about leaving.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that space exploration entails the abandonment of the Earth and its nature, leaving them behind in a technological thrust onward and upward. Surely technology, not nature, has been the emphasis of space exploration, and arguably technology has always been about surmounting nature. Of course, an other-worldly religious orientation in the West has helped to generate such an Earth-denying agenda on the part of technology, so that a film with a fast cut from Gothic cathedral spires to Cape Canaveral gantries would not lack semantic continuity. And Loren Eiseley's book title suggests an even longer history for our superhuman drive to be up, up, and away.

To be sure, the technological mission was eventually meant to supplant the spiritual priorities that fueled it, based as it was on scientific perspectives that scarcely allowed for gods in heaven above, let alone in Earth's sacred groves. Thus it was entirely consistent with such perspectives when a Soviet cosmonaut derisively observed the lack of angels visible along his flight path transcending terrestrial skies. By the same token, the U.S. astronauts' Christmas reading from lunar orbit sounded sincere but sentimental – and seriously out of keeping with the mechanistic attitudes they were triumphantly embodying. In spiritual terms their accomplishments were rather a defilement of whatever sacred attributes either the Earth or the moon were thought to possess by more traditionally religious cultures.

Even the mediating image of the garden, representing a more gentle technology in relative attunement with nature, is jettisoned by our recent rocket launches into space. Buckminster Fuller's “Spaceship Earth” idea – described in the inventor and philosopher's 1969 work Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth but made public by Fuller even earlier – had already imagined our home planet as a totally technological environment, and a mechanistic vision was no less dominant in dreams of a future in space: gardens completely surrounded and tightly controlled in floating biospheres; space colonies on the moon or Mars, allowing only a life-sustaining minimum of neo-nature, purged of all wildness; “terraforming” fantasies in which heavenly bodies would be scarified in an engineer's caricature of earthly ecology. A 1979 article by George Woodcock summed up these techno-horticultural visions as “the garden in the machine,” reversing Leo Marx's earlier notion of American environmental history as “the machine in the garden.”

Surely, however, venerable American archetypes of advancing frontiers and Manifest Destiny continued to shape the efforts of NASA as well as the eloquence of John F. Kennedy in pursuing the space race with the Soviet Union, which propelled us to the moon. Woodcock's essay appeared in a special issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review commemorating the tenth anniversary of the first lunar landing. Most of the articles and poems in the issue noted the emphatically technological auspices of the space venture, along with the unreflective if not robot-like behavior of the astronauts, trained to a technical perfection which excluded, with rare exceptions, any philosophical or poetic, let alone religious, musing on their unique experiences in space.

Institute of Noetic Sciences

In 1974, within two years of his flight on Apollo 14, Navy Captain Edgar Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Approaching Earth at the conclusion of his mission he had envisioned that our home planet and the universe as a whole were involved in a living system, and that we could come to understand this system through other ways of knowing – the ancient Greek sense of the adjective “noetic” – than science presently allowed for. Trained as an engineer and scientist, Mitchell wanted to expand rather than circumvent science, and he felt the human mind, human consciousness, had powers which science, rigorously applied, could yet uncover. His Institute attempts to achieve this and related aims through publications, conferences, and a website (, plus sponsoring community groups, networking opportunities, and a travel program.

In its Noetic Sciences Review and its members' news-letter, there are articles on ecology and environmental ethics, transpersonal psychology and its attempt to explicate various mystical spiritualities scientifically, “new paradigm” physics, alternative or “complementary” healing modalities, and testimonies about altruistic efforts to realize human potentials while supporting peaceful attempts at social change toward ecological sustainability. Reflecting these interests is the Institute's alliance with popular author-researchers such as physicians Deepak Chopra, Dean Ornish, Herbert Benson, and Larry Dossey, scientists Rupert Sheldrake, Amit Goswami, and Peter Russell, and humanistic psychologist Jean Houston. Its current membership numbers around 50,000 worldwide.

Thus has Captain Mitchell implemented in an adventurously scientific and ambitiously institutional way his spiritual vision of the Earth in space.

Daniel C. Noel

Several contributors to the issue decried this response to space exploration as dehumanizing, but all noted the focus of NASA and its astronauts on finding the factual information and acting on it efficiently, with seldom a thought given to the romance of the journey. The exceptions were indeed rare: Edgar Mitchell returned from space a spiritual seeker with transpersonal psychology interests and founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences; James Irwin splashed down as a Christian evangelical who started a “High Frontier” ministry. These two responses were in stark contrast to the military overtones of the “New Frontier” competition with the Soviets or the later “Star Wars” dreams of missile defense. Mitchell and Irwin saw something sacred in space but also turned back to look at the Earth. And, through the media, so did we.

Certainly it was the view of Earth afforded us by space exploration that led to Loren Eiseley's “last miracle.” Of course, this view suggested different things to different onlookers. Some, like President Carter, saw its message as laudably pacific but largely political: no national boundaries were visible on the Earth from space. Others found this an incitement to mystical dreams of Oneness. Some were struck aesthetically by the beauty of a blue-and-white planet that looked like a precious jewel or Christmas tree ornament. May Swenson, in her poem “Orbiter Five Shows How Earth Looks from the Moon,” found a dancing woman, a temple celebrant, in the outlines of clouds and continents.

In this poetic perception we begin to get intimations of archaic spirituality, Earth-oriented rituals, myths, and ceremonial sites which once involved reverence for the immanently sacred that aligned us with nature and its cycles. Even popular films with space themes hinted at this deep sense of terrestrial reconnection, as I pointed out in my 1986 book, Approaching Earth. The black monolith, modeled on Stonehenge, in 2001: A Space Odyssey; a Mayan temple that provided the rebel base in the first Star Wars; and the Native American sacred mountain serving as the rendezvous point for earthlings and aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind all bespoke earthly imperatives which counterbalanced the spacefaring quests of the films' main characters and the Space-Age culture they represented. In each case, through these ancient religious rallying sites, a closeness to terrestrial nature seemed the surprising accompaniment to an ostensibly outward-bound focus.

It is fair to say that a renewed connection to nature did not occur in any specific and full-blown way to the Earth's outer-space onlookers until the Whole Earth Catalog emerged with the famous photograph on its cover and a message of ecologically sustainable living in its pages. Here a green consciousness was blended with a techie sensibility: technology can yet return to heal the Earth it has sought to abandon.

Still, the whole-Earth photo was pivotal, even miraculous, in reorienting our attention toward the terrestrial environment. When the first Earth Day was proclaimed in 1970 following a decade of manned space flight and the first lunar landing, Earth and its nature became the most significant discovery – or rediscovery – of the Space Age. It seems more than a coincidence that 1970 was also the year that The Invisible Pyramid was published.

Loren Eiseley's post-Apollo vision, set forth in this text with the same eloquence he had displayed in The Immense Journey, involved his having been shown Halley's comet in the night sky when he was a small boy in 1910. He knew that Halley's would be returning in 1985, and he saw that return – which he did not live to witness – as a metaphor for the conscious and caring re-entry he felt a technological culture in the Age of Space needed to make into the green world, the “sunflower forest,” of nature's processes. With characteristic evocative power, The Invisible Pyramid set forth his hope for this “last miracle” of technology, the realization of earthly nature and its tending as the first priority of space exploration.

The attitudes of the 1970s in many ways followed the lead of Earth Day and Eiseley's hopes, replacing the attitudes of Earth-denial in the 1960s. In 1974 Lewis Thomas' The Lives of a Cell envisioned the Earth as a fragile one-celled organism within which human beings are a kind of nervous system. A year later English geochemist James Lovelock presented his “Gaia Hypothesis,” a more scientifically grounded version of Thomas' metaphor, in an article that was succeeded in 1979 by his book with the arresting subtitle Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.

Lovelock, with biologist Lynn Margulis, had taken his inferences from observing the surface of Mars in work with NASA and applied them to the Earth. He proposed that the latter was an autonomous being creating and adjusting the organic conditions, from the atmosphere to human life, for its own continued existence as a global biosphere. Lovelock got the name for his hypothesis, the pre-Olympian Earth goddess of ancient Greece, from his neighbor in England, the novelist William Golding.

And it has to be said that, at least initially, the Gaia Hypothesis resonated more positively (if often vaguely) with aesthetics and spirituality than with strict science. In fact, Lovelock was taken aback by the outpouring of agreement from those who knew little or nothing about ecology as a science.

Nevertheless, this proposal further underscored the terrestrial reconnection that space exploration had quite amazingly begun to foster: not only was this a redirection of our attention, but also, for many, a reenergized reverence for nature. Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space, may have had the extraction of “natural resources” more in mind than a Gaian spirituality, but it was evocative for her to speak in favor of a “Mission to Earth” a few years after the last lunar landing in 1972. The testimony of contemporary literature, too, was for the most part supportive of earthward rather than of spaceward ideals, as Ronald Weber concluded in 1985 in his Seeing Earth: Literary Responses to Space Exploration.

By 1986, on the other hand, several reassessments tempered any totally upbeat view of our Space-Age rebirth as eco-earthlings. In the papers from a conference on ecofeminism, Yaakov Jerome Garb raised questions about whether our vantage point from outer space represented “perspective” or, after all, “escape.” He deconstructed the whole-Earth photograph to find an alienating distance, a literalistic image, and a disturbingly univocal sign of the “one-true-story.” Peter Bishop weighed in with a Jungian critique of “the shadows of the holistic Earth,” fears of immensity, loss, and fragmentation hidden in our Space-Age fantasies of environmental harmony and order. I contributed a milder warning with a piece called “Getting Back to Gaia,” a prelude to my Approaching Earth book, in which I pointed out Lovelock's ignorance of the implications of the name he borrowed for his hypothesis – and the consequent need for a non-scientific sophistication about the myths and metaphors at play in our Space-Age reconsiderations of Earth lest these be lost in exclusively cybernetic strategems.

The explosion of the Challenger space shuttle that same year was another disquieting factor, turning us away from space exploration and toward earthly agendas, to be sure, but offering a reminder that our reconnection could be tinged with tragedy.

In the end, though, as appraised from the dawn of a new millennium, when millionaire Dennis Tito has just returned from orbit with an “ordinary citizen's” reiteration of the inspiration the whole-Earth view gave him to be a born-again earthling, the most striking lesson to retain from our first forays into space is clear. They eventually provided the angle of vision that galvanized a new environmentalism, including an emergent ecofeminism, which “greened” most religious expressions, while perhaps as well specifically promoting a resurgent neo-paganism. Admittedly these movements have not swept aside the arguably patriarchal politics of pollution and exploitation. But space exploration provided a new start, and new hope, for the forces seeking ecological sanity and spirituality in a technological future.

Or perhaps it was Earth herself who was calling us back, teaching us that at the height of our highest technological leap beyond her bounds, our humanness required a seemingly outmoded grounding in the dark wet soil of home, Eiseley's ancient sunflower forest. A miracle indeed – a last one, we are well-advised to imagine, in that it is, finally, a remarkably positive legacy from the end of the troubled century when we first ventured into space.

Daniel C. Noel

Further Reading

Eiseley, Loren. The Invisible Pyramid. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970.Find this resource:

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. New York: Simon & Schuster Clarion Books, 1969.Find this resource:

Lovelock, James. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.Find this resource:

The Moon Landing and its Aftermath” (special issue). Michigan Quarterly Review 18:2 (Spring 1979).Find this resource:

Noel, Daniel C. Approaching Earth: A Search for the Mythic Significance of the Space Age. Warwick, NY: Amity House, 1986.Find this resource:

Weber, Ronald. Seeing Earth: Literary Responses to Space Exploration. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985.Find this resource:

See also: Astronauts; Eiseley, Loren; Fuller, Buckminster; Lovelock, James; UFOs and Extraterrestrials.