Christianity & the Space Program

January 2002By Lewis M. Andrews

Lewis M. Andrews is Executive Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy in Hartford, Connecticut.

To me, the scientific evidence that we observe in the universe, the intricacies of life with all of its implications of intelligent design, the orderliness of the physical universe…all of these point to a designer, not to an accidental happening.

-- Charles Duke, Apollo 16 lunar module pilot

After nearly a 30-year hiatus that began with the final Apollo mission to the moon in December of 1972, the human effort to colonize our solar system has finally resumed. On November 2, 2000, after what seemed like an endless series of construction delays, the International Space Station -- a $60 billion joint project of the U.S., Russia, Canada, Japan, and the 10 members of the European Space Agency -- became operational with the arrival of its first long-term residents under the command of American Navy astronaut William M. Shepherd.

By the time of its scheduled completion in 2006, the Space Station will cover an area larger than a football field, weigh more than one million pounds, and will be ready to serve as a jumping-off point for colonizing missions to Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and beyond. "We're going to be in space forever," observed NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin on the day Commander Shepherd and his crew blasted off to the Space Station. "[We'll have] people who are circling this globe and then we're going on to Mars, back to the moon and with bases on asteroids." Unlike the Mercury, Soyuz, and Gemini missions of an earlier era, which sought merely to have astronauts reach some distant goal and make their way home safely, the International Space Station is the first of many planned initiatives aimed at something far more significant -- a permanent and expanding human presence on worlds beyond Earth.

This dawning era of extraterrestrial colonization has profound implications for organized religion and the spiritual orientation of popular culture. It matters not that the world's space programs are largely secular efforts, funded by governments with religious attitudes ranging from indifferent to downright hostile. Nor does it matter that organized religion has played little role in the advancement of astronomy since the 17th century. For while the institutional mechanisms financing humanity's move into the solar system may have no formal religious affiliation, the intellectual idea which is today guiding space programs worldwide -- an idea which over the last decade has taken discussions of interplanetary migration out of the pages of science fiction and into the offices of serious aerospace engineers -- represents nothing less than a turning point in the centuries-long estrangement of scientific understanding from religious teaching.

To fully appreciate the broader religious and cultural implications of space colonization, we must first take a little time to understand in some detail an important shift in how the scientific community has come to view the extraterrestrial environment. To begin, we need to go back to 1989 when, on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, the elder President Bush challenged NASA scientists to figure out how it might be possible to put human beings on Mars. The agency came back with a 30-year plan reflecting the then prevailing view of the red planet as a barren and hostile world. Assuming that everything necessary for comfortable human habitation, from oxygen and drinking water to exercise machines and VCRs, had to be imported from Earth, NASA scientists designed an elaborate transportation system that involved the construction of gargantuan docking bays and fuel depots in low-Earth orbit. Not surprisingly, the plan's projected price tag of over $450 billion made it politically dead on arrival.

Today, many of those same NASA engineers believe that a base camp for a Martian colony can be built for only 10 percent of their original estimate -- roughly the cost of developing and deploying your average military fighter plane. Indeed, many now say that a successful mission could be launched in just a few years, relying on spacecraft derived from the same pressurized vehicles NASA has been using since the days of the Mercury program and boosters reconfigured from the current space shuttle.

The key to this affordable vision of space colonization lies in the recent and revolutionary assumption that newly arriving humans will be able to take advantage of abundant indigenous resources. Discoveries from unmanned probes, not just of Mars but of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, the asteroid belt, and even our own moon, have led space scientists to the conclusion that the chemical composition of our solar system can supply much of what thriving human settlements on other worlds would require.

Robert Zubrin, a former senior engineer at Lockheed Martin and recent Executive Director of the National Space Society, is one of the most vocal and influential advocates of space colonization. In a feature article in the March 2000 Scientific American, he described how the successful settlement of Mars could be accomplished with nothing more than a modest fleet of small, four-man spacecraft about the size of the old Apollo capsule and its attached lunar lander.

According to Zubrin, the first of these craft would be sent to Mars under remote control, its return tanks empty of fuel and its crew cabin unoccupied. Landing on the surface, the unmanned spaceship would begin pumping the Martian atmosphere, which is 95 percent carbon dioxide, into a reaction chamber, where it would be exposed to hydrogen and broken down into methane, water, and oxygen. Methane and oxygen make a first-rate rocket fuel; water and oxygen are critical for human survival. All these consumables would be stored inside the ship until months later when two more spacecraft -- one carrying a crew, the other automated like the first -- arrive on the surface of the red planet. The astronauts could work on Mars for 18 months, living principally in their arrival craft, and at the end of their stay abandon that ship, climb into the first robot ship and blast off for home, leaving two spacecraft on the surface that could serve as the beginnings of a permanent human base.

From then on, explains Zubrin, "the U.S. and its international partners would launch two [spacecraft] every other year: one to dispatch a team of four people to inhabit Mars and the other [programmed] to prepare the site for the next mission. The average launch rate of one Mars-bound ship per year is only about 15 percent of the rate at which the U.S. currently launches space shuttles. In effect, [this] live-off-the-land strategy…removes the prospect of a manned mission to Mars from the realm of mega-spacecraft fantasy and renders it a task comparable in difficulty to the Apollo missions to the moon."

As amazing as it may seem, the manufacture of rocket fuel, potable water, and an air supply for the first Martian colonists is just the first step in the use of indigenous resources to create a habitable environment for human settlement, a technology referred to by scientists as "terra-forming." In the case of Mars, the soil already contains enough carbon dioxide gas to give the planet an atmosphere with about one-third the pressure of Earth's at sea level. If, as Zubrin suggests, the planet were warmed slightly with Volkswagen-size machines for generating chlorofluorocarbons imported from Earth, this frozen CO2 "would begin to outgas [allowing] some planet life to exist in the open in the tropical regions, and humans could walk without space suits." Making Mars a still warmer and far wetter world could be achieved either by diverting volatile-rich asteroids to slam onto the planet's surface or by tapping the vast reservoirs of frozen water increasingly believed to exist deep underground.

Given what scientists now know about the chemistry of our solar system, Mars is the first and most obvious candidate for terra-formed colonization, but it is not the only one. Our own moon, although currently lacking any atmosphere at all, has the distinct advantage of circling very close to us. More importantly, the lunar regolith (moon dirt) contains abundant supplies of iron, silicon, aluminum, and oxygen, as well as traces of carbon, nitrogen, and other light elements needed for the construction and maintenance of a thriving human community. Increased concentrations of hydrogen in the north and south polar regions, detected recently by the Clementine and Lunar Prospector satellites, suggest frozen water in those areas, which may be retrievable.

Beyond Mars and the moon, the candidates for colonization are more speculative, but no less intriguing. The two Voyager flybys of Jupiter in 1979 revealed that one of the planet's moons, Europa, contains a vast ocean of liquid water, kept warm below a thin, icy surface by gravitational friction. (Because of the possibility that it may be able to sustain life, the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council concluded in a November 1999 report that the exploration of Europa should be a priority equal to the exploration of Mars.) Saturn's moon Titan, many of the larger asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, and even Venus, may also be made fit for human habitation one day.

How soon, then, are we likely to see the first humans begin to live on Mars? If we were as motivated as we were during the Apollo program, says Zubrin, a manned landing could take place as early as 2005. A more likely date, according to engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is the 2014 opposition. (An opposition is that period, which occurs every 26 months, when Mars and Earth are nearest each other.)

What is certain, even before a single human has landed on Mars or any other planet, is that a new and more inviting vision of the solar system has taken hold within the ranks of scientists and engineers. In contrast to the idiosyncratic and scattered goals of the manned and unmanned missions that followed the collapse of the Apollo program in 1972, space agencies around the globe are all advancing missions, which assume a pivotal role for indigenous materials in the colonization of space. The scientific community has pretty much come to terms with how to proceed with manned space exploration and colonization, observes Bruce Lusignan, Professor of Engineering at Stanford University and Director of the Center for International Cooperation in Space. "NASA has bought into the idea of indigenous fuel production," he says, "and the broader use of indigenous materials is gaining great acceptance." Christopher McKay, a Planetary Scientist with NASA's Space Science Division, whose work involves planning for future human settlements, agrees. Particularly in the case of Mars, he says, "the re-creation of habitable conditions [is] within our technical reach."

But even more profound than the impact on space science is the inevitable philosophical impact that the notion of an inviting universe will have on mass culture. Throughout Western history, the extent to which the laws of the natural world appear designed with humanity's well being in mind has influenced the popular acceptance of religious beliefs. Divine design is the message at the heart of the creation account in the Old Testament and is a bedrock of the Judeo-Christian worldview, so much so that Augustine, Maimonides, Aquinas, and other post-Roman philosophers formalized the discipline of teleology -- the study of the evidence for intelligent design and purpose in nature.

At the end of the 16th century, when Copernicus and later Galileo and Kepler challenged Aristotle's "sacred geography" of the universe with the Earth at the center of God's creation, the progress of astronomy began to marginalize the position of the Earth relative to the rest of the universe; and with this demotion began what is commonly thought of as the "natural split" between science and religion. In more recent times, the further demotion of the Earth relative to the solar system, the sun relative to our galaxy, and our galaxy relative to the vastness of the universe has further deprived humanity of an apparent confirmation of its faith in the structure of the physical universe.

Of course, many of the greatest modern astronomers and physicists have continued to find evidence of an intelligent, overall design at the deepest levels of their scientific understanding. Newton, Paley, and Einstein are frequently cited as examples of the fact that a scientific perspective does not necessarily contradict religious faith. But the elusive subtlety of their insights has largely failed to counteract the metaphorical power of the sky chart, not just among the masses, but among other scientists -- especially the social scientists, whose work purports to bridge the gap between nature and human meaning. For most of the last century and a half, the "educated" explanation for the existence of mankind has been that it evolved as a statistical fluke. With an expanding universe and billions of stars, it was only a matter of time before chance produced the first spark of organic life -- like the infinite number of monkeys finally getting around to typing one of Shakespeare's sonnets.

Then, in the 1960s, a number of physicists, including Robert Dicke and Brandon Carter, made an observation that would begin to alter the way a number of other scientists viewed the universe. They noted that human life is possible in our galaxy only because of the delicate interrelationship of a number of cosmological constants, including the force of gravity, the strength of weak nuclear forces within the atom, and the ratio of electron to proton mass. A slight deviation in any of these constants would make the existence of our world a physical impossibility. For many scientists, including Princeton physicist John Wheeler, this was the dawning of a new teleology that has come to be known as the "anthropic principle": the belief that everything about the universe tends toward man, toward making human life possible and sustaining it. In Wheeler's own words, "A life-giving factor lies at the center of the whole machinery and design of the world."

Now, with the development of terra-forming, we have an emerging view of our solar system as conveniently constructed, not merely for humanity's existence, but for its growth and expansion. The Earth has provided humanity with abundant raw materials, which we have fashioned into machines capable of lifting us to the moon, to Mars, and to celestial bodies beyond. These other worlds, it turns out, are rich in the very elements needed both to sustain life and to carry us to the outer planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus -- perhaps even to planetary systems beyond our own sun. In the words of physicist Freeman Dyson: "The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming."

Not only does it suddenly seem possible that humanity may occupy a more strategic position in the structure of the universe than science has for centuries allowed, but it is even possible to speculate that the human race has been molded to some destiny by a fortuitous placement of natural resources. If we are not at the geographical center of the universe, as the ancient theologians had imagined, we at least appear to be at the base of an ingeniously constructed ladder, inviting us outward. It is almost as if God has extended an invitation, if not to an Olympian throne, to a series of purposeful adventures. "As we survey all the evidence," writes astronomer George Greenstein, "the thought insistently arises that some supernatural agency -- or, rather, Agency -- must be involved. Is it possible that suddenly, without intending to, we have stumbled upon scientific proof of the existence of a Supreme Being? Was it God who stepped in and so providentially crafted the cosmos for our benefit?"

This new argument from design has only just begun to make its way into popular thinking through the writings of a few astronomers, physicists, and theologians with a scientific background. But over the next decade, as the public's understanding of space is reshaped through the mass media's coverage of preparations for the exploration of Mars, the psychological groundwork will be laid for the first religiously friendly popular cosmology in four centuries. As Frederick Turner, a professor at the University of Texas who has written about the psychological implications of terra-forming, has concluded, "The solar system, as we are coming to understand it, appears to be a catalyst for spiritual development." Even before the first human being has landed on the red planet, visions of man-made oceans and designer atmospheres on terra-formed planets will be widely accepted as technically feasible. And with this deeper appreciation of the wondrous potential of our solar system will come a renewed sense that "the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth His handiwork" (Psalm 19:1).

At the very least, the vision of a beckoning universe, upon which the colonization of space depends, will mean that science and religion may begin to return to their historical relationship. Until astronomy's "demotion" of Earth in the 16th century, science and religion were more like siblings than outright antagonists -- feeding off and sparring with each other in the common quest for human understanding. In the 21st century, the growing perception of a universe "designed" for the benefit of human expansion cannot help but advance the cause of science among believers -- just as it should open scientifically inclined minds to the wisdom of scriptural truth.

Christianity, then, clearly has much to gain from the colonization of space, but the surprising convergence of celestial chemistry and spiritual conviction naturally leads us to wonder whether organized religion might have a more direct role to play in the actual process of establishing human colonies on nearby worlds. Donald M. Scott, Aerospace Education Specialist at NASA's Ames Research Center, points out that aeronautical engineering, astronomy, aviation, and the other space-related professions, have always attracted a disproportionately high number of believers. "Charlie Duke, who went to the moon, became an evangelical minister," Scott points out, while astronauts such as James Irwin, Harrison Schmitt, and Russell Schweickart have been quite open about their religious beliefs -- sometimes to the discomfort of NASA's politically appointed administrators.

If this past is any guide, we can take it for granted that many space explorers will be guided by a private faith in Jesus Christ. But is there a more public and visibly essential contribution that Christian churches, as institutions, will make to humanity's migration to the stars? In a society that has trouble permitting Christmas displays in city parks or the use of publicly funded vouchers in religiously affiliated schools, is it possible for a federal agency like NASA to permit the formal participation of organized religion in its future activities?

Probably not in the near future. But then it is by no means certain that national governments, which up to now have funded most of the advances in space exploration, will continue to play such a dominant role. Nineteen ninety-seven marked the first year that global expenditures for commercial-related space activities exceeded government expenditures, a disparity that is widening every year due to the explosive growth in orbiting telecommunications gear. In January of the following year, a study by the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation identified at least two dozen reusable launch vehicle programs underway around the world, many supported exclusively by private investors such as the Rotary Rocket Company and Kistler Aerospace. And just last year, SpaceDev, a publicly traded California company founded with the objective of making space development and colonization a financially viable business, signed three important agreements: one with Boeing to design a commercial lunar orbiter, another with Canada's Northern Centre for Advanced Technology to develop mineral drilling assemblies for use on asteroids, and a third with Lockheed Martin to market small rockets for piggybacking several commercial payloads into one launch. Many legal experts believe that private industry could move much faster to colonize space if the U.S. and other countries would simply agree on an extraterrestrial version of the Law of the Sea, granting property and mineral rights to the first successful settlers.

What is certain is that the first off-world colonists, whether they represent governments or stockholders or perhaps even wealthy individuals, will have to be very committed. For the fact that colonization of our solar system has become feasible through the use of indigenous resources does not mean that the first steps will be easy or safe. Before there is anything remotely resembling an Earth-like atmosphere on Mars, at least a generation of colonists will have to endure cramped quarters in heavily shielded and carefully pressurized habitats. Before would-be settlers can cruise swiftly from Earth to other planets on spacious, permanently cycling passenger liners, they will find themselves cooped up for months at a time in small, reusable service modules.

Both the American and Russian experiences with extended orbital missions suggest that the first wave of space colonists will have to endure enormous psychological pressures. The combined stresses of seeing the same faces day after day, of enduring the ills and disorientation of weightlessness, and of never having a moment alone precipitated a rebellion on the U.S. space station Skylab during the third crew rotation in November 1973. The three astronauts at first deliberately let their schedule slip and then defied ground controllers' instructions by taking a day off. Russia's Mir space station was the site of comparable tensions, according to astronauts and cosmonauts who shared time there.

"When I first became interested in space back in the 1950's," recalls Garth Hull of NASA's Ames Research Center, "there was a lot of talk about ‘conquering' space, much of which seems inappropriate today. The challenge of colonizing Mars, the moon, and other planets will be finding astronauts who can keep their balance and live in an harmonious relationship with each other and their new environment." At the same time, he adds, "they will have to be people of strong convictions who are willing to take great risks…. It will be very interesting to see how the first crews are selected and which crews accomplish something of lasting value."

Interestingly, a similar challenge inhibited the settlement of the New World during the 16th and 17th centuries, especially New England. Colony after colony failed in the face of stressful living conditions, including harsh winter weather, primitive agriculture, disease, and isolation from European society. It was not until the arrival of the Pilgrims, and the Puritans who followed them, that bands of would-be settlers were finally able to take hold and thrive.

What made the Pilgrims and Puritans so different from those who had come before was that they did not go to the Americas as adventurers, conquerors, merchants, scientists, or even explorers, but as planters of a religious community. The Pilgrims were Separatists, wanting to sever all ties with the Church of England, while the Puritans were not seeking a complete divorce. But both groups came with a desire to revitalize their Christian faith and felt themselves bound up with God in this task.

A closer examination of the Puritan's history is instructive. Early in the 17th century Sir Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, worked diligently with like-minded Puritan gentry to promote traditional religious values in English society; but, fearing that his efforts would prove futile, he developed a contingency plan to establish a reformed colony in the Americas. Throughout the 1620s he busily organized groups of religious settlers and their financial backers, mainly from London, Essex, and other areas of England, where strict Protestantism was strongest. John White, a Dorset clergyman who helped to organize the expedition that landed at Cape Ann in 1626, recalled how the desire to advance religion was the most essential ingredient in the colony's ultimate success. "The most eminent and desirable end of planting colonies is the propagation of Religion," he wrote. "Necessity may oppress some," White admitted, "novelty draws on others: hopes of gain in time to come may prevail with a third sort: but…the most sincere and Godly part have the advancement of the Gospel for their main scope…."

Today's most outspoken advocates for space colonization are well aware of the pivotal role played by spiritual idealism in the settlement of North America. In 1996 Zubrin wrote a book, The Case for Mars, in which he outlined in technical detail how the red planet could be transformed at minimal cost into a hospitable environment for hundreds of human settlements. But his epilogue, "The Significance of the Martian Frontier," reads less like a scientific text than a prophetic warning, pointing to the moral and intellectual dangers to our society if we are unable to meet the challenges of space. Drawing heavily on the arguments of historian Arnold Toynbee, he calculates the numerous factors affecting the advance and decline of the great civilizations and entices the reader with a plan, not just for settling another planet, but for saving humanity from its "ever more apparent loss of vigor," including "the spread of irrationalism" and "the banalization of popular culture." Democracy in America and elsewhere, he writes, "needs a shot in the arm. That boost can only come from the example of a frontier people whose civilization incorporates the ethos that breathed the spirit into democracy in America in the first place."

In the summer of 1998 Zubrin, along with astronaut Buzz Aldrin and several prominent scientists, established the Mars Society, whose annual meetings are clearly aimed at funneling the growing disenchantment with contemporary secular culture into support for the colonization of space, with Mars as the first goal. Technical seminars on spacecraft systems and advanced robotics are interspersed with lectures on "Theological Considerations Concerning Terra-forming Mars" and discussions of a Martian "bill of rights," including the right to develop extraterrestrial resources, the right to improve nature genetically, and the right to practice an occupation without government regulation. In the short time since the society's founding convention, it has become the largest space advocacy group in America with a membership of over 4,000 scientists, aerospace investors, public policy analysts, artists, and writers from more than 40 countries, eclipsing both the late Carl Sagan's Planetary Society and the National Space Society.

While not promoting an explicitly Christian vision of an improved off-world civilization, the Mars Society has clearly made itself a home for people who do. The Rev. James Heiser, a Lutheran minister and publisher, who heads the Mars Society's task force on religion, has attracted an enthusiastic following for his arguments drawing a parallel between the role of disaffected 17th-century Christians in the colonization of North America and the potential interest of contemporary faith communities in future space settlement.

Heiser is especially vocal on the similarity he sees between the estrangement of the Puritans from the materialism of 17th-century English society and the alienation of contemporary Christians from secular culture. "From a Christian perspective," he says, "many of the currents in Enlightenment, Modern, and Post-Modern thinking seem progressively dehumanizing as they become increasingly agnostic or atheistic. The stark reality is that contemporary Christians, in their relationship to Western cultural elites, are probably experiencing a greater sense of cultural isolation and alienation than did their seventeenth-century forefathers."

Heiser foresees a future in which some Christians will decide neither to reform secular society nor to stand apart within it, but -- like their pioneering ancestors -- to create a New Jerusalem in a very distant land. Rather than representing an anomaly, he believes the small but growing number of Christians interested in space colonization "signals a potential trend, and that more organizations [like the Mars Society] will begin to be established, if and when the notion of space settlement gains broader public support. In fact, various Lutheran pastors I have recently spoken with have for the most part been in favor of organized church involvement in any future space settlement."

Another organization that foresees an important role for Christians in the settlement of the solar system is the Association of Roman Catholics for the Promotion of Space Exploration and Colonization (ARCSEC), headquartered in Mansfield, Massachusetts. Founded in July 1997 by a group of astronomers, engineers, physicists, university professors, and others interested in looking at the prospects for space development from a Catholic perspective, ARCSEC publishes an online journal (available for free with a request to and encourages discussion on topics ranging from "The History of the Condemnation of Galileo" to "The Necessary Role of Catholics in the Emerging Space Culture."

Brother Alexis Bugnolo, a Franciscan who is ARCSEC's administrative secretary, agrees that the challenges facing the first generation of space colonists will require exceptional dedication, noting that movies and science fiction books too often promote "the mistaken idea that space is friendly." Bugnolo also believes that Christian settlers, with their strong moral base and religious conviction, "would persevere much better than others in such a hostile environment."

But Bugnolo is also wary of extrapolating too far from the experiences of the Pilgrims and Puritans. "Colonizing space," he insists, "isn't like sailing to the New England wilderness and building yourself a cabin on the edge of the forest." Even with the kind of low-budget, "living-off-the-land" effort envisioned by Zubrin and others, he believes colonizing a planet will still take the kind of money and sophisticated equipment not likely to be available to groups of religious settlers.

Instead, Bugnolo envisions the role of Christianity as helping to resolve the thorny ethical issues inevitably arising from the development of space: What, for example, constitutes humane working conditions on a harsh off-world environment? What are the appropriate guidelines for terra-forming a planet that harbors unique primitive organisms beneath its surface? (If, for example, there turns out to be life in the frozen ice on Mars, should the environment be altered so that it can emerge and spread across the planet before plants are introduced from Earth?) And who owns the valuable off-world resources, such as helium-3 (3He), which will be needed in the future for safe nuclear fusion and which is found in abundance only on the moon and in the atmospheres of the outer planets of our solar system?

Bugnolo foresees a more active role for Christian space explorers only in the event that intelligent life is discovered beyond our solar system -- a possibility whose probability has increased with the recent discovery that distant stars with planetary systems are more common than previously thought. "The Bible does not proclaim the existence of an intelligent, alien species; but neither does it preclude the possibility," he points out. What St. Paul's hymns in Colossians 1 and Ephesians 1 do make clear is that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ applies to all creation -- "everything in the heavens and everything on earth" -- and, if intelligent life were discovered on other worlds, many Christians would feel the need to evangelize the definitive salvation event in the entire cosmos. John Polkinghorne, a former chairman of the physics department at Cambridge University who resigned to study for the Anglican priesthood, agrees. The most interesting question about life in space, he says, is not "whether it exists, but what it believes -- does it have a religion?"

Whatever Christianity's relationship to the coming colonization of space -- whether as the intellectual beneficiary of a science that strengthens arguments from design or perhaps, in addition, as the spiritual glue holding together the first successful settlements -- we will likely witness a rehabilitation of the attitude of cultural elites toward faith, the significance of which we can only dimly imagine. Having for centuries been marginalized by Western academics, religious ideas will be increasingly connected with notions of scientific progress and social advancement.

Unfortunately, such a development is not without its dangers, for there has always been a tendency among social philosophers to imagine an earthly manifestation of their highest ideals. For Plato it was Atlantis, a land overflowing with milk and honey. Plutarch wrote of Spanish sailors who had been to the Islands of the Blest; Seneca predicted that a huge, idyllic land would someday be discovered in the west; and Ptolemy designated the farthest habitable regions on his second-century maps of Europe as "the Fortunate Islands." In a telling indication of the imminence of space colonization, both the political Left and Right have begun to deliver up their respective visions of a Martian utopia. Environmental activists have succeeded in getting a handful of countries (not including the U.S.) to sign a treaty declaring Mars "the common heritage of mankind" -- a place where endangered species from Earth could presumably be transplanted and protected. On the other hand, Edward Hudgins, Director of Regulatory Studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, has argued for a free market economy on the red planet with no central government.

Christian writers through the ages have also succumbed to this utopian tendency. Many fifth- and sixth-century European monks argued that Eden still existed as a garden of delights just beyond the maps of the times; and paradise fiction, glamorizing the quests of brave missionaries to discover this surviving Eden, became a popular genre of sacred literature. In the eighth century a group of Iberian bishops fleeing Muslim invaders were rumored to have settled in an archipelago named Antilla, where their descendents, having transcended man's fallen state, dwelled in happy utopian communities. Four centuries later the desire of European monarchs to expel the Saracens from Jerusalem inspired the myth of Prester John, a supposed descendent of the Three Wise Men, who ruled over a magical kingdom somewhere in the Indies and whose army was preparing to help liberate the Holy Land. The kingdom of Prester John was resurrected three centuries later as part of Portugal's drive to circumnavigate Africa -- and two centuries after that with the Russian effort to develop overland trade with India.

I am not suggesting that future Christian space colonists are going to be motivated by a quest for biblical sites (although astronaut James Irwin did have a vision of Noah's Ark on the way to the moon and spent the rest of his life back on Earth trying to find it). But it is not at all difficult to imagine that some will mistakenly see in the power to terra-form entire worlds the possibility for humanity to transcend its Fallen state, to interpret the redemption of mankind as a technological event.

Already we have a school of thought, represented by University of Hawaii sociologist Ben Finney and Los Alamos astrophysicist Eric Jones, which argues that through space exploration -- and ultimately the colonization of distant planets -- a new, more genetically advanced species of homo sapiens will be produced. Michael Martin-Smith, a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, has gone the added step of coming to a religious conclusion: "Apart from creating a universal civilization, immune to asteroid impacts and ecological exhaustion, the diversity of [extraterrestrial] habitats…would allow rapid evolution to the point where our present imperfect species could expect to make way for a superior model. With the long struggle for limited energy and materials behind us, and the end of the long grinding battle against gravity, maybe the kind of higher being predicted by so many of human religions could at last flower."

The temptation to find the City of God in the City of Man remains a resilient corruption of Christian thought -- witness the spiritualized materialism of New Age churches, Teilhard de Chardin's interpretation of the Second Coming of Christ as the perfection of our technological culture, and most recently the rising popularity of transmillennialism (the belief that the "End Time" foreseen by Jesus refers to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and that, ever since, man's redemption has been revealed in a rising train of human progress). Although the lessons of human history should be more than sufficient evidence that man cannot perfect himself, the emergence of a Christian utopianism is perhaps the greatest danger of the coming age of space colonization.

This suggests one final role for organized religion in the settlement of our solar system, a role it has always had in relation to science: to remind its followers that salvation comes first through a faith in things unseen, not in the creation of material marvels. The significance of the space frontier, as Bugnolo has observed, lies in the opportunity "of renewing the human race in Christ and for Christ, for there is no other name, under heaven…, by which we are to be saved from ourselves." If the colonization of the planets and moons and meteors and comets inspires people to authentic progress, it will be in the acceptance of the gentle yoke of Christ, not in the barbarism of an otherworldly utopia.

Back to January 2002 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
I've always thought that the same people who would have prevented us from setting foot on the North American continent have prevented us from exploring space. They call themselves "progressives" but as in all Orwellian code they want to regress society back to the feudal era. All the better to keep us from exploring. With all the tremendous advances in technology since the late '60s lunar expeditions, we should have reached Mars a decade or two ago. It's not a mystery why we haven't, it's Marxist-Muslim politics. Posted by: j17ghs
November 19, 2009 12:45 PM EST
Add a comment