TO TOUCH THE FACE OF GOD: The Sacred, the Profane, and the American Space Program, 1957-1975 by Kendrick Oliver. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. 248 pages. Hardcover; $39.95. ISBN: 9781421407883.
This recent book examines several possible connections between religious thought and the exploration of space, more specifically Christianity and the American space program through the Apollo moon landings and shortly thereafter. Having thought about this topic myself--and dismissed any such connection--I was not expecting much from this work. However, although the book shows that these connections might not be present or robust, it explores the issues with depth and insight.
In considering these connections, we can focus our thinking around a simple question: did religion motivate the space program, or provide a post hoc framework for its interpretation? The former might be seen in a general ethos on the part of key leaders or individuals in the trenches. This motivation is unlikely. Even Charlie Duke, who walked on the moon during the Apollo 16 mission and later became an active Christian evangelist, separates any religious drive from his role in the program (Moonwalker; Thomas Nelson, 1990). His religious conversion came later. He was driven, as were many of the astronauts and engineers in the early years of the program, by the need to push boundaries; the motivation was as simple as that. Consider also that the Soviet Union was in space first, and now China has a very active space program--neither of these are known for overt religiosity on the governmental or institutional level (although admittedly we cannot know the inner motivations of the individuals involved). The second part of the question is of more interest and potential relevance: was the exploration of space, driven by whatever motivations, later interpreted through the lens of a spiritual or even religious quest? This is a question explored throughout most of the book.
The book's introduction is an astute, literate, and readable setting of the culture of the time (the 1960s). This material is not fundamentally new, but it is presented with a different emphasis than in other works, and well done. More generally, the author is willing to look past simple answers. For example, the invocation of religious language (Kennedy asks God's blessing at the start of the Apollo program) could well reflect cultural/political views, not religious views in any real sense. The author marshals an impressive array of research exploring many related and some tangential areas, such as the rise of evangelism and a look back to a time when technology was seen as a redemptive force for humanity. The religious question is raised early on: is our quest into space performed in praise of God, or rather does it preclude the need for God since we...
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