It took three efforts, but last night space shuttle Discovery finally left the launch pad at Cape Canaveral on a 13-day mission to bring supplies to the International Space Station.
On board are 17,000 pounds of gear, including a $5 million treadmill and mice which will be studied to determine the effects of bone loss in a zero-gravity environment. "Let's go step up the science on the international space station," declared commander Rick Sturckow right before Discovery thundered into the midnight air and lit up the sky.
Think of the shuttle and the ISS, and images of astronauts conducting cutting-edge scientific experiments come to mind. Indeed, the space program has been a veritable fountainhead of discoveries, and fueled new technologies that have benefitted humanity. Friday night's launch, though, included something relatively rare for the beleaguered space program, another dollop of religious proselytizing. On board is a piece of the airplane that in 1956 ferried Christian missionaries to Ecuador. The proselytizers were later killed by members of the Waodani tribe, and the incident became the inspiration for a 2006 movie, "The End of the Spear." Astronaut Patrick Forrester reportedly contacted the Idaho-based Missionary Aviation Fellowship with the idea of carrying the artifact into space.
According to Religion News Service, Forrester told the group "Bringing attention to and renewing interest in missions would be a great result of this experience."
Indeed, the Discovery flight is re-igniting discussion on blogs and web sites about the importance of proselytizing, even if it enlists an otherwise secular government agency, and one dedicated to the pursuit of scientific inquiry.
The MAF homepage says that Mr. Forrester wants to "honor all missionaries around the world," and that the artifact in question -- a piece from the plane's battery box -- was approved by NASA for "confirming to size and weight restrictions."
"I've always had a heart for missions," says Forrester. "When I visualize what I might do after ending my career at NASA, always in the back of my mind is going into the mission field in some way..." He added that following the Discovery flight, he will return the artifact to the Christian group which will then display it at its headquarters.
This is not the first time that NASA has served as a pulpit for proselytizing -- at taxpayer expense. These sorts of violations of state-church separation (NASA is, after all, a government agency funded by tax money) appear to be relatively rare. The few cases of mixing space exploration with religion, though, stand out, and at least one resulted in a lawsuit.
At the height of the space race, NASA pushed ahead with a series of flights building up to a manned landing on the surface of the Moon. One of the most memorable flights was Apollo 8, which allowed the crew to see the Earth hovering over the lunar surface. Astronauts Jim Lovell, William Anders and Frank Borman orbited the Moon; on Christmas Even,1968, as segments of the mission were beamed back to Earth in a live television broadcast. As their capsule came into position giving the astronauts and viewers back home sa hot of the Earth as seen from lunar orbit, Mr. Anders declared: "We are now approaching lunar sunrise and for al the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send you."
The three astronauts then shared in a recitation of the first ten lines from the Old Testament Book of Genesis:
"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas - and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."
Atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair promptly fired off a public statement protesting the Christmas Eve religion ceremony , and later filed a lawsuit against NASA (O'HAIR v. PAYNE) to prevent further proselytizing by the space program. Her case was dismissed, ostensibly for lack of jurisdiction.
Religious proselytizing on the current Discovery flight will probably not rise to the level of the Christmas Eve, 1968 broadcast. Astronauts are permitted to bring a small amount of trinkets and mementos (flags are a favorite) on board flights. The question is raised, though, of whether any religious ceremonies or artifacts are appropriate in a program funded by taxpayers and dedicated to he pursuit of science. There is also the related question about religion and the hunt for "ETs" or extra-terrestrials. Some evangelical Christians embrace the notion that "ensouled" life elsewhere in the universe does not exist, and that the vastness of space is simply a theatrical backdrop for 6,000 years or so of biblical history being played out on Earth.
Others feel that aliens, if they exist, should be the objects of proselytizing as "pagan" and "heathen" peoples were. That sensibility remains ensconced even today in the minds of those who see the work of missions to be an important and enduring element in ":The Great Commission."
Web Resources used in this article:
Watch the liftoff of the space shuttle Discovery: