Back in the day when NASA shuttle missions were still a thing, our church youth group had a lively discussion about space travel. There was one rather vocal guy who flatly declared that space exploration was wrong. It was a waste of money better spent elsewhere. Besides, it was all being done for ungodly reasons. When others in the group tried to suggest there might be room for debate about this, he stated even more emphatically that no, there wasn’t. As far as he was concerned, Christians had no business supporting or being interested in space exploration. End of discussion.

The outburst was jarring but not entirely unexpected. Although the space program isn’t in the public eye the way it used to be, it remains a controversial topic for some believers. There are a growing number of countries and corporations joining the effort to reach out into the “final frontier,” spending lots of money for a variety of reasons. And the way Christians regard such enterprises can say a fair bit about how we view God’s creation, and ultimately God Himself.

Concerns about stewardship

But first, let’s talk about the money. An awful lot of it has been spent over the past 50 years in the pursuit of space, it’s true. This raises justifiable concerns about stewardship. After all, there are plenty of problems requiring our time and effort – and money – here on Earth. People need to be fed, clothed and educated. Suffering needs to be alleviated. Should we be using valuable resources to launch men and women off into an uninhabitable environment?

While such questions are legitimate, they often fail to consider a number of key factors. The quest for space, far from being a black hole that sucks up an endless stream of public funds, has in fact been a significant source of jobs and economic stimulation. This is to say nothing of the scientific, technological and medical advances that have spun off, directly or indirectly, from the space industry. If we’re truly burdened for the poor and suffering – as we ought to be – then perhaps we might begin by examining how we use our own resources before questioning how others use the resources entrusted to them.

Politics and religion in space

Moving on from money to motivation, it’s no secret that the 1960s space race was primarily fuelled by Cold War politics. The United States and Soviet Union each believed that victories in cultural arenas like science or sports would demonstrate the superiority of their own ideology and way of life.

When Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, he is supposed to have remarked that he didn’t see God up there. In reality, Gagarin was a Russian Orthodox believer and the comment was made by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, trying to score points for atheistic communism.

By contrast and despite the prevailing political climate, several American astronauts, including John Glenn and James Irwin, publicly expressed how their time in space gave them a profound sense of God’s presence. While orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve in 1968, the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders, took turns reading the creation account from Genesis 1 for the world to hear. And just before he became the second man to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, Buzz Aldrin privately celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the lunar module of Apollo 11.

A variety of motives and beliefs

Of course, with the passage of time and the end of the Cold War, the political impetus for space travel faded away. In its place arose a new incentive: the search for life on other worlds, with the implicit hope that such a discovery might strengthen the case for evolutionary beliefs. No longer was the conquest of space about capitalism versus communism. Now it was about justifying the secular materialist view of the universe.

Such a motive is understandably troubling for Christians. However, it would be wrong to assume it’s the only motive, uniformly held by everyone in the space industry. This is far from true. Among other things, there’s still the ongoing pursuit of knowledge and scientific discovery. There’s also the potential to tap resources that may be beneficial back here on Earth. The private sector is looking into the possibilities of space tourism, although that might be far off for most of us. And then there’s always the basic human urge to explore, just to see what’s out there.

Desires like these are not incompatible with a Christian world view. In fact, it may be surprising to learn how many men and women of faith are currently engaged in the exploration of space. In Houston, Texas, home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, several nearby churches minister to a large number of NASA employees, including astronauts. One of these churches even has stained glass windows depicting images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

A scriptural approach

How then should Christians regard space exploration? There are two passages of Scripture that can prove especially helpful in shaping our thinking.

First, according to the Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.”

Second, at the climax of the creation account, we read in Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”

Theologians refer to this second passage, and the verses that follow, as the creation (or cultural) mandate. As God’s image bearers, we are to represent Him by having dominion over His creation – caring for it, enjoying it, applying our creativity to it, seeing His glory reflected in it.

Taken together with Psalm 19, it suggests this mandate isn’t limited to our planet but extends upward and outward to that which lies beyond, as God may give us opportunity to explore.

Space isn’t to be feared or avoided. It’s not a latter day tree of knowledge of good and evil, to be observed but not tasted. Rather the opposite. The more we come to know of the vast magnificence of our universe, the deeper and more sublime our appreciation for the One who made it.

In the words of astronaut John Glenn, “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible. It just strengthens my faith.”

Sources and further reading

Lauren Lyons, “Five popular misconceptions about NASA,” Huffington Post, July 10, 2013.

Kate Shellnutt, “Exploring the heavens, Christian astronauts reflect on their Creator,” Houston Chronicle, July 8, 2011.

Eric Sterner, “Five myths about NASA,” Washington Post, July 1, 2011.

David Waters, “First communion on the moon,” Washington Post, July 20, 2009.

David R. Williams, “The Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast,” NASA, September 25, 2007.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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