Planetary Radio • Jun 07, 2024

Space Policy Edition: Is Human Spaceflight a Religion?

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20190705 roger launius

Roger Launius

Principal for Launius Historical Services, former NASA Chief Historian

Jack kiraly portrait 2023

Jack Kiraly

Director of Government Relations for The Planetary Society

Casey dreier tps mars

Casey Dreier

Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society

Holy texts and salvation ideology. Saints and martyrs. True believers and apostates. This isn’t a religion — this is human spaceflight. So says Roger Launius, NASA’s former Chief Historian, in his 2013 paper Escaping Earth: Human Spaceflight as Religion. For the start of our ninth year of the Space Policy Edition, Dr. Launius joins the show to discuss the ways in which human spaceflight exhibits characteristics commonly seen in modern religions, how his thesis has evolved in the past decade with the rise of Elon Musk and his view of Mars as humanity’s salvation, and how exploring secular activities through a religious lens can be instructive in understanding their adherents and support.

Human spaceflight as religion?
Human spaceflight as religion? Image: Collage by Merc Boyan


Casey Dreier: Hello and welcome to the Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio, the monthly show where we explore the politics and processes behind space exploration. I'm Casey Dreier, the chief of space policy here at The Planetary Society, joined by this month's co-host, Jack Kiraly, the director of our government relations. Jack, how are you?

Jack Kiraly: I'm doing well. How about you, Casey?

Casey Dreier: I'm great. This is actually, this show is the eighth anniversary of Planetary Radio Space Policy Edition, which is wild to me. We're almost at a decade. So we have a very special guest and topic, something I've been wanting to talk about for a long time. This is a paper episode. So we are talking, Jack and I, about a great paper, published by Roger Launius, the former chief historian of NASA, and a curator at the Smithsonian Institution called Escaping Earth, Human Spaceflight as Religion. This paper came out in 2013. It has lodged itself into my brain as a way of evaluating and thinking about particularly American commitments to human spaceflight since then. And it is something we link to in the show notes. So if you want to read this before our discussion, you can read it there, but we will go through the paper and explain it fully. But before we do, Jack, I have something we need to pitch.

Jack Kiraly: And what is that, Casey?

Casey Dreier: That's The Planetary Society is an independent member-supported organization. Jack, you know that. I know that. Hopefully everyone listening to this, knows this. But what that means is that this show and all of our other work happens because of the people who become members and donate regularly to the organization. If you are not a member, please consider joining us at Memberships start at just four bucks a month. And if you are a member first, thank you for enabling this and making this all happen. We really do appreciate it. Honestly, true. But if you can, consider increasing your membership level to support even more of this great work and enable space science and exploration here at The Planetary Society, all of that is at Jack, you can speak to the power of our members. Anything you just want to add to this?

Jack Kiraly: It truly is something that makes a difference. And I think as evidenced by the great work that we do here at The Planetary Society, evidenced by the work that you do Casey, and that our friends in the communications and development and membership teams do. We rely on our membership to keep the lights on, but more importantly, to keep exploring. And when I walk into a congressional office or walk into a meeting with a member of the administration or NASA agency staff, I get to say that I'm there to represent the interests of our membership, not anything else. And it's for this purpose that we're here, that The Planetary Society was founded, and it is a major benefit to being a part of The Planetary Society, it's making a direct impact on space policy and on the exploration of the cosmos.

Casey Dreier: I'm sold. All right. Well, thank you for considering to support this show and all the other great work that we do. But now let's move on to our main segment. So Jack, read this paper before, is that true?

Jack Kiraly: This is one of those... This is why I love these episodes. This is one of those seminal pieces of space history, space policy thinking. I remember reading this pretty soon after it came out, when I was in grad school.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, it's a very interesting... The idea of this paper, and we'll just set this up a little bit before we talk with Roger himself, the author of this paper, is that human spaceflight can be seen through this lens of religiosity. And I think it's important, maybe, to define what we mean by that first, because I think a lot of people, particularly those who are actively religious or worshipful of particularly an institutional religion, this isn't quite that. This isn't saying that this is equivalent to or supplementing that. Obviously there's no deity of human spaceflight that people pray to or seek guidance from, or seek spiritual validity from. But we're talking this concept of a civil religion, which is defined as the way that a people interpret their historical experience in the light of some transcendent reality of the structures of belief and faith, as it applies to secular institutions and secular beliefs. And trying to explain, as Roger does at the end of this, ultimately why does human spaceflight garner such strong support and emotions? Particularly from its adherents of which we are, some you and I, Jack, and looking at it through a lens of religiosity, and looking at the subject through this perspective, I think, helps illuminate some of the motivations and arguments and intentions behind people who do it. I think that's very illuminating ultimately for understanding why we do this thing that we do.

Jack Kiraly: Absolutely. It gets to the core of what it means to be human, I think, a little bit. It scratches an itch I think that a lot of people have. I think me in particular find a lot of meaningful to spaceflight, human and robotic. We'll throw robotic in there, but maybe I'm the anomaly, but hold a lot of connection to this. But it certainly does not replace that institutional, I guess, true religion. This is more, I guess, tugging at those spiritual heartstrings.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. And again, I think it's a really useful analytical perspective for it, and to say, why do people resonate, like us resonate with this so strongly? And seeing those overlaps and parallelisms, I think, is very fascinating. And Roger himself says and wants to see more research done along this area. And he even says in his paper at the end of it, "If you're going to go, go big." And I think he's knowing he's making a big grand claim. But again, I think it's a really fascinating paper. It's one of the reasons why I wanted to do this show ultimately, is to talk about big ideas like this. So I hope all of you will find this as interesting as we did. And again, you can read the paper, we link to it on our show notes at It is not a long paper, it's very accessible, but we will go through it in turn. So let's bring on right now Roger Launius to talk about his paper Escaping Earth, Human Spaceflight as Religion. Roger Launius, thank you for joining us today on the Space Policy Edition.

Roger Launius: My pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Casey Dreier: So it's about 10 years ago now that you wrote this paper, Escaping Earth, Human Spaceflight as Religion. And I have to confess, this is a paper that has stuck with me since you published that, and something that I think about relatively frequently as a means to at least analyze the movements and support behind human spaceflight. So before we go into the details of this paper, why don't you give us the broad overview of your thesis that you're presenting here.

Roger Launius: Sure, I'd be glad to. So I have a special interest in the history of religion. There's no question about that, going back to my graduate school days. So I've approached a lot of my historical studies with that lens in mind, and so that's a starting point for all of this. So when I look at something like human spaceflight, and that's really what I'm focused on here, the robotic end of it's a little bit different, but maybe not all that much. But clearly I was looking at human spaceflight and this desire to get off this planet, and ultimately become a multi-planetary species. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people tell me that this is our ultimate objective, that we've got to do that. And they have rationales for wanting to do it. That led me to ask the question, because I was familiar with civil religion historiography before I ever got involved in looking at issues of space history. And there's a long theme of that in American history. And I talk a little bit about the beginning of this article. But it carries on to be not just civil religion, but maybe a little bit more than that. And that sparked me to look at the IRS rules for what constitutes a religion, and that was put in place so the IRS could determine whether or not an entity was trying to claim tax-exempt status. Did they have the right to do so? And when you start looking at the 13 or 14 points that are made about what constitutes a religious group in the United States for tax purposes, it merges very nicely with issues associated with human spaceflight. That's the starting point for getting into this. I tried to look through that, the various aspects of that in this particular article, which I think appeared in Astral Politics 2013. So it's a little long in the tooth now. And maybe I'll pick that up again later, maybe somebody else will pick up the theme later, but I'd certainly like to encourage those who wish to pursue it, to do so.

Casey Dreier: Well, what I find really interesting, I think, is that in the last 10 years, particularly with the rise of private spaceflight and the ambitions for private spaceflight, as they pertain to humans going into space, very much follows in this tradition that you lay out here. And just for the listener, let's highlight some of these characteristics of these belief systems that you identify. And I'll just list them out here. You say this religious system has a distinctive worldview with doctrines based on traditions and faith, identification of revered leaders and condemned villains, sacred texts, commonality of rituals, attention to the divine, holy, mysterious, and the sublime. Which people have actually heard me talk about relatively recently on this show. And then the tight group identity of in and out group. And we can work through some of those in turn, but I think you identify these very provocative mappings between these things. Maybe let's start with this distinctive worldview and this salvation ideology, because I think that's the core of what we're really talking. I think, to me, this is the most compelling aspect. So let's explore that a little bit. What do you mean by this and how does human spaceflight embrace this?

Roger Launius: Well, every religion that exists in the world has a belief about eternity of the soul in some form or another. It might be the Christian heaven, it might be something else, it might be reincarnation, who knows what it is, but that's a part of the belief system, and it's a hundred percent based on faith. The spaceflight world has also a belief in salvation. And that is not about individual salvation. It's not my salvation or your salvation necessarily, it's the salvation of the species, to not become extinct on this earth. Because everyone knows, certainly your listeners are well attuned to this, that there is a hundred percent certainty that life on this planet will end at some point in the future. It might be distant in the future, it could be more immediate, but it will end. And in that context, the only means of salvation for humanity or any other form of life that exists here today is space travel. And so this becoming a multi-planetary species, moving throughout the Solar System, the galaxy and perhaps beyond, is a central element of this belief. And so when I hear Elon Musk or any number of other people talk about we absolutely positively have to colonize Mars. That's a part of this process. And it's fundamentally about not becoming extinct here. And I can lay this out in great detail, but I do want to say one thing about it. The best case scenario is several billion years in the future, the sun will become a red giant, and everybody here will die, as well whatever life exists in the Solar System. But there are much more immediate threats, because nobody gets, and certainly Congress doesn't get too excited about a threat that is several billion years in the future. We can't even get them to be excited about more immediate threats. But as that is one scenario, more immediate scenarios do exist. We could nuke ourselves out of existence. We could so foul the planet we cannot survive here, in which case we probably deserve to be extinct. But the reality is we will become extinct if we don't go somewhere else. And that is a core tenet of those who believe that human spaceflight is of paramount importance. And it is a core tenet that if you accept that idea, you can't understand why others don't accept it in the same way. And so when you look around at folks inside the space community, some of them are adamant, some are less adamant, but all of them have this idea, and they shake their head sometimes, and sometimes they get angry about the hesitancy on the part of others to support this long-range agenda. And that's, I think, the most critical element of this spaceflight of religion, and really religion of human spaceflight.

Casey Dreier: I want to emphasize that this salvation ideology around going multi-planetary, let's just emphasize, predates Musk. This goes back to the early days of spaceflight as a concept to begin with. So this is baked in from the beginning.

Roger Launius: Oh yes. Musk did not originate these ideas, but he is an exemplar of them. But he's not the only one. There's lots of other contemporaries. Robert Zubrin comes to mind. But I can go back to Robert Goddard as well, who wrote, very early on, in the first part of the 20th century, about the necessity of moving beyond this planet and doing so in an orderly, sophisticated fashion, because if not, we will become extinct here. He totally knew that. Now, he was essentially a mystic as well who believed that he'd had a vision of this potential in a cherry tree in Worcester Massachusetts as a boy. And this became the starting point for his long belief, that he expressed all the time, about the necessity of getting off this planet. So yeah, Musk is clearly not the beginning of this. Yeah, the agenda is fundamental. It is present everywhere. The challenges associated with making it a reality are much less well-developed and perceived than maybe some of these larger beliefs are. And by the way, that makes it exactly like religion too. How many times have we heard people who said, "Well, I don't understand why a certain thing happened in a certain way, but God's will be done, God will provide." Which is another way of punting on the very sophisticated hard question that you should be wrestling with in this context. And so I really see a connection here that's pretty fundamental.

Casey Dreier: I would extend this salvation ideology even further beyond the salvation of the species to... I just kept going back reading this paper to this idea of Arthur C. Clarke and this mid 20th century outlining of the act of going to space, not just... Almost as literally an individual salvation, but as this transcendent turning point to this next step of evolution of the species. 2001: A Space Odyssey is literally about trading old gods for actual alien technological overlord gods that are here to benignly help us evolve into these higher species. They're carrying us through these literal ideas of transcendence into higher orders of being. And that's, again, that just touches into this fundamental relationship that's something about space triggers, not just with the species level, but with the individual. So I don't know if you have thoughts on where does this type of transcendence and evolution in this higher order, or even with settling Mars, we'll fix society there. We will have better societies there. Our future lies in. So it's this beyond salvation of just species level things, but to the actual development of humankind themselves.

Roger Launius: Oh, there's no question about it. So science fiction writers have been focused on these kinds of concepts for a long, long time. Arthur C. Clarke is famous for 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the ending of that is fundamentally about an evolutionary process. It's kick started by contact with an alien civilization. And that's also how it begins as well with the apes who see the monolith, touch the monolith, and change as a result of that. But other stories in the Clarke repertoire deal with the same sort of ideology, but so does Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, and so does Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. And I could go on and on with this sort of thing. So science fiction has been a laboratory for the discussion of these kinds of ideas for quite a while. And that's not surprising necessarily. That's what writers do, is they work the imagination when it comes to these sorts of things. And some of those novels and short stories are very sophisticated philosophical discussions of these sorts of issues. Not all of them, but certainly some are, and the best ones are. But in that context, we understand that humans are well adapted for survival on this planet as it currently exists, and really only at sea level on this planet as it currently exists. And as soon as we start to think seriously about issues associated with multi-planetary colonization, we run afoul, not of the technology as much, but of the biology. And that's something that a lot of people are loathed to talk about, which I find fascinating. But it gets to this issue of the transformation of humanity through this process. And it might not be touching with an alien civilization, as we saw with Arthur, C. Clarke, but with other sorts of encounters. And just in the context of lunar exploration, I've laid this out for classes and groups of people over the years in terms of what might happen in the context of long duration lunar exploration. Clearly we can go back to the moon, as NASA is intent on doing right now. We can do something akin to Apollo, which were basically sorties camping trips. We go, we take everything with us, we stay a while, and we come back. We can do that. No question about it. Been demonstrated. We can do it again. We can create, on the moon, a base of some kind. I think it would look a lot like Antarctica. We would cycle people in and out on a regular basis, therefore for specific purposes. But as soon as we move from that to a colony, to a colonization process where we have families that go, and we have children that are gestated and born on that particular body, how will they be different evolutionally? And I think they have to be. One sixth gravity will change a whole lot of things in the human body over time. So what does that mean? And by the way, we're loathed to talk about that. But when we start talking about colonization, clearly that's a key component. Just as humans from Europe came to America, they changed, not so much physically, but certainly from the standpoint of how they had to approach everything, changed in that context. But it's going to be even more significant, more sublime, more everything in the context of moving beyond this planet. And those of us who are concerned about and are looking forward to the potential of human spaceflight moving to other places with humanity, really needs to be considering what this means.

Jack Kiraly: You touch on something very, very interesting there about what biological changes will happen as a result. And I think that too is a place that science fiction has now started to go, I think really popularized in the book series and the TV show, The Expanse. And then just more recently in the, you mentioned Asimov's Foundation, I'll say my favorite science fiction trilogy or series, and the most recent TV adaptation of that includes an element that is about the physiological changes that humans undergo after prolonged experience in deep space, prolonged experience on other worlds. And it's such an interesting topic that, again, I think is one of these challenges to the species existing beyond earth, beyond sea level here on earth. That you're right, rarely gets touched on, but I think as science fiction being that vehicle for whether it's societal change or addressing these challenges in a contained environment, I think it's great to see that science fiction has evolved in that way. Are there other similar instances that maybe science fiction is addressing in that sort of same vein?

Roger Launius: Well, I think there's a lot of things that science fiction addresses along these lines. I will betray my age here, which really isn't a secret anyway, but when I was a kid in the mid 60s, I was in the Boy Scouts for actually a very short period of time, but nonetheless, I was for a little while. And we got a magazine every month called Boy's Life. And those of you who were Boy Scouts probably remember the thing. As far as I know it's still being printed, but maybe it's online now for who knows. But there was a serialization written by a science fiction writer, which I thought was fascinating. And month after month after month, there was a thousand, 2000 words, whatever it happened to be, telling the story of a multi-generational spaceship. And they were headed and had been headed for centuries from earth to another planet in a far off Solar System, somewhere else that was an earth, supposedly an Earth-like planet. And there were thousands of people on this multi-generational spaceship that had been engaged in this long-term journey to this other place. And the protagonist of the story was a boy about my age, so there's this identification with the Boy Scouts and all this kind of stuff, and he'd learned all these things, and he'd become adept at all kinds of various tools and survival skills that were going to be needed in the context of going to this new location, but also the technological skills necessary to run the ship and so on. And the last episode in this particular serialization was that they were arriving at this new planet. And there were some people who were very excited about this arrival that they had been moving toward for centuries. Multiples of generations had been born, lived and died on this ship. And now they were going to go to this new location. And some of the people, actually, the majority of the people began to ask the question, "Why do we even want to go there? What's the point of going to this new location? Everything we know exists right here where we are." And I think it raises some really interesting questions that are not evolutionary in the sense of the human body changing, although some of that did take place, but also the philosophical and ethos and epistemological issues that arise in that context. And you can take that for whatever it's worth, but I found it, reading it more than 50 years ago, it still makes an impression on me.

Casey Dreier: I would even mention Orson Scott Card's Homecoming series, which basically follows the Book of Mormon. And there's a lot of these parallels. And I wonder, Roger, part of this is just because it's... Do we as humans lack a shared experience that is not religious in order to convey these aspects of feeling of considering human spaceflight? Is this part of this that why we reached into this well, explicitly or implicitly? I remember watching a rocket launch for the first time, and that felt like I actually would always describe it to people as my conversion moment. And that's when I decided to work for The Planetary Society was that I say, "Oh, it was like Saul with the scales fell out of his eyes." I saw something. Which was somewhat tongue in cheek, but also touches on a real experience. And so is this almost like a surface level connection that we're seeing here, or do you think there's something deeper at play?

Roger Launius: Yeah, it's hard to say. It's not just surface level. I think it's deeper, but can I characterize it? Can I say that it exists in everyone? No, I can't do either one of those things. But I do think that there is a relationship between people who are space enthusiasts, advocates, or people who engage in this activity as profession, that they feel something for it that probably doesn't exist in a lot of other places. And I was struck by... There's a story told to me as the truth, I can't verify it. Told to me by some of the old NASA hands from the 60s, in which they described the process whereby a social scientist was doing research on the identification of workers to the mission of the organization that they worked for. And the social scientist was doing this by going around and interviewing people. And he would go to some location where they were doing whatever it is they were doing, and he would ask various folks, "Well, what is your job? What are you doing here?" And they would say, "Well, I'm a bookkeeper," or "I'm a secretary," or "I'm a budget analyst," or I'm whatever it happens to be, in most places. He got to NASA and he started asking those same kinds of questions, and every single person there did not fall back on the identification of their effort to, "I'm a bookkeeper," or "I'm a finance person," or "I'm a secretary," or whatever it was. They offered up, in various forms, but ultimately the same story that "I'm helping us get to the moon." That identification with the mission of the organization was very present in the 1960s. And I don't think there's any question about that. And I would contend today that that's also still true for a whole lot of people inside the space community. An engineer that, and I've dealt with a lot of engineers at Auburn University over the years now, and those who are in aerospace engineering, they don't want to do anything but build new rockets to go to wherever it happens to be. And if that's for SpaceX, they're happy to do that. If it's for one of the other companies, they're happy to do that. They're less happy these days to do it at NASA. But it's all about the excitement of this particular objective. And it's strikingly different from somebody who comes out of electrical engineering who can go to work in all kinds of different places in all kinds of different jobs and have a very productive, lucrative, satisfying career. But they could be working for a place that manufactures furnaces or they could be doing any number of other things. It doesn't matter. And the identification with that particular objective, with that particular mission of the organization they work for, is not present in the same way. And I think that speaks to how we come to select ourselves to be a part of this effort.

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Casey Dreier: This brings to mind Joseph Campbell where the idea of myth as a means to understand one's place in the universe or in the cosmos in the old sense of that word. And here you see that, where your meaning is the mission, and your meaning is given by and leveraged by this grand contribution to the species that you are part of. You start seeing again, these parallelisms really strike up. And I would say this is explicitly done by companies, a lot of new companies, particularly SpaceX, filling in that void of saying, "how can we get..." To me this is, how does SpaceX save so much money? How are they cheaper? It's because people will work 80 hours a week for the same pay because almost of this religious-like zeal that they have for this belief system that "We are going to save the species."

Roger Launius: Basically, we're saving humanity in this process. This is a higher calling. This is the same kind of calling that those who enter the ministry in traditional religious groups, that's why they're pursuing it. They're not doing it to get rich. They're doing it because they believe in a higher purpose and they want to be a part of that. And I think that's very true in the spaceflight world too.

Jack Kiraly: And I think it still extends to NASA, even despite the growth of commercial spaceflight, and can't deny that zeal, that traction created by SpaceX is very clear. But NASA just won best place to work in the federal government for the 12th time in a row, ever since they started tracking that, since the early 2000s. So it's pervasive throughout the entire space community whether you are working on a specific mission, whether you are an astronaut, whether you are the janitor at Stennis. You are part of the mission at a certain level, and that's what keeps people coming back.

Roger Launius: And by the way, the reaction of people... If you work for NASA or you work for SpaceX or whoever it happens to be, and you're talking to somebody that you've met for the first time, and one of the early questions is always, "Well, what do you do for a living? Oh, I work at NASA." Well, immediately this conjures up all these ideas about what that means to folks who are unconnected to it. And it's a very positive response that you get overwhelmingly. Imagine you're meeting a bunch of people and they ask you what you're do and you say, "Well, I work for the IRS." Well, okay, you don't get the same reaction.

Casey Dreier: You might get the-

Jack Kiraly: Inverse reaction.

Roger Launius: You may get a negative reaction. Not that the people that work for the IRS are any worse than the people that work at NASA. It's just the identification of NASA is this very positive, important thing that we're doing.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, this is actually a great segue into the second main theme. I think we just touched on the big human salvation aspect, but you, I say this revered leaders in condemned villains as part of this religiosity like experience. And what are the leaders, the caste hierarchy system of spaceflight? And you put astronauts at the top of that, as both martyrs and apostles. So let's jump into that aspect of it that we have this... You have an anecdote in your paper about when people realize they're talking to an astronaut, who didn't realize it before, and it fundamentally changes their relationship to that person.

Roger Launius: Yeah. There's no question about that. And same is true with cosmonauts, by the way. They get the same sort of reverence that the astronaut corps in the United States do. And of course, that first generation of astronauts and cosmonauts, that was a group that became household names, many of them. And even though a lot of them are gone now, at least some of those folks are still well known by the general public and will always be, Neil Armstrong, Valentina Tereshkova, Yuri Gagarin, Buzz Aldrin, I could go on and on, John Glenn, are still very much public figures today. That's less true for more recent astronauts. Partly that's because there's more of them and they're harder to remember, although there's a few that stand out. And they have become the epitome of what we think of when we think about these broad, very positive things about going into space. And they are the individuals, not the only ones, but they fundamentally are the ones who are putting their lives on the line by riding the spacecraft and engaging in these activities, all with this higher purpose of getting off this planet ultimately to stay. And they are our representatives, our exemplars in this effort that is very broad. And in that way, I would contend that they're like the terrestrial explorers that have been lauded over time. And you can point to Magellan and Christopher Columbus, and any number of other explorers, Edmund Hillary and on and on and on, who have gained fame through this process, through the achievements of these efforts, which are viewed as a positive.

Casey Dreier: And then you have, again, you identify like this priestly cast of engineers and managers and scientists that are filling this role that's kind of esoteric, and they speak their own language, and they have their own structures that are, from the outside, hard to fully understand, but they're loaded with meaning is what you can see all the way down to mission control and this types of ritualistic, we'll get into later, behaviors and incantations or formalized ways of engaging.

Roger Launius: Yeah. Well, at some level, and the engineers are clearly in this category, for most of us anyway, they're the keepers of the magic, of the mystery, of the sublime that's out there. And they are the ones that conjure this stuff into reality. And some people may think of it like a conjuring process, almost magical, if you will. Obviously nothing about it is magical, and every engineer can tell you how these things work, but it's a hard thing to do. And I have enormous reverence, not just for those who put their lives on the line in the context of engaging in this, but for those who make it possible.

Casey Dreier: And an interesting choice of word you just used, reverence.

Roger Launius: Yes. Right. And it is. I know that it takes hundreds of thousands of them to make it real, but they did make it real and it was no small task.

Casey Dreier: And you also mentioned villains, and you highlight a couple of examples, Nixon being maybe the most notable, based on his decision to end this glorious future of human spaceflight post Apollo. Have any more villains entered the scene since you wrote this in 2013, do you see, besides Nixon or who else would you maybe put in that?

Roger Launius: Well, I think political leaders are easy targets for one thing. So Nixon is an easy one to point to.

Casey Dreier: What Obama have been one for a while at the end? Because he oversaw the end of the space shuttle in that particular context?

Roger Launius: That is a possibility. But I will say this, the Obama decision to push private sector leverage in this process, I think a lot of people would view that as a positive today, maybe not at the time. And in that sense, it's conceivable. You could say, "Well, Obama's maybe not a guy that we think of as a great proponent of space activities, but nonetheless, he did some useful things." I can't necessarily identify a hardcore villain in all of these endeavors.

Casey Dreier: We don't have any William Proxmire's anymore, it feels like.

Roger Launius: No, but again, political figures are easy to dis, so we need to be careful about that. And there are those who might point to other people in other countries who've done certain things to destroy the capabilities that we thought we should have and maybe did have and lost.

Jack Kiraly: I think maybe there's a relativistic component to the religion, the quasi religion of [inaudible 00:38:57] spaceflight is in the US, if you're a believer, your enemy is, insert Soviet Union, whoever's leading that, People's Republic of China, whoever's leading that at that time. But then if you're in those countries, who's the enemy? Is it the American president? Is it the head of the European Space Agency? So I think there's maybe a relativistic component of who that villain is depending on what, I guess, sect of the quasi religion you're a part of.

Roger Launius: Yeah, that's totally legit. No question about it. And by the way, I would put in the category of villains, those who have been out there saying we never landed on the moon. Naysayers who are trying to destroy this belief system.

Casey Dreier: That's a good one.

Roger Launius: I could point to other folks as well, but again, those are easy targets.

Casey Dreier: This raises the question, do you see this, from what Jack was saying, a uniquely American phenomenon, or do you think this is present, to some degree, in all various nations who pursue human spaceflight?

Roger Launius: Yeah, I think it's present in a lot of communities around the world where spaceflight is pursued. And Russia comes very close I think in a lot of these ways. And of course the heritage is, aside from the communist background and the totalitarian system that existed there, the sort of historic movement of Russians and Americans across the continent, the exploration agenda that has been present in both countries for a long period of time, and the way in which it transformed both nations, suggests to me that there's maybe more commonality there than we might really appreciate. So in the Russian community, spaceflight was viewed, early on, and to this day is still viewed as a process whereby we are going to achieve the larger ends of the nation, that we are going to do these good things for humanity. And I think that there's a relationship between the two countries that I think are reasonably strong in a lot of ways when it comes to human spaceflight.

Casey Dreier: Before we move on to the next big section, I do want to talk about the development of new apostles since you wrote this paper in 2013, which I'm trying to think of the right framing for someone. Again, we have Elon Musk, but also Jeff Bezos who are, again, I think explicitly going after this quasi religious presentation of human spaceflight as this destination and manifest destiny for humanity, but also this, as you said, salvation ideology. And Elon Musk, again, this is going to be a slightly labored metaphor here, but if NASA is the Catholic Church, then Elon Musk would be somewhat like Martin Luther or some kind of tent revivalist, because he's outside the structure. And you have this... NASA goes back to the Catholic Church, basically to the beginning. It's very hierarchical and structured and bureaucratic, and a little bloodlust sometimes in the way that they approach things, particularly these days. And then Elon Musk is out there running this raucous tent revival that is bringing in new adherence and new awareness, and saying all these wild things. But it's very easy to start slotting things into this position. But again, I think Elon Musk is really playing, since 2013, this role of "Follow me and we will be saved." Again, I'll just say Jeff Bezos too, his whole thing is millions of people living working in space in order to save the earth, moving heavy industry into deep space. Elon Musk is not alone in this. And people are reacting to this.

Roger Launius: So in the, what was known as the second great awakening in America, a period of revivalism that took place in the first part of the 19th century. And you had mentioned Mormonism earlier. The Mormon movement grows out of some of that. And there were, what they called, old lights and new lights. And the old lights were the staid, conservative, religious traditions that we're all familiar with in the context of American churches. And the new lights were revivalists, evangelicals, who excited a lot of people. Often they did not create much in the way of an infrastructure that they came, they succeeded for a time, their organizations, what organizations they might have actually created, tended to fall apart after they were gone from the scene. But they changed a lot of things. And one of the things that they did in this context was some of those ideas, some of those new ideas that the new light people brought in are incorporated into the more traditional belief systems in Christianity in America. And I would contend to you that Elon's a great example of a new light, using that particular metaphor, NASA is the old light. But a lot of the ideas that Elon has been pushing for, aside from the larger just issues of evangelism that he bespeaks, are things that NASA has incorporated into what they're doing. Not entirely, not a hundred percent, but clearly they are receptive to certain kinds of things that they weren't receptive to before the 21st century. That, I think, has made a difference in a lot of things in the last 25 years.

Casey Dreier: I see also a parallel almost between the Elon Musk created this idea of you anyone can have a personal participation in this future, versus going into this priestly cast and all of this training. And he promises, again, that personal, almost that personal salvation or personal access, a relationship, which very much, I'd say, is that Protestant, reformation kind of attitude compared to a much more structured and moderated access to the divine through your classic NASA contractors. I just remember a space meetup of maybe seven years ago and having everyone there, this is in Seattle, everyone there said, "Oh, I am starting my own startup. I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that." No one said I wanted to work for NASA anymore. Everyone's saying I am creating my personal access to space. And all of them were human spaceflight related, and none of them seemed like very practical ideas, but they all saw suddenly a role for themselves in this without having necessarily a engineering background.

Roger Launius: Yeah. Well, and by the way, Elon wasn't the first to come up with that model of approach in terms of entrepreneurial work. Going back to the 19... Well, I could go back earlier than that, but to the 1980s, at the very least, you've got corporate entrepreneurial firms starting to emerge that want to do launch services. And oh, by the way, the landscape is littered with the failed projects there. But some of them did succeed, and I always point to orbital sciences as one that, without government money, they began flying, commercially, spacecraft into orbit and launching satellites at that point in time in the late 1980s. And they get lost in the shuffle, unfortunately. But they were a successful firm. But there's lots of others that were not. Kistler Aerospace, and Rotary Rockets, and a whole variety of others that ultimately failed to be successful. Elon cracked the code on how to do this. Others have followed, and they've had a lot of support from NASA, so I don't want to suggest that they just did it all by themselves.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, the metaphor breaks down a bit in that relationship as you point out.

Roger Launius: Yeah. But the reality is that's true that people have caught this bug that "I can do these things." And some of them have been successful, so well, I'll give them credit for that. And of course we can point to the big firms that are out there, the SpaceX's and so forth. But what is a space firm really? And I could make the case that there's a whole lot of entities that we wouldn't think of as necessarily being space businesses that are indeed are, if the majority of their funding comes from sales to providing certain types of technology that's used on rockets elsewhere. And they're space firms too, as far as I'm concerned, and catching that, every person can be a space leader. I can remember SETI at Home in the 1990s being established by the SETI Institute where you could just download this program and it would help the SETI folks look for anomalies in the system, see if they could find a signal. And I walked into my maintenance garage, where they handled my car one time in the 1990s, when I was working at NASA headquarters, and I was taking the car in, and playing on this thing in the background was the SETI at Home program. And I said something about it, I said, "Hey, what are you guys doing here?" He says, "Well, this is the coolest thing ever. I get to participate in space exploration, and it's terrific and I'm a part of this." And how many other instances there are like this? I know there's thousands.

Casey Dreier: I want to move on to rituals, rules, and shared experiences, which is another area of overlap that you identify in your paper. We've already touched on this a little bit with things like mission control, rituals of launch itself, which have to be ritualized in order to do something so dangerous. But you talk about this almost being sanctified in the movie Apollo 13. So I want to jump to that a little bit, which is mid 90s, which obviously at my age... It was a transformative movie for me, still one of my favorite movies. But Apollo almost moved from memory into myth with that movie, it strikes me. So how does that play into this concept of this ritualistic approach to human spaceflight?

Roger Launius: So I think one of the fascinating things about that film... And the movie is excellent. It is a remarkable movie in so many ways. There's no villains, there's no evil person that's behind the scenes doing anything. It's a bunch of people trying to solve a problem, and we know how it turns out. So there's not a lot of drama in this thing either, but it is mesmerizing. And the creation of that particular story in this particular way, I would give total credit to the team of writers and technical people that made this a reality, as well as the cast that were superb across the board, but the way in which they deal with certain things. And I always point to the suiting up for the launch sequence as the key element of this. You see the astronauts suiting up there, being assisted by technicians, they're putting on the suits, the gloves, the helmet. At one point, I think one of them is chewing gum, which he has to spit out before they can fix the helmet. And with soaring, ethereal, dramatic music in the background. It's almost like the priests adorning their vestments in preparation for the mass. I think that it is one of the most striking elements that gets to this question.

Casey Dreier: There's a picture that reminds me of this, to some extent, which is robotic spaceflight related, but we'll forgive it for that. But it's one of the... It's Spirit or Opportunity in JPL in the white room, in the clean room, and there are a number of people all suited up in those clean electrostatic outfits, all on their knees surrounding it in a circle, because they're all looking, they're all doing some sort of test. But it looks like this picture of people, again, dressed up in this strange ritual, worshiping this thing literally up on a pedestal in front of it.

Roger Launius: Yeah, that's a great image.

Casey Dreier: And there are these... And again, from the outside, and again, I think this is what this interesting parallelism that you're identifying here, if you're not familiar with the process, you are just seeing this from, as a layperson, these esoteric, strange, highly structured behaviors that are somewhat inaccessible to you without the training and knowledge hidden within them. But you can tell that they're meaningful. They're imbued with meaning, even if you don't know what that meaning is. And then that shared experience, I just want to touch on. You talk about the final aspect here, the divine, holy, mysterious, sacred and sublime. And the sublime has been a topic on this show actually the last few months because I've been relatively obsessed with this idea of Mike Griffin's dichotomy of real and practical reasons, acceptable reasons for spaceflight, which I think touches on this to a degree. But the access to the sublime being at the sense the core of why we're even talking about this to begin with. Standing before an immensity, whether it's a giant rocket or contemplating the cosmos, this seems to be maybe why we have this type of reaction triggering in our primate brains. Do you think that's the core of this, or do you think there's something more? Is it the actual structure of the human experience itself that's driving this?

Roger Launius: Yeah. Well, obviously the human experience has a lot to do with this, but the launch experience, no one emerges from that. When you see one, regardless of what the rocket is, when you see one for the first time, you are changed in that process. There's no doubt about that. I never saw a Saturn five rocket launch except on television. I would have loved to have seen it. And for people I've talked to, they tell me what a moving experience it is. It is a high point, a mountaintop experience, as we used to say in church. And that was certainly true for the shuttle launches that I saw as well. People are transformed as they see this... They hear the countdown, they hear the launch controllers talking over the loudspeakers. If you're there, you see the clock, and you're standing several miles away, but you can still see pretty well. And then you see that engine light, and you see it light before you hear anything, because light travels faster than sound. And then as you start to appreciate this thing a little more, you hear this, you feel actually as much as here, this pounding in your chest as the engines roar. And then you see it lift off majestically above the launch tower and heading off into space. And I'm describing what I recall of a shuttle launch. It's a moving experience every single time I've seen it. It doesn't matter what the rocket is. Smaller rockets also give off a similar sort of aura, but with perhaps less intensity. And the reality is that I think this is an epiphany, and anyone who goes to this experience is transformed. And there's other transformative experiences that we talk about in spaceflight, and thus far only the astronauts have experienced this, with the exception of a few tourists who've gone into suborbital space, is to go and see the earth from space. And Frank White talked about the overview effect. That's a term that I think most of us who are in the space community are well aware of. You come back changed in a certain way as you realize that we all are on this one little planet together. And there's no geographical boundaries that you can see from space except for the oceans and so forth. And the reality is it alters your perspective. And I would consider that an epiphany as well.

Casey Dreier: There's a whole organization, Space for Humanity, which is predicated on that idea being true of bringing people into space, basically to train apostles who then go back to their communities to share that experience. But you have a great line in your paper about the launch experience. I think the key here too is that you're experiencing it as a group. There are hundreds, if not thousands of people around you. That was the power for me when I had my transformative launch experience, was feeling that energy and the shared, the tension of the group and then that tension release when it launches, and it seems okay. But you have here, "Like the Eucharist, the ritual of the launch offers a recommitment to the endeavor and a symbolic cleansing of the communicant's soul," which I think is a great summary of that experience. Literally, I try to go see a launch as often as I can to renew that commitment. Sometimes the slog of working in politics can be pretty frustrating. But then I go see a launch and it's... You've put into very nice, beautiful words, exactly what I was doing inadvertently in this strange secular, religious communication I have with this.

Roger Launius: Well, and by the way, that's not unlike other forms of religion where you draw yourself apart from the world to contemplate the larger issues. And this is a process whereby you can do that in the context of a space launch.

Jack Kiraly: This is touching on, again, the spiritual element of these experiences. A Sagan quote so eloquently put it, "We're the cosmos's is way of knowing itself." And I think it really touches on... I'm really interested in public attitudes towards space, public polling in general. And just recently, I think within the last year or so, there's been some public polling on spirituality and religion in the US, and it's showing less and less Americans, in particular, and I would say this is maybe a global trend, moving away from established religions, but still holding the same level of spiritual connection to the world and to experiences.

Roger Launius: The shared experience of this, whether it be a launch or any other activity, is one that I think binds people together in ways that we might not appreciate until you experience yourself. And my experience in standard Christianity is similar in that sense. You go off to do something apart from the world, it draws you as a group together in ways that you weren't drawn together previously. And that bind that is brought together in that process stays with you thereafter. And while the excitement that you felt at the conclusion of that event might wane over time, the relationship you have with these various other people usually remains. And I see that in the spaceflight world as well.

Casey Dreier: Does this require humans? Do you see a similar relationship to robotic spaceflight or a possibility? Carl Sagan basically tried to create that, to some degree, through a broader cosmological relationship, revealed to us through robotic spaceflight. But this is distinct because our salvation, as a species, doesn't depend on robots, or theoretically wouldn't, unless you, again, talk to Arthur C. Clarke over the long run. But where do you see scientific or robotic spaceflight fitting into this?

Roger Launius: Well, robotic spaceflight is really important for a whole lot of reasons, because one of the things that it has done remarkably so is to show us, with our ability to image distant galaxies, and our ability to visit the planets of this Solar System, and other places in the Solar System as well, how truly remarkable the cosmos is. But it's the human element that is the most compelling. The rovers on Mars do wonderful things, but they're being driven by scientists on earth. And the relationship of the human and the robot in that context is really significant. And when we start thinking... We may talk about the rover revealed this, that, or the other, but it's really the scientists who were able to use the data from the robot to craft meaning. That may not be the case always. AI may get to the point where we reach a critical mass in terms of machine intelligence, but we're not there yet, let's put it that way. And your story, Casey, about the engineers at JPL essentially bowing to a rover. Now, obviously they were working on the rover and not worshiping it, but nonetheless, that was the visual image that you saw, suggests that the human element is critical in that as well, or we don't necessarily feel about it in the same way. That may change over time. And I wrote a book with Howard McCurdy a number of years ago called Robots in Space, and it was really about the debate over humans versus robots in space. And the last couple of chapters look at the issue of post humanism and transhumanism in this context, as we may become explorers in which our consciousness is downloaded to robotic bodies. That's a scary concept in some ways, exciting in other ways, and NASA doesn't want to talk about it at all. But becoming a cyborg, perhaps, to enable us to survive more effectively in space and to enhance the fragility of our bodies as we undertake these activities. So not to say that it's going to remain the way it is, but I think we are where we are right now.

Casey Dreier: As we start wrapping up here, we've gone through the major points of your paper. Where do you see the value of looking at human spaceflight through this lens? What is the analytical perspective that it reveals, or what's the historical perspective? What does it tell us in terms of how we look forward from this?

Roger Launius: I think there are a couple of things about what we might take away from this particular essay that I wrote, that can be useful for the future. One of those is this question about what makes life worth living here? And also what makes it something we want to extend elsewhere? The search for some meaning beyond ourselves is central to this element. I think this spaceflight as religion or spaceflight as a new religion or spaceflight as a civil religion, fits into that paradigm in a fascinating way. And one of the things that strikes me about spaceflight is public opinion. Polls are fascinating in lots of ways, and they're fraught with all kinds of problems in other ways. But one of the things that they tell you is that over and over and over again, the public doesn't want to really increase spaceflight funding very much. And basically we got 30% say we're not spending enough, 30% say we're spending too much. And the group in the middle saying it's about right. And that's wiggled back and forth a little bit over time, but that's, generally speaking, where it is. But at no point do you get something approaching 50 plus percent of the public saying, "We need to be doing these things in a more aggressive manner." Which prompted me to ask the next question, "With the softness of that support, why does the NASA budget remain constant?" And it has. There was a big bump during Apollo, then it went back down in the early 70s, and it stayed right there, pretty much at the same level, proportionally to whatever else the federal government spends. And so why isn't it reduced if it doesn't have very broad support? And I would contend that it's these ethereal things that make it important for most people, and they don't really want to see it change significantly. And these ethereal things are this higher purpose, that's a part of it, and not just the technologies. NASA has tried, another example, a negative example in my mind, NASA has tried to make the case for spin-off technologies for many, many, many years. And they are real, no question about that. And they may be compelling for some people, but they're not compelling for most folks. So what is it that is compelling? And I would contend the higher purpose is one that is compelling.

Jack Kiraly: That gets to that spiritual element of this, and I think is what makes space advocacy such a compelling thing for the people that do it. For the people that, as part of our program, come to DC every year, to advocate, to their members of Congress, why spaceflight is important. Whether human, robotic, both, why that is important. It touches on this higher purpose, this higher thing. I always like to say, if you get a hundred space advocates in a room, as we normally do for the day of action, you have a hundred different reasons to explore space. But all of them touch on that, what you're saying, the ethereal, the bigger picture, the expansion of human knowledge and presence in the Solar System and beyond. And I truly think it's... For me, I think the thing that keeps me coming back is that spiritual connection to this.

Roger Launius: Yeah. Agreed.

Casey Dreier: Do you think there's anything else that touches on the human aspect like this, Roger, in terms of what we do as a nation? Or is human spaceflight unique?

Roger Launius: I can't say it's unique, but the other elements that are touched in this particular way in the United States are really built around some similar themes, this higher purpose that America is, United States specifically, was created with an intention to do certain types of things, democracy and equality and so forth, laid out beautifully in the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. And that touchstone is one that is, I think, very present in society right up to today. And that's why you find that people volunteer to undertake very difficult tasks. And we always have. I've gotten to know a number of people, in my retirement, who spent their 20s and into their 30s in the Peace Corps. And there's a reason for doing that, and it's about a higher purpose. And that is impressive in a whole lot of ways. So I think you find those things in other settings, but I think you really see them as well in the context of especially human spaceflight and the cause of reaching beyond and becoming a multi-planetary species.

Casey Dreier: That's a great, great note to end on. Roger, thank you so much for joining us this month.

Jack Kiraly: Yes, thank you.

Roger Launius: My pleasure. Take care.

Casey Dreier: That was Roger Launius. I enjoyed that discussion, Jack. Did you feel like you learned something more deep about these parallels between human spaceflight and religious institutions?

Jack Kiraly: I feel that every time I talk to Roger or listen to Roger talk. My mind expands just a little bit more in conceptualizing some of these connections that he makes so eloquently in this paper.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, I'd love to see more research along these lines as well. And I think it is valuable, again, to see where we resonate and what role that that fills. I mentioned this, but we really didn't get into it. The real unacceptable reasons for spaceflight. I think our brains resonate and look for something by which to define the undefinable. How we feel about something, I think we see these parallels in religious institutions and feelings that resonate with, even if they think they are distinct, ultimately, from some of these more secular pursuits, but they touch on something common. And I think it's very valuable to look at it that way and say, "Why do we feel so strongly about this? Why do we resonate? Why do we want to see it?" And sometimes maybe it's ethereal and that doesn't make it invalid, ultimately, at the end of the day.

Jack Kiraly: We're looking for understanding, I think, both in our pursuit of space exploration, but also in papers like this, and the conversations that we just had. We're looking to draw on these connections and this understanding of where our connection to, in this case, space travel comes from. And I think it really does come from this really deep-rooted thing that is innately human. It's why we revere astronauts so greatly, why voters across the country generally elect astronauts to higher office. I think since, what, 1974 was when John Glenn was first elected, I think. Since then, I don't think... We haven't had an elected astronaut in the United States Congress. And it connects us to this thing that's bigger than us. It connects us to this thing that is really of and around us, that we can't maybe necessarily perceive, but we want to discover and we to explore this connection that we have, so that we can find that meaning in life. And so I think this is just such a great topic for the show and such a great big picture thing. I don't think we could get any bigger than this topic, though I know we'll try.

Casey Dreier: That cosmic frame of mind. Well, Jack, I was happy you were able to join us this month. Thank you for providing your insights. And again, Jack is the director of government relations here at The Planetary Society. He runs all of our DC operations. You are listening to Planetary Radio Space Policy edition. Thank you for joining us. You can find more episodes, as well as our weekly show, Planetary Radio, at We're also on all major podcast networks. If you like this show or the other show, Planetary Radio, please subscribe, share and drop positive reviews. It really helps the show get found by others. The Space Policy Edition is a production of The Planetary Society, an independent nonprofit space outreach organization, based in Pasadena, California. We are membership based and anyone can be a member, including you. If you are not, memberships start at just $4 a month at Until next month, Jack, Ad Astra.

Jack Kiraly: Ad Astra.