Historian Kendrick Oliver’s book on the American space program and art historian Elizabeth Kessler’s book on the images of the Hubble Space Telescope, although quite different in their specific objects of study and methodological operationalization, reflect a common interest that has attracted increasing attention from scholars of the history of technology: the religious implications of the exploration of outer space, an undertaking that has hitherto being perceived predominantly as secular. Since the groundbreaking study of David Noble on the religion of technology, which claimed that technology and religion have been feeding off each other for a millennium, more and more scholars are taking up the issue.1
Oliver’s To Touch the Face of God: The Sacred, the Profane, and the American Space Program, 1957–1975 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. Pp. 248. $39.95) addresses the possible religious implications of the U.S. space program in the “long sixties”—that is, in the heyday of the space age, between 1957 and 1975. Oliver characterizes the space age during this period as an essentially charismatic enterprise, part of a long, symbolic tradition in which redemption and divinity are manifested in motions of ascents toward heaven. The author suggests that spaceflight, at least in the United States, “owed much to religious archetypes and sensibilities” (p. 9), and that religious hopes and ambitions were crucial in converting a mere space program into a phenomenon worth the term space age. Asking if Americans conceived of spaceflight as a means for mankind’s return to God, Oliver’s book thus takes up three major issues: it tells [End Page 988] not only the story of relations between religion and the U.S. space program, but also explores religious meanings and practices in secular times, and discusses how they informed and influenced the notion of the space age. The aims of his project are ambitious and Oliver’s systematic approach is all-encompassing and, at times, convincing. Nonetheless, the overall conclusions he draws feel disappointing—not because of the author’s efforts, but rather because of the ways in which he conceives his object of interest.
To Touch the Face of God covers both institutional and individual aspects of this history. Oliver discusses various sorts of religious semantics, as well as spiritual practices, connected with the exploration of space. First, he addresses the question of NASA’s motivations and thus examines the role that religious values played in the development of U.S. space-exploration goals during the 1950s and ‘60s. Chapter 1 focuses on NASA’s institutional culture and examines in detail the life-worlds inhabited there, and also in its installations and personnel. Second, in chapter 2, it addresses the implications of spaceflight for religious thought and belief and examines the emergence of exotheology, a discipline concerned with the epistemological status of Christian cosmography, the implications of quantum advances in man’s technological capacity for relations with God, and the compatibility of religious doctrine with the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life.
In the third chapter, Oliver takes into account the astronauts’ encounters with a new and completely unknown environment and the possibilities it offered for (renewed) spiritual experience. Chapter 3 thus discusses U.S. astronauts as figures of existential significance not because they were the country’s champions in a fateful contest with a rival superpower, but rather because they faced an encounter with their own elemental self and the revelation of what capacities of faith, will, and judgment a man could retain in the most trying of physical conditions. Chapter 4 explores the spiritual responses to spaceflight both in space and on earth. Although strict mission schedules and rather uncomfortable conditions within the spacecraft left little time for spiritual experiences, four out of the eleven Apollo lunar-module pilots returned with new intuitions of the sacred and their own relation to it, which they tried to share with earthly audiences. In discussing the difficulties of communicating spiritual experiences, Oliver also identifies Apollo 8’s prime-time broadcast from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve 1968...