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To Touch the Face of God

The Sacred, the Profane, and the American Space Program, 1957–1975

Kendrick Oliver

Publication Year: 2012

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth . . .” In 1968 the world watched as Earth rose over the moonscape, televised from the orbiting Apollo 8 mission capsule. Radioing back to Houston on Christmas Eve, astronauts recited the first ten verses from the book of Genesis. In fact, many of the astronauts found space flight to be a religious experience. To Touch the Face of God is the first book-length historical study of the relationship between religion and the U.S. space program. Kendrick Oliver explores the role played by religious motivations in the formation of the space program and discusses the responses of religious thinkers such as Paul Tillich and C. S. Lewis. Examining the attitudes of religious Americans, Oliver finds that the space program was a source of anxiety as well as inspiration. It was not always easy for them to tell whether it was a godly or godless venture. Grounded in original archival research and the study of participant testimonies, this book also explores one of the largest petition campaigns of the post-war era. Between 1969 and 1975, more than eight million Americans wrote to NASA expressing support for prayer and bible-reading in space. Oliver’s study is rigorous and detailed but also contemplative in its approach, examining the larger meanings of mankind’s first adventures in “the heavens.”

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quotes

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pp. 2-9

Contents

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pp. ix-x

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xiv

There were times, some quite recent, when researching and writing this book felt a bit like being lost in space—trajectory uncertain, final destination unknown, reserves running low. Many kind and constructive external interventions were needed to keep the project on course. ...

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Introduction: The Blasphemy of Going Up

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pp. 1-10

“You must see it as a prayer because when we launch that thing it’s like praying.”1 It was late May 1964, and the NASA astronaut Theodore Freeman was speaking to his friend Oriana Fallaci as they stood by the swimming pool at the Holiday Inn, Cocoa Beach.2 ...

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Chapter 1. A Power Greater Than Any of Us: Religion and Secularity in the Formation of the American Space Program

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pp. 11-43

In the summer of 1969, a few weeks before he was to depart for the moon, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, the pilot of the Apollo 11 lunar module, made a request of his minister, the Reverend Dean Woodruff, of Webster Presbyterian Church in Webster, Texas.1 Dissatisfied with the narrowness of the historical perspectives ...

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Chapter 2. Signals of Transcendence: The Rise and Fall of Space-Age Theology

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pp. 44-70

“Without risk, no faith,” declared the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard in the 1840s. “If I am able to apprehend God objectively, I do not have faith; but because I cannot do this, I must have faith. If I want to keep myself in faith, I must continuously see to it that I hold fast the objective uncertainty, ...

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Chapter 3. Into the Other World: Anticipations of Spaceflight as Religious Experience

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pp. 71-96

What would you like to say first?” It was late in the afternoon of 20 February 1962 when John Glenn found himself a quiet spot on the deck of the USS Noa, a navy destroyer. Holding a tape recorder in his hand, he started to answer a NASA questionnaire. An hour or so before, the crew of the Noa had hoisted Glenn’s capsule, ...

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Chapter 4. Perhaps a Meaning to Us: The Apollo Missions as Religious Experience

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pp. 97-136

Following Carpenter’s flight, the astronaut who spoke with sincerity of a personal questing impulse or in florid anticipation of the poetics of traveling in space was the least likely to be trusted with an actual mission. And for those who did make it onto a rocket and up into the sky, NASA’s institutional culture continued ...

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Chapter 5. Evil Triumphs When Good Men Do Nothing: Religious Americans and NASA in the Autumn of the Space Age

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pp. 137-163

In February 1969 the newly inaugurated President Richard Nixon ordered the establishment of a Space Task Group to develop recommendations for the future direction of the American space program.1 Six months later, at a meeting in August, Vice President Spiro Agnew, chair of the group, finally came up with an answer ...

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Epilogue

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pp. 164-170

Twenty-four times the shuttles had launched. Twenty-four times they had returned safely to Earth. By the twenty-fifth shuttle mission successful launches had come to seem routine, to the American public at least. Thus, on 28 January 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger rose from an ice-encrusted Cape Canaveral into the Florida sky, ...

Images

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pp. 188-197

Notes

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pp. 171-216

Bibliographic Essay

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pp. 217-220

Index

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pp. 221-229


E-ISBN-13: 9781421408347
E-ISBN-10: 1421408341
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421407883
Print-ISBN-10: 1421407884

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 12 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: New Series in NASA History

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Subject Headings

  • Astronautics -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Religion and science -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Astronautics -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Christianity and politics -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States. National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Religion -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1945-1989.
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