Space Flight

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Space Flight

In the last third of the twentieth century, humanity took its first steps toward becoming an interstellar species, but its religions remained largely earth bound. However, from the Temple of Issus in The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1913, to the Temple of the Jedi in the Star Wars prequel by George Lucas in 1999, science fiction has imagined the religions of other planets and sketched the creeds of the future. The Jedi knights of Star Wars are warrior-priests, like Templar Zen masters, and a few novel religions, such as Scientology and the Terran Order, appear ready to realize that dream today. J. Michael Straczynski's television series Babylon 5 is a religious drama of the twenty-second century replete with alien creeds, an underlying mythos of warring gods, and interplanetary transmigration of souls. Realistically, earthlings on Babylon 5 tend to belong to traditional faiths, such as Judaism and Roman Catholicism, but a substantial minority of the citizens of its fictional future belong to a bewildering range of innovative cults.

The Church of Scientology, a space-oriented religion of major importance, emerged directly from science fiction. Its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, was a leading writer of the genre and first published about Dianetics, the precursor of Scientology, in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction in 1950. Many Scientologists report that their church has restored their buried memories of having been on other planets in previous lives. The fundamental doctrines of Scientology seem to encourage human exploration of the galaxy, but the church has set a higher near-term priority on clearing this planet from mental barriers to spiritual development.

The idea that space could have religious significance is not new, and back in 1758, Emanuel Swedenborg published The Earths in Our Solar System Which Are Called Planets, claiming he had made spiritual contact with extraterrestrials. Beginning in about 1947, a substantial "flying saucer" cultural movement has promoted the idea that "unidentified flying objects" (UFOs) are real extraterrestrial spacecraft. The previous decade neared its close with a 1938 Martian invasion panic in which many people imagined that a radio dramatization of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds was an actual news broadcast, and the 1940s ended with test launches of captured German V-2 rockets establishing the feasibility of spaceflight. Science fiction continued to stimulate the saucerian movement, first in the person of Ray Palmer, who founded saucerpromoting Fate magazine when he lost the editorship of the first science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, and culminating in the popular 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Military balloon and parachute experiments gave rise to the "Roswell incident" and the widespread belief that the government possessed the wreckage of a crashed alien spaceship, complete with the bodies of its crew.

In 1954 a team of social psychologists headed by Leon Festinger carried out the first comprehensive study of an extraterrestrial-oriented religion, focused on the mediumship of "Mrs. Keech," who said she was receiving spiritual messages from the planets Clarion and Cetus. A being named Sananda psychically warned her to prepare for a great disaster that would cause total destruction for miles around, but he promised that flying saucers would carry her faithful group to safety and transcendence. In the same year, George King founded The Aetherius Society, claiming to have achieve telepathic rapport with the Cosmic Masters and to possess technology capable of exchanging spiritual energy between the planets. The Raelian Movement, founded by "Rael" after an encounter with space aliens in 1973, employs erotic forms of meditation to prepare for the advent of extraterrestrial Elohim, and it has recently announced that it intends to clone human beings artificially.

Belief in extraterrestrial saviors is often associated with a high degree of social-psychological dependency, in which people are incapable of achieving their own transcendent goals but submit themselves to near-total psychic domination. The extreme in spiritual submission is ritual suicide, and the two striking examples of recent years both belong to the saucerian movement. In 1975 Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles organized a group oriented toward "human individual metamorphosis" that would transform them into immortal, androgynous superbeings, much as a caterpillar becomes a butterfly through transformation in a cocoon. In 1997, after Nettles had died of cancer, Applewhite became convinced that he could rejoin her on a spaceship accompanying the comet Hale-Bopp, and with thirty-eight followers he staged the Heaven's Gate ritual suicide. Murder combined with suicide was the fate of sixty-nine members of the Solar Temple in Switzerland, Canada, and France in 1994 and 1995. Messages left by the group's leaders, Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro, indicated that they were leaving the doomed Earth for safety on a planet of Sirius, with the help of extraterrestrial ascended masters.

When human beings take active charge of their own destiny and infuse human exploration of the galaxy with religious meaning, spaceflight itself becomes potentially sacred. In the 1990s, "Omicron" and his associates founded the Terran Order, with the ambition of creating a community of spiritual adepts who would guide humanity to the stars. The order's website offers immortality software designed to archive a person's mind for later resurrection in a freshly cloned body on a distant planet. The religious doctrines are closely connected to scientific theories in areas such as quantum cosmology, biological evolution, and artificial intelligence. It remains to be seen whether religious doctrines connected to science will be more persuasive in the twenty-first century than those connected to ancient agricultural societies. In part, the answer to this question depends on the extent to which theories and discoveries at the forefront of scientific knowledge are communicated effectively to the general public.

The scientific advances of the twentieth century constantly erode the plausibility of traditional religions, even as the liberal churches find it possible to believe that they have achieved a mutually respectful truce in religion's war with science. Many scientists work in such limited research areas that they themselves see little religious relevance of their work, and this is certainly true for aerospace engineers and scientists. Ironically, however, at the same time that the general public considers God's role as creator to be the most important divine attribute, quantum cosmology is busy explaining how the universe could have come into being without a creator as a random fluctuation in the space-time continuum. Space-based telescopes cooperate with ground-based instruments to study the expansion of the universe from the quantum singularity of the "Big Bang" to the currently complex structures through a combination of mechanical processes and blind chance. A host of writers argue that "the anthropic principle" demolishes the old argument from design for God's existence, saying that the world seems designed for our welfare simply because only in such a propitious place could intelligent life evolve and ask why its environment was so benign. Yet humans need to feel that life has a higher meaning, and in every era people have developed new conceptions of spirituality.

The last human beings visited the Moon in 1972, and the world's space programs currently have no commitment whatsoever to human flight to the planets. In a sense, the "space age" has been a colossal illusion, and humanity may be centuries away from real interplanetary colonization. Thus we may have entered a long period in which dreamers who long for the stars experience great frustration, seeing the technical possibility of interstellar travel but finding society unwilling to develop it. The result may be the eruption of numerous religious movements oriented toward spiritual transformation of humanity into a cosmic species.

See alsoAnti-Cult Movement; Ascended Master; Astral Planes; Brainwashing; Creationism; Cult; Cult Awareness Network; Death of God; Extraterrestrial Guides; God; Heaven's Gate; Journeys and Journeying; Psychology of Religion; Scientology; Solar Temple; Star Trek; Unidentified Flying Objects (Ufos).


Bainbridge, William Sims. Goals in Space: American Values and the Future of Technology. 1991.

Bainbridge, William Sims. The Sociology of ReligiousMovements. 1997.

Barrow, John D., and Frank J. Tipler. The AnthropicCosmological Principle. 1986.

Cantril, Hadley. The Invasion from Mars. 1940.

Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. When Prophecy Fails. 1956.

Lewis, James R., ed. The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds. 1995.

Saler, Benson, Charles A. Ziegler, and Charles B. Moore. UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a ModernMyth. 1997.

William Sims Bainbridge