The claim that astronauts who have visited the moon tend to become religious is exciting but only partially supported by facts.
The moon in different religions
The moon has been a central object of religious significance in many cultures throughout history. In ancient times, the moon was often associated with feminine deities such as Artemis in Greek mythology, Luna in Roman mythology, and Selene in Greek mythology. These goddesses were believed to have the power to control the cycles of nature, particularly fertility, and childbirth. Additionally, the moon was associated with magic, divination, and mystery, leading to its representation in many religious practices and rituals.
In many Native American cultures, the moon is considered a powerful spiritual symbol, representing the cyclical nature of life and the connection between the physical and spiritual worlds. For example, the Cherokee people have a lunar calendar that guides their planting and harvesting activities, and many tribes perform moon ceremonies to connect with nature’s spiritual forces.
In Judaism, the moon is associated with the monthly cycle of the Jewish calendar, which is based on the lunar cycle. The appearance of the new moon marks the beginning of each month, and the festivity of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, ensues on day one of the lunar months of Tishrei.
In Islam, the moon plays a significant role in calculating the Islamic calendar, which is also based on the lunar cycle. The observation of the new moon marks the commencement of Ramadan, the most sacred month in the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk.
In Hinduism, the moon is intertwined with the God Shiva, often portrayed as having a crescent moon in his hair. The moon is also a central symbol in the Hindu festival of Diwali, which celebrates the victory of light over darkness.
The moon in modern times
In modern times, some religious groups have claimed that the moon landing was a hoax, whereas others see the moon as a symbol of scientific progress and human achievement. The Church of Scientology, for example, views the moon landing as a pivotal moment in human history and claims that L. Ron Hubbard, the church’s founder, was the first person to recognize the spiritual significance of the moon landing.
Do they get to see god?
Several astronauts who have traveled to space have reported experiencing what they describe as a profound spiritual or existential experience. For instance, astronaut Edgar Mitchell, a member of the Apollo 14 mission, reported experiencing a sense of interconnectedness and unity with the universe that he described as a “peak experience.” Similarly, astronaut James Irwin, who was part of the Apollo 15 mission, claimed that his time in space reinforced his religious beliefs and deepened his faith.
It is worth noting that Mitchell was already interested in exploring the intersection between science and spirituality before his space travel and had even founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a research organization focused on studying consciousness and its relationship to the physical world. Thus, while his experience in space may have deepened his spiritual convictions, it is unlikely that it was the sole cause of his interest in these topics.
Irwin was already a devout Christian before he went to space, but his experience on the moon heightened his spiritual beliefs and prompted him to earmark the rest of his life to Christian ministry.
Irwin’s spiritual awakening began during his time on the moon. As he looked out at the lunar landscape, he felt a deep sense of awe and wonder at the sight of the Earth floating in the vast darkness of space. He later described this experience as a “mountain-top experience” that transformed him on a deep level.
After his return to Earth, Irwin became increasingly convinced that his space mission had a spiritual purpose. He began speaking openly about his beliefs and founded the High Flight Foundation, a Christian ministry that aimed to use space exploration to spread the Christian message. Irwin believed his experience on the moon gave him a unique perspective on the universe. His duty was to use this perspective to inspire others to seek a more profound understanding of God.
Irwin’s religious convictions sometimes put him at odds with his fellow astronauts and NASA officials, who were wary of mixing religion with space exploration. Nevertheless, Irwin remained steadfast in his beliefs and continued to promote his Christian message until he died in 1991. In his final years, he worked to establish a Christian space center in Colorado, which he saw as a means of furthering his vision of using space exploration to spread the Christian message.
Nonetheless, it is indispensable to note that not all astronauts who have traveled to space have reported such experiences. Even those who have may not necessarily have become more religious. Moreover, the experiences reported by astronauts are not necessarily remarkable to those who have traveled to space, as many people have reported feeling a sense of awe and wonder when contemplating the universe and their place within it.
That said, whether exposure to space travel can transform an individual’s religious beliefs is complex. Some have argued that the experience of traveling to space, with its vast and awe-inspiring vistas, can provide individuals with a new perspective on their place in the universe and their relationship to a higher power, which in turn can lead to a greater appreciation for the spiritual dimensions of life.
Space exploration is a complex and risky endeavor, and the conditions and demands of spaceflight can be incredibly challenging. Astronauts are subjected to intense stressors, such as isolation, confinement, sensory deprivation, and extreme workloads, which can affect their mental health. Indeed, there have been several Apollo astronauts who have experienced psychological breakdowns during missions.
The Apollo program was not easy on the psyche
One example of an Apollo astronaut who experienced psychological distress during a mission is Rusty Schweickart, who flew on the Apollo 9 mission in 1969. Schweickart had a powerful existential experience during a spacewalk, which he later described as “oneness with the universe” and a profound feeling of interconnectedness. However, this experience also led to feelings of anxiety and disorientation, and Schweickart had to work hard to regain his focus and composure.
Another example is Eugene Cernan, the commander of the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. Cernan experienced several technical problems and setbacks during the mission, leaving him frustrated and demoralized. He later described feeling a sense of “deep, deep frustration and anger” at the challenges he faced and struggled to maintain his focus and motivation.
Finally, Alan Shepard, who flew on the Mercury and Apollo programs, also experienced psychological distress during his missions. Shepard had Meniere’s disease, which affected his balance and caused severe vertigo. During his Apollo 14 mission, Shepard experienced a particularly severe episode of vertigo, which left him disoriented and struggling to complete his tasks.
Others, however, have argued that the experience of space travel is fundamentally secular and that any perceived spiritual experiences reflect the intense psychological and physical pressures that astronauts are subjected to during their missions.
Without more rigorous scientific research, drawing firm conclusions about the relationship between space travel and religion is problematic. While some astronauts have reported experiencing profound spiritual experiences during their time in space, it needs to be clarified whether these experiences are unique to space travel or simply a reflection of the broader human experience of contemplating the mysteries of the universe.
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This is an original article published exclusively by Space Expert. You may cite it as:
"Religious implications of space travel" in Space Expert, 2023