July 6th, 2011
12:54 PM ET
Atlantis' journey to Alpha, the international space station, will be NASA's 135th and final mission in the space shuttle program, which began 30 years ago. Tune in to CNN's live coverage of the launch Friday, starting at 10 a.m. ET on CNN, CNN.com/Live and the CNN mobile apps. Then check out "CNN Presents: Beyond Atlantis" Friday at 10 p.m. ET.
Editor's Note: Madhu Thangavelu conducts the Space Exploration Architecture Concept Synthesis Studio at the University of Southern California.
By Madhu Thangavelu, Special to CNN
Religion and scientific pursuits parted company centuries ago, at least in the eyes of the public.
Everyone knows the story of Galileo, who stood by his empirical evidence of the Copernican, sun-centered view of our solar system even under the threat of death by the church’s preferred method for punishing heresy: burning at the stake.
The church confined Galileo to house arrest for the rest of his life.
And yet for millennia, religion was the primary purveyor of science, especially astronomy. That’s evident in the symbols and images projected in cathedrals and mosques and temples all over the world. For a long time, the heavens belonged to God and religion, and scientists from Newton to Einstein have framed scientific inquiry as a divine investigation.
It’s worth noting that the term “big bang”, though coined by astronomer Fred Hoyle, was conceived by a clergyman, Monsignor Georges Lamaitre of Belgium.
Today, human space activity offers an important venue for exploring the potential for meaningful relationships between science and religion – or at least science and spirituality.
Religion stripped of all customs and liturgical practice may be called spirituality. It’s the wonderment that explorers feel when they are exposed to nature’s secrets and to new dimensions of human experience.
While robotic spacecraft roam the solar system, sending back images from far-off worlds, the yearning of humanity to be physically present there is what drives NASA and others to pursue space exploration. Without a vibrant human space activity component, NASA may not have a reason to exist.
As the Atlantis space shuttle prepares for its last mission on Friday, the private sector will probably now lead the way in manned space flight.
We call this new group of adventurers “space tourists,” but they’re mostly spiritual pilgrims seeking to experience and appreciate man’s place in the universe.
On the shuttle, the spiritual experience begins at liftoff. With their eyes on the glass cockpit and their ears tuned to mission control above the roar of those mighty engines, the crew is praying for a successful and smooth launch.
That’s because, despite checks and cross checks and counter checks, despite the best efforts of ground crew and controllers, many things can still go wrong in such a complex system.
The monitoring of the final minutes before launch are so rigorous and intense that the entire sequence is handed off from the crew to a set of computers. When your life is in the hands of machines, prayer is important.
As the boosters fall off and the ride becomes much smoother, astronauts start to see nature’s spectacle through the windows. Their eyes, though fixed to the mach numbers steadily climbing higher than twenty times that of a speeding bullet, are gripped by the awe of the space environment.
A few minutes later, after the final thrust that puts them into orbit, the engines shut off and their bodies released from the force of gravity, the crew is overtaken by the awesome majesty of the Earth’s disc. They are experiencing a spiritual awakening that words cannot express.
Their bodies, meanwhile, are adjusting to an environment without gravity.
Upon arrival at the International Space Station, the first thing they do is look out at planet Earth. The space station sports an Italian-made cupola, a large and exquisite window that looks toward planet Earth, and it is perhaps the most aesthetic component of the entire facility. What domed cathedral could substitute for this “live Earth” for a ceiling?
The International Space Station crew spend a lot of their free time just looking out from the cupola and marveling at the dynamic colors and drama the Earth gliding below them offers, as the day becomes night and back again, all in a matter of minutes, as they orbit the planet.
I have had astronauts stare me in the eye when I pose the question, “How does it feel to be walking on the surface of the moon?”
While in space, their sensory systems are turned up to highest alertness levels, heartbeats racing like athletes during peak performance, and they are soaking in terabits of information. The rush of data is simply too hard to debrief, in technical terms, prose or poetry.
Though they are fully aware that Newton and Kepler’s laws of gravity and motion guided them there, some have told me that their minds gravitate toward their religious traditions’ scriptures.
Most crew of space missions come back changed forever. Astronauts do not see national boundaries, they do not see warring nations, and they rarely notice the ravages of humanity and industry on the face of the planet.
All they see is a stunningly vibrant planet, lots of rich blue-aquamarine ocean, virgin white snowtops on chains of mountain ranges and puffs of cloud cover as the continents whizz by below them in absolute silence. No one is asking them for country of origin or standing in line for visa verification.
They see the whole world as one giant, harmonious living entity. They are immersed in warm and caring embrace; a feeling of oneness with nature is inescapable. From orbit, the idea of a common humanity becomes reality.
If that’s not a spiritual awakening, what is?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Madhu Thangavelu.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.