My Take: Space travel is a spiritual experience
July 6th, 2011
12:54 PM ET

My Take: Space travel is a spiritual experience

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.

America's Space program, then and now

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.

Photographing the end of U.S. shuttle program

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.
Space explorers continue to seek an intense spiritual experience and are willing to risk their lives for it, and I’m confident that that will continue to drive space travel innovation.

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.

A space town's goodbye

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?”
Well, you really have to be there to experience it, they say.

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Culture & Science • Opinion • Spirituality • Technology

soundoff (211 Responses)
  1. Kevin

    How does the virtual reality and training that modern-day astronauts go through change their reaction to visiting the space station? These days nearly every human on Earth has seen their home planet from a viewpoint in space, on the surface of the Moon, and even further into the depths of space, through images and video collected by satellites and past astronauts. Do our current crop of astronauts need to truly explore the unexplored, set foot on new planets and see what no human eyes have seen before to get the same sensation that Apollo astronauts got?

    October 17, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
  2. Map of London

    This blog is very useful to us.
    Map of London

    August 2, 2011 at 7:52 am |
  3. Anita

    I concur. The only thing that comes close to something spiritual for me is looking up at the night sky. It is majestic, magnificent, and one can imagine that all our human predecessors felt that same awe. It is a way to connect us emotionally throughout time.

    July 30, 2011 at 2:08 am |
  4. Gumby

    The Pale Blue Dot vs. Fundamentalism


    July 29, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  5. Mike b

    Mahu paints a wonderful image of human space travel, beyond even that of scientific discovery. NASA indeed may not exist without human spaceflight, and it is truely a thought provoking question to wonder what the world would be like in this scenerio. As a member of the private commericial crew endeavour, i have made it my lifes work to ensure everyone has the opportunity to share in this spirtual awakening.

    July 23, 2011 at 2:42 am |
  6. Shahriar

    There are many different ways to reach a higher level of spirituality. Human capacity to absorb and appreciate these levels can be simplified as compared to; ice vs water vs steam. I enjoyed your angle but only select few fortunate ones can have these experiences of reaching higher spirituality. This is where Rumi's writings fill a void for me personally. It's the journey that counts. Because once we get there we cease to function through our five senses.

    July 17, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  7. Jonathan Chute

    The view of earth from space has changed both those who've had it, first-hand, and many of us who've only seen the photos. From out there, the national boundaries do disappear, and visa lines don't exist. But it's also true that other precious and valuable things are most clearly seen up close... across a table... in loving embrace... or even in the protest taking place in a city square. Sometimes we need to gain distance to see more clearly, more truly. Other times we need to be face to face.

    July 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  8. Megan

    When I consider Your heavens,
    the work of Your fingers,
    the moon and the stars,
    which You have set in place,
    what is mankind that You are mindful of them,
    human beings that You care for them?

    Each generation's discoveries make me even more certain of God's presence and my insignificance. What an amazing place we have here and what an awesome God. Thanks for sharing Madhu.

    July 15, 2011 at 1:53 am |
    • william

      Tell your god how awesome he is after we collide with the Andromeda galaxy in ~4.2 billion years; that conversation is going to be pricess.

      Physics Professor

      July 22, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Kiyona

      Well, "Professor" williams, at the rate this world is going at, I highly doubt humans will be able to exist on this planet 4.2 billion years from now. Maybe if people actually had some morals and care about one another and the earth things wouldn't be as they are right now.

      September 25, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  9. Phil Sadler

    Dr. Thangavelu:

    Very good! But, please consider this. The view from space towards Earth is life changing and a religious experience, mankind has always used religion to explain the unknown, but just think what the view from the Hubble Telescope has shown us over the last few years. The advent of "dark matter" is another one. I don't think that it has yet "soaked in" to the human consciousness about what we are looking at. What this represents is endless possibilities and the ability to look back into time itself. Much of the unrest in the Middle East is caused by their religion being impacted over a relatively short period of time by modern communications and their religion trying to adjust to it. The same will be true to Western religions trying to adjust to what the space program is providing the human population with. The more we explore the more questions we will encounter and the more spirituality will co-exist with exploration.

    When I worked in Antarctica I was able to gaze at marvelous scenery from tops of mountains and it always seemed like the religious experience you speak of.

    July 15, 2011 at 12:10 am |
  10. Marc

    "God is known by nature in his works, and by doctrine in his revealed word."

    That's a quote from Galileo. Galileo was, in fact, very religious. His had difficulties with the dogma of his day, enforced by the hierachy of those who were in charge. Galileo, personally, seemed to see God in the natural universe, its order and the ability to observe, decode and track that order. Newton, Pascal, Descartes and many others had a very devout belief in God. It is only recently that we have concluded that because we can observe and predict the universe, to some extent, there must not be any God. But that is merely a question of perspective. Some of us see God in the order and the beauty of the universe. Some do not.

    I will continue to be amazed and excited by what I see. There is ugliness in the world, but not so much in the universe.

    July 12, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  11. Paul DiMare

    A wonderful point of view!- as we evolve and better try to understand our place in this universe , thoughtful words like the author has shared with us are very timely indeed as the U.S space program tries to find its way.

    July 12, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  12. Derek Shannon

    My soul is hungry for the stars, amen!

    July 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  13. david schrunk

    Madhu, I agree with your thoughts on the enhanced human spirituality experience that comes from the perspective of space. Very interesting topic that goes to the core questions of our existence and purpose. The “overview effect” described by astronauts in low Earth orbit and cis-lunar space is an example of this phenomenon – and it will only become more pronounced and important as humankind becomes a multi-world spacefaring civilization, and opens endless frontiers.

    July 12, 2011 at 1:26 am |
  14. Randall12

    Obama won't get my vote, he's against space exploration.

    July 12, 2011 at 1:00 am |
  15. Boris Fritz

    Madhu has expressed the experience of spaceflight with such a fundamental spiritual awareness of man's new planetary consciousness. His desription of watching the earth turning above the space station in utter silence seems louder than any symphony. Thank you for giving me this unique insight and perspective – what a profound description!

    July 11, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
  16. Remedan Awel

    the space science reach its max in north America Europe ,but it is still not borne in Africa. the developed countries and sponsoring agents must make stand agaist the Africa's problem.

    July 11, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  17. lapin

    Geee....fascinating take on a reason for why humans yearn to go to space !

    Why did the agency not think of this angle ?...ever ???

    ...well, because if you look at their roster, all of them are Ph.Ds in science...and their teachers brainwashed them to think in perfectly straight lines, perhaps ?

    It is not about science(robots are already doing a much a better job at it for a mere fraction of the cost – see JPL or APL)
    It is not about exploration(again, robots are already sending data back – no need to put people in harm's way)

    Perhaps it has to do with maintaining a leading edge in technology ?
    Well, there are many, many other areas where technology is rapidly blazing the trail – see biology

    So, what is this spirituality thingy that the author writes about ?
    I think he clearly distinguishes between organized religion(your God is better than mine nonsense that has all of us trapped in our present crowmagnon mindset ?) and this intangible feeling he calls spirituality.

    I wish he could define it better so that people don't get a feeling that he yet another religious freak, amen !

    This thing that draws people, especially those who work closely with nature, that new breed of biologists, they seem to have an inkling of spirituality ?

    Why, it is perhaps the same feeling Oppenheimer had when his team set off the first nuclear device, unleashing the power of the atom, perhaps ?

    I think he clearly states it has to do with a primal feeling of "oneness with nature".... from which we evolved...stuff of stars !

    July 9, 2011 at 4:36 pm |

    Everybody will be scøøped up into my loving antlers just as søøn as I figure out how to do that.

    July 9, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  19. Rhonda

    If human beings were soulless, non-intuitive, totally survival motivated creatures we would not be having this discussion. The capacity to be rapt in wonder and awe is an indicator that we are more than what science can explain.

    July 8, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • tallulah13

      Not really.

      July 9, 2011 at 12:02 am |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.