Space Religion: Mormonism and the Final Frontier

Former NASA administrator James C. Fletcher played a crucial role in the first three decades of human space exploration. To what extent did his Mormon faith fuel his enthusiasm?

Robert Lamb also co-hosts the "Stuff to Blow Your Mind" podcast and blog.

That's Dr. James C. Fletcher in the yellow coat, to the left of Dr. Wernher von Braun. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

You can argue that religion is just another childish thing that an interplanetary species should leave behind. But we seem rather attached to our gods and goddesses, so it seems just as likely that we'll take religion into space with us. Which brings us to Mormonism.

I previously blogged about Jewish, Christian and Islamic ritual in orbit and how we've had to rethink traditionally terrestrial rituals and observances. It seems that bearded prophets out of antiquity didn't even consider the possibility of space stations.

But Mormonism is a slightly different matter, as Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints less than 200 years ago. Despite the religion's frontier roots, Mormon cosmology takes other planets and even the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life into account.

Roger D. Launius, the curator of the Smithsonian's Planetary Exploration programs, paints a fascinating picture of Mormonism and space exploration in "A Western Mormon in Washington, D.C." In this work, which you can read right here, Launius profiles Dr. James C. Fletcher, who served as NASA administrator from 1971 to 1977 and from 1986 to 1989.

Fletcher was a highly influential figure in the history of space exploration (heck, we owe the shuttle program to him), and much of what made him tick came down to his Mormon heritage. Here are two key factors:

1. Grounded in a frontier religion, Fletcher was all about pushing the "final frontier" via manned space exploration.

2. Mormon cosmology involves a universe full of "worlds without number" that are inhabited by intelligent beings. In other words, Earthlings are far from the only game in town. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Fletcher was committed to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

That second point is particularly fascinating, especially when you consider ongoing discussions about how the discovery of alien life would affect world religion. How would the Vatican handle it? The inclusion of extraterrestrial worlds in Mormon belief hardly amounts to a get-out-of-a-theological-quagmire-free card, but it does paint a rather optimistic view of first contact with alien life.

Maybe that's why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently used a video featuring Ron Dittemore, NASA's former flight director, as a promotional tool:

Dr. Fletcher was adamant about the importance of seeking out and communicating with extraterrestrials, insisting that it could be "the most significant achievement of this millennium, perhaps the key to our survival as a species."

Not to say that Mormons were always gung-ho for space exploration. Launius describes how pre-1950s Mormon apostle and church president Joseph Fielding Smith spoke out against space exploration as a waste of time - that humans should concern themselves with stewardship of Earth and that God would surely check any human excursions into space.

In the '50s and '60s, Fletcher and other intellectuals drove the stay-at-home position to the margins of Mormon society. Yet planetary stewardship remained an important theme. Even as he worked to ensure an ambitious U.S. space program and advocated the work of SETI, Fletcher also stressed the terrestrial importance of the work and the need to preserve pristine environments on Earth.

Originally posted at HSW: Is Mormonism the Ideal Religion for Space Exploration?

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