Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Catholicism in Space: Houston, do we have a problem?

Twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly (raised Catholic in an Irish-American family) are about to embark on an important scientific experiment on Friday. Scott Kelly will begin spending a year in space on the International Space Station (ISS) while his brother stays back here on earth as a control subject. NASA will be studying how extended time in space changes Scott relative to his brother Mark. Living for an extended time outside the gravity of earth and partially exposed to the radiation of space can impact one’s bones, heart, eyes, muscles, and who knows what else.

It’s probably important to start understanding and thinking more about living in space because frankly that is where the human future may be. At some point the Catholic Church will need to think about how people can “do” Catholicism in space. During the shuttle Endeavour mission STS-134 in March 2011, Mark Kelly was part of the crew on the ISS who spoke with Pope Benedict XVI. He told Kelly and the astronauts,

Space exploration is a fascinating scientific adventure. I know you have been studying your equipment to further scientific research and to study radiation coming from outer space. But I think it is also an adventure of the human spirit. A powerful stimulus to reflect on the origins and on the destiny of the universe and humanity.

Indeed the destiny of human beings is among the stars as our descendants will eventually need to get off this rock to survive (…if we don’t kill each other first). The sun is about to enter its mid-life crisis. At 4.6 billion years old it has more than a half-life to go. Well before then it is expected to get a bit brighter by about 10% in 1.1 billion years. That will begin to make life on earth as challenging as we have ever known it. By the end of its life cycle the sun will become a red giant and consume Mercury and Venus and most likely Earth as well. Before any of that happens, our galaxy, the Milky Way, will collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in 3.7 billion years. It could be no big deal for earth or it might be catastrophic. Either way due to the increased output of the sun by that point life on earth will already be impossible. Perhaps the descendant of humans today will have already found somewhere else in “Milkdromeda” to call home? There are numerous other ways the planet or life on it could be doomed much, much earlier including asteroid or comet impacts, a gamma-ray burst, a wandering black hole, a super solar flare, pandemics, super volcanoes, a flip in the planet’s magnetic field… Anyone trying the “save life on earth” or the “planet” is ultimately doomed to fail.

Over the long-term, space is the place and Catholics, like most other Americans, are interested in that exploration. In general, people of faith are just as interested as those without any religion. That means religious institutions will have to figure out how their faith will be practiced in zero gravity, without directional east or west, and without sunrises and seasons. That may be easier for some than others.

So how does Catholicism work outside the walls of an earthly parish among the stars? Of course some have already practiced their faith in space. On Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian, took communion that he brought up to the moon (his crew brought a piece of the moon back for Pope Paul VI). Catholic astronauts Thomas Jones, Sidney Gutierrez, and Kevin Chilton celebrated a communion service on the space shuttle Endeavour with Eucharist they brought into space in a gold pyx in 1994. That will continue to work for short trips into space but what about a long journey or in a colony?

If a Catholic priest was on the ISS today could he say Mass? How would one keep the wine in a chalice in zero gravity? What about crumbs after breaking the Eucharistic bread? How does one purify the containers? There would be no candles. Which way is East? When is Sunday in space? When is Easter? Is it really kneeling in zero gravity? How could one confess sins without a priest on the crew?

The late Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., had presumably figured out the answer to some of these questions and was hoping to be the first priest to say a Mass among the heavens. He fell short of this dream but did get to fly at Mach 3.35 in an SR-71 Blackbird at the age of 62. It must have seemed like space flight. Someone else may have put some thought to the issues as well. The late Archbishop William D. Borders informed a surprised Pope Paul IV that he was the Bishop of the Moon. As the Bishop of Orlando at the time NASA astronauts were launching from Cape Canaveral to visit the moon he was the bishop of their home port. Thus, he was the de facto ordinary of the missionary lands they explored (six of the Apollo astronauts were Catholic). One could argue the Bishop of Orlando will continue to hold that position until perhaps China sends a crew to the Moon? That is when things get tricky. It is difficult to know as that country has multiple launch sites and sometimes multiple bishops!

There are many questions left to be answered for the practice of Catholicism in orbit or on the moon. Once you get to Mars, Europa, or go interstellar things will get even more problematic. There are not a lot of star systems with planets in our neighborhood of the galaxy. Travel to Epsilon Eridani, at 10.4 light years away, would require a multi-generational effort and a fast craft. There would be no quick returns from earth’s perspective (...after one accounts for time dilation from traveling at such extreme speeds). Of course we do not know if human reproduction is even possible in space yet. Assume that it is and we have a need for sacraments in space like marriage, baptisms, first communions, and funerals. 

I doubt there could ever be Space Cardinals (...even on Mars). There would be no way they could make it back for a conclave. The liturgical calendar would likely make little sense on any new planet. Days, months, and years could all be shorter or longer. A new planet may not be able to grow wheat and grapes. What then? On the positive side, I do think space travel might help solve one of the Catholic Church’s challenges. Think about this: Space Jesuits. That has a certain appeal. Perhaps recruitment will be less of an issue? After all more than 2,700 people have already applied for a one-way mission to Mars (...yes, I am aware of the award-winning 1996 novel, The Sparrow explores the idea of a “Space Jesuit”).

Science fiction novels and movies have rarely taken space, physics, or biology seriously. Perhaps because doing so would make for boring stories. Lightsabers are impossible. Traveling very near the speed of light would mean saying goodbye forever to anyone you ever knew. Interstellar (2014), which is released on DVD next week, is one of the first to take look at space travel with some realism (...although it does still include humans in wormholes, extra dimensions, etc). If you are a reader and have interest in the subject I strongly suggest Claude A. Piantadosi’s very non-fiction, Mankind Beyond Earth (2012). I used Piantadosi’s book in a class on the history and future of human exploration in the Fall. It got me thinking about how unprepared the Catholic Church is for the transition to space that began in the 1960s (...following the call of the first Catholic U.S. President).

A hundred years ago the idea that an average person could or would take many trips on planes in their life seeing different parts of the world seemed like a silly fantasy. Now it is quite common. I believe my grandchildren (and I don't actually have any yet) will be as regular tourists in near-earth space as we are to places around the world by plane. That is a future that deserves some thought now. It took 10,000 years of civilization to put humans on the moon. Imagine what we will accomplish in the next 10,000 years. In the long run, we should recognize that we are perhaps the greatest “weed” this planet has ever known. Our brains make us the ultimate survivors. Even if it is not a necessity, we will likely come to explore beyond our solar system. I hope the Catholic Church is a part of that journey.

Family in space photo (from Ray Bradbury’s The Gift a Christmas story in space) courtesy of James Vaughan.

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