The newest NASA astronaut class on stage at the Johnson Space Center for their debut in June 2017. Astronauts, with their exceptional physical and mental skills, are often treated with almost a religious reverence. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The “immortality” of astronauts
As I sat in a lecture hall at the NASA Human Research Project Workshop in January of this year, watching a physician discuss how medical tests are conducted on the International Space Station, I paused in taking my notes to smile. The speaker had put up a slide whose title read, “Astronauts vs Mortals”. Obviously, this was meant to be funny, but I noticed it because I was there doing research on the religious beliefs (or lack thereof) of people involved in space exploration, both in space and on the ground. The idea of comparing astronauts to “mortals,” those of us who live ordinary lives and don’t go floating around in microgravity far above the Earth, was using religious language to describe a secular idea.
At the same time, although the slide was humorous, its point was a valid one. The people chosen by NASA and other space agencies have gone through dozens of physical and medical tests, have been compared with other candidates, and have finally been chosen, at least in part, due to their health and fitness levels. The explanation offered by the speaker for the title of the slide was that what doctors learn from testing astronauts is limited because astronauts tend to be so healthy to begin with, and that testing people with medical conditions in microgravity might lead to knowledge we don’t currently have. We should test mortals, not just astronauts.
The idea, whether expressed facetiously or seriously, that astronauts are somehow “above” or “superior to” ordinary people (and not just due to their physical location in orbit) has appeared in various forms throughout the research I have been undertaking. Using the playful idea of the “superhuman” astronaut as a starting point, I want to explore the ways in which astronauts are conceptualized by non-astronauts as being “set apart” from regular people as well as look at an analog for this special status from a distinctly different society.
As an anthropologist I conduct “ethnographic” fieldwork, which relies on participant observation (spending time in the societies I’m studying, in this case attending NASA workshops, visiting NASA field centers, etc.) and conducting interviews with members of the society I’m studying (astronauts and other “space workers,” including engineers, technicians, flight surgeons, physicists, etc.) I have also used autobiographical writings and other published sources to provide additional cultural context. When citing my own interviews, I follow anthropological convention and use pseudonyms for my interviewees, but will use people’s real names if the information is coming from a published source. Through my observations and conversations I’ve drawn some conclusions about what people mean and what people do when they put astronauts into a “superhuman” category. I am also including some “ethnological” research in this paper, which is when a phenomenon in one society is compared to a similar phenomenon in another society, allowing for cross-cultural comparison. What does it mean when a society classifies a small group of individuals as being in a superior category and when individuals in that society make sacrifices to let these high-prestige individuals do things the rest can only dream about?
Astronauts as demi-gods
During the early days of the American space program, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts were held up, particularly by the media, as god-like beings. For example, on April 8, 1966, the Herald-News of Passaic, New Jersey, described some proposed “jet shoes” that NASA had devised, explaining, “The jet-shod astronaut would outdo the mythical god Mercury, who soared through the heavens on winged sandals.”
An advice column by Tom Tiede, published by the The Daily Journal of Franklin, Indiana, on January 30, 1969, goes further. The piece’s title reads “Spacemen must be superhuman”. Tiede answers a letter from a ten-year-old boy who wants to go into space, letting him know that he shouldn’t get his hopes up, because astronauts are extraordinary. He writes, “(P)rivate citizens just don’t qualify for the discriminating and entirely exclusive astronautic club… (T)he average person has no hope… Sympathetic officials regret that ordinary men must be ruled out of astronaut consideration, but such is necessary. They say spacemen have to have an almost superhuman combination of talent and purity.” The early astronauts weren’t literally superhuman or capable of outdoing gods, but what they accomplished, and the type of people chosen to undertake these accomplishments, created a sense of veneration and awe in the American public, and also in many of the support people who worked with these astronauts.
A respondent I will refer to as James is a retired equipment technician who worked during the Apollo era. James told me about the way his immediate superior reminded him to be respectful of the astronauts he encountered. This was during the late 1960s when men’s fashion had become more relaxed and expressive in contrast to the clean-cut formality of the 1950s. James, whose current look is pretty informal, explained, “When we did work with the astronauts, we didn’t have the mustaches and facial hair, since all of them were military at the time. And out of respect for them we wore a white shirt and a tie… I was always amazed that they always treated us technicians with respect.” There was a clear hierarchy at NASA during James’ tenure there, and astronauts were at the top. James was quite young at the time, and others may not have interpreted status differences so strictly, but James felt he owed the astronauts the utmost consideration and actually sounded surprised that they would be gracious in return.
This tendency to see astronauts as “higher ups” occurs among space workers outside of NASA as well. Ford, a man in his early thirties who works as an engineer for one of the NewSpace companies at the Mojave Air and Space Port, also thought in a very hierarchical way, with astronauts occupying a sky-high rank. He explained, “I’ve had a few encounters with people who are astronauts. And it’s a very incredible thing because you immediately recognize that this person is the top of the game. Physically, they’re top of the game. Mentally, they’re top of the game, in every aspect of life. And you have a conversation with them and you feel like you’re almost offending them at every step because you can’t say anything, like any knowledge that you have, well they have more than me about this, you know?” Ford worked with experimental aeronautics and knew legendary test pilots, but astronauts, and their apparently superior qualities, still intimidated him.
The entitled astronaut
Not all space workers are as deferential as James and Ford. A physicist I will call Phil interacted regularly with many astronauts but found the level of prestige astronauts tended to have rather unfair. He told me that “Astronauts are an interesting breed. They, of course, come in all kinds of varieties.” He then went on to define what he meant by describing an astronaut as “astronaut-y”. An “astronaut-y” astronaut, per Phil, is driven and “I think they have to have some vision of exploration.” He talked about astronauts being drawn to danger: “(T)he adventurer, technical adventurer, even death defying, as well as combined in some way with the love of engineering… So combined adventure, daredevil and engineering… You mix them all up and you get an astronaut.”
Phil thought that astronauts tended to have “very real personalities,” and he was close friends with several, but as a non-astronaut NASA employee, the way astronauts were exalted sometimes irritated him. He continued, “It’s reinforced that they are above the other NASA employees.” He went on to admit that astronauts faced danger that other NASA employees did not, but he was nevertheless frustrated that NASA “perpetuates the cult of the astronaut.” Phil identified ways that astronauts are treated differently from their non-astronaut colleagues, including the channels that have to be navigated to talk to one: “Every other person in NASA, you know somebody who’s an earth scientist or a deputy director of this, I can call them up.” With astronauts, however, he had to go through the Astronaut Office.
Moreover, even though other NASA employees do amazing work, “the representative of NASA is almost always an astronaut.” With non-astronauts, “(t)hey retire from NASA and they get a nice party. Sometimes with pizza, sometimes without. But the astronaut gets a press release.” One particular irritant for Phil was the outfit that astronauts wear for official NASA outreach, “a sky blue, royal blue suit.” His complaint was that “The design is a jumpsuit. And that’s way inappropriate… (I)t sends the message that this person is somebody who doesn’t need to abide by common conventional rules of proper appearance… if I was planning to be introduced to the Queen of England, I would get a damn nice suit on. That’s what you do. Unless you’re an astronaut.”
Astronauts from the inside
Also baffled by the power of the royal blue suit was a retired astronaut I’ll refer to as Beverly. During public appearances with her colleague Nathan (not his real name), they both had the opportunity to see the way the blue suit worked to elevate astronauts among the general public. She told me about “a story Nathan and I have. It’s about the blue flight suit. He and I, before we had flown in space, and nobody can ever believe when you’re wearing the flight suit that you haven’t flown in space…We spent the evening sitting with this same group of people at this same table all night, talking to them, in blue flight suits.” After the dinner, Beverly and Nathan went out to meet some friends in regular street clothes and ran into their dining companions. They said hello, but, Beverly continued, “(t)hey looked at us like they had never seen us before. The mystery of the blue flight suit. It wasn’t about us at all. Which is okay, but there was this awe, and almost bowing down to the blue flight suit, not the human… You don’t really want to get to know Beverly, you’re just excited because you got to sit at a table with an astronaut all night.”
The “bowing down” described by Beverly is certainly not limited to American astronauts (or their flight suits). During a discussion with a retired astronaut I’ll refer to as Tom, he and Eric, a former NASA employee himself, began to explain the mystique of cosmonauts in the former Soviet Union. Characterizing a Russian museum focused on Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, Eric said, “…it was almost like going into a church or a cathedral. It was very ornate with stained glass windows…” Tom, who had also traveled to Russia, noted the “amount of reverence there,” but argued that cosmonauts were venerated in Russia more than astronauts were in the United States. Cosmonauts were “revered as something more special to the Russian people than we were to the Americans.” Tom’s experience must have been different from Beverly’s, because he concluded, “to the American people, we were more just regular folks.” Having seen the way people act around Tom, however, I suspect this was just wishful thinking on his part.
Astronauts are certainly not the only people in Western society who are typically seen by the general population as being superior in some way to “just regular folks.” Movie stars get constant attention from the media, and fans sometimes faint when they encounter a favorite actor or actress. Politicians may inspire awe and the royal families of some countries are held in very high esteem. Religious leaders, such as Jerry Falwell, Mother Teresa, or Pope John Paul II drew legions of admirers who saw them as truly superior to average people.
Astronauts, on the other hand, are somewhat different. Astronauts are only chosen if they meet certain physical, intellectual and psychological requirements, requirements most people cannot attain. In addition, once an astronaut has been in space, their quality of “celebrity” changes in a dramatic way. Astronauts are unlike “mortals” because they have left the planet, because they have floated or flown above the Earth’s atmosphere, and because they have seen visions (of Earth, of the stars) that most people on this planet will never view apart from photographs. Astronauts have traveled to the Moon and have lived in Earth’s orbit, literally transcending the mundane realm of other Earthlings.
The transcendence of astronauts, however, doesn’t come purely through the efforts of astronauts alone. Thousands of workers, including the engineers, physicists, technicians, and doctors I’ve interviewed, have worked to allow astronauts to be chosen, to fly into space, float in microgravity, survive strange physiological phenomena, and return home safely. We would have no astronauts without this “support crew” of non-astronauts. As Christopher C. Kraft writes in the Foreword to Glen E. Swanson’s excellent Before This Decade is Out: Personal Reflections on the Apollo Program, “(I)t took literally thousands of dedicated people to bring these efforts to fruition” (Swanson, 1999, p. iv). The American space program (and, indeed, those of other nations) are an example of a cultural phenomenon where a large group of people mobilizes and sacrifices to allow a smaller group to achieve something unavailable to the population at large.
A comparable situation exists, perhaps improbably, in the Jain communities of northern India. In her 2002 book Guardians of the Transcendent: An Ethnography of a Jain Ascetic Community, anthropologist Anne Vallely describes her fieldwork living among nuns in the Jain religious order. Jainism is a minority religion in India, related to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Jains are known for practicing an extreme form of non-violence; they eat no meat, believe that all living things (including insects, plants, and bacteria) have the same type of souls as human beings, and Jain monks and nuns may wear mouth coverings and sweep the paths in front of them as they walk to avoid doing harm to any living creature. Jains believe in reincarnation, and, like Hindus and Buddhists, see their ultimate goal as achieving liberation from an endless cycle of lives and deaths. For the Jains, however, liberation is limited only to those who can live a totally karma-free life: monks and nuns, known as ascetics because of their lives of self-deprivation.
As described by Vallely, Jain ascetics live under curious circumstances. They reside in monasteries and nunneries, spend hours every day in meditation, and fast frequently for religious purposes. When they do eat, however, special rules come to play. The way that Jains understand reality, the harming of any living thing, including plants, is a form of violence and creates bad karma, preventing liberation. Preparing food, even making a simple bowl of rice, requires violence, including disturbing the plant from which the rice is harvested and causing harm to the water that is boiled to cook the rice. The cook and the people for whom he cooks all acquire bad karma from the preparation of food, effectively preventing them from transcending their earthly lives. Under these circumstances, when eating itself is violence, how do Jain ascetics manage to stay alive?
Vallely outlines a ritual known as bhiksha, during which non-ascetic Jains, lay people, feed Jain ascetics, who are seen as eligible for liberation and are therefore regarded with very high esteem. Before the ritual, Jain householders will prepare enough food for their families. If anything is left over, it will be given as alms to the monks and nuns. Then, during the bhiksha ritual itself, lay Jains will offer large quantities of leftover food to the Jain ascetics, who will initially refuse to take it. Next something similar to haggling takes place, with householders offering less and less, and finally the ascetics reluctantly accepting a small amount of food. This food was not made expressly for them, so there is no bad karma in receiving it, and they eat enough to stay alive. The householders, on the other hand, receive something immaterial for their efforts—good karma. Jains don’t believe that good karma will help them achieve liberation, but that it will improve their future incarnations, perhaps leading to one where they too will be a monk or a nun and eligible for liberation if they avoid both good and bad karma altogether.
The Jain situation is one where a small group of high-prestige individuals, seen as exceptional, rely on a larger group of ordinary people to create the conditions under which they will be capable of transcending earthly life. The regular people know they will remain bound to their earthly lives but are ready to do what it takes to help the most remarkable among them go beyond. At the same time, the Jain ascetics acknowledge their reliance on the lay community, and, in fact, started their lives as members of the lay community. It is only through incredibly hard work, including fasting and other forms of self-sacrifice, that ascetics are able to work off any acquired karma, grow spiritually strong, and become capable of achieving transcendence.
Astronauts are not ascetics. For most of their lives they reside in ordinary communities, surrounded by regular people, eating normal food, and living like the others around them. Despite this, many space workers do not see astronauts as ordinary people. For good or for ill they are exceptional, and the work required to get astronauts off the planet and into unearthly realms is understood as being worth the tremendous effort it takes. In some ways, despite the cultural differences, astronauts in the West and ascetics in the Jain community lead parallel lives, occupying a place of transcendence while being admired and assisted by the Earthbound masses. The fact that one of these examples is explicitly religious in nature may tell us something about the reasons astronauts are held in such high regard in our society. Astronauts’ literal “otherworldliness” may trigger quasi-religious responses in people, responses that are generally reserved for saints and other religious figures. These responses may explain why so many people are so intimidated by the royal blue suits (and the people wearing them).
The comparison I’ve drawn is imperfect and incomplete, but it is something to keep in mind when considering the way that astronauts (and certainly cosmonauts) are revered by regular “mortals”. These men and women are chosen for their physical and mental strengths, their well-honed skills, and their positivity. Most of us who have met astronauts can attest to their charisma and strong personalities. They are not seen as being like other people. As Cody, who does software and computing systems work at JPL, told me regarding astronauts, “I’ve met a bunch of them and, you know, I can’t come up with a generalization for them because, the thing about astronauts is that they are already exceptional people. They are people that don’t mind being different, and that can lead them into a lot of different places, and they can stick with it because they are used to being different from other people.”
What’s more, astronauts who have flown have truly experienced things most regular people never will, even with the advent of commercial space travel. This first-hand knowledge means astronauts are listened to, because they have left the Earth and its gravity and can report, with real authority, on what that was like. This experience goes beyond scaling a mountain or starring in a movie because it literally removes a person from the planet humans have occupied for nearly 200,000 years. In his memoir, Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, astronaut Mike Massimino describes receiving what felt like esoteric knowledge from his time in space. He writes, “As I looked down, the thought that entered my head was this is something I’m not supposed to see. This is a secret. I’m not supposed to be up here.” (Massimino, 2016, p. 183) Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell went so far as to argue that he experienced a form of spiritual awakening, called samhadi in Sanskrit, while traveling in space (Mitchell, 2008, p. 280). Until space travel is common, there will always be something “otherworldly” about the rare human beings who stand out enough to be chosen by NASA (and other space agencies), then go on to actually experience what is currently forbidden to the rest of us.
The sheer effort required to get an astronaut into space requires a huge amount of time and energy from space workers. Our culture’s veneration of astronauts is clearly illustrated when we look at the activities and words of people who will likely never go into space themselves. These space workers, however, like the lay members of the Jain community, are willing to undertake the effort needed to make sure that the best among them can leave behind the struggles of an earthly existence and wow us all by achieving at least a secular form of celestial transcendence.
Massimino, M. (2016). Spaceman – An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe. Simon & Schuster.
Mitchell, E., & Williams, D. (2008). The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds, Revised Edition. New Jersey: New Page Books.
Snider, A. J. (1966, April 8). NASA Plans Space Rescues. The Herald-News (Passaic, New Jersey), p. 14. Retrieved February 25, 2019, from http://www.newspapers.com
Kraft, C. C. (1999). Foreword. In G. E. Swanson (Author), “Before this decade is out–“: Personal Reflections on the Apollo Program. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA History Office, Office of Policy and Plans.
Tiede, T. (1969, January 30). Spacemen must be superhuman. The Daily Journal (Franklin, Indiana), p. 2. Retrieved February 25, 2019, from http://www.newspapers.com
Vallely, A. (2002). Guardians of the Transcendent: An Ethnography of a Jain Ascetic Community. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Note: we are temporarily moderating all comments subcommitted to deal with a surge in spam.