The end of the first US Space Force ad, whose imagery and messages had religious overtones. (credit: US Space Force)
Religious overtones in the new Space Force recruitment video
The American space program has had remarkable religious components from its very beginnings. In its first few decades, the American space program was seen as a challenge to Soviet supremacy in outer space. The Soviet Union was known for its communism and officially atheistic stance, which made the American space program more explicitly religious by default. NASA, for instance, collected the religious affiliations of its astronauts, probably in order to know a person’s preferences in the case of a serious or fatal accident. The crew of Apollo 8 famously read from the book of Genesis while looking back at the Earth from lunar orbit and, in an act not publicized at the time, Buzz Aldrin took communion while he waited to exit the lunar module on July 20, 1969.
Historian Catherine Newell (2019) argues that American interest in the expansion of humanity into space, like the concept of Manifest Destiny before it, tied into Christian notions about pilgrims seeking the “New Jerusalem.” She explains that in the mid-20th century, Americans were wistful for the days of their forebears setting out and conquering the frontier. With the country settled from coast to coast, Americans needed something new to inspire that same sense of exploration, so space became the “new frontier.” That term, in fact, was used frequently throughout the era, including in John Kennedy’s speech at the 1960 Democratic National Convention. As historian Glen E. Swanson writes, “For those who lamented the end of the frontier, there now emerged the new frontier of space that allowed fearlessness, rugged individualism, and other American qualities to re-emerge in the face of imminent danger posed by the Soviet Union” (2020).
The United States is a country, then, that sees itself, at least in terms of its historical mythology, as following the dictates of God and being rewarded in these pursuits. Space exploration has been an area of particular American achievement and many within the space program, particularly during the Space Race, believed that God’s blessing was what made American success in space possible.
The new recruitment video released May 6 by the newest branch of the US military, the Space Force, uses imagery and language based on these ideas of frontier-crossing and religious destiny to encourage enlistment. The first part of the video shows a young man standing on a seashore looking up at an immense swath of stars. The sky and the dark sea in the image echo each other, each vast space calling out to be traversed and tamed, calling to mind the so-called “Age of Exploration,” when Europeans sailed around the world in a competitive colonial fervor. America itself was born out of these times, as Great Britain vied with other nations for control over Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australia, moving resources, goods, and even human beings from place to place in a fight for supremacy. Some Americans think of these times as an era of glory, when Western culture spread its influence and gained strength and power.
Although the colonial era is not as celebrated as it once was—some cities, for instance, now celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day—the language of colonialism is seductive, exerting a strong pull on those who long for past successes. “Science Guy” Bill Nye and others have cautioned against using terms like “colonizing” space (Wall 2019), preferring to refer instead to space settlement and to “bases” on different planets rather than colonies. Despite this, the idea of space exploration as a colonial mission, a process of conquering and subduing other planets and planetoids, dominating them, and making them possessions of Earth, is appealing to many.
The video cuts away from the young man contemplating sea and sky, turning next to a Delta IV Heavy, a rocket designed by United Launch Alliance. The camera is angled upward so that the rocket appears enormous, towering over and impressing the viewer with its size and power. A man and a woman, each dressed in Space Force-style camouflage and hard hat, look at the rocket with clear satisfaction. The video continues with quick cuts that show diverse members of the Space Force in different roles, along with different shots of military vehicles, Delta IV Heavy strap-on boosters falling away (an image that evoked bombs dropping, at least to this viewer) and various futuristic 3-D projections on walls and in command centers, suggesting very high-tech mapping, surveillance, and military capabilities. While the language in this section is not quite as iconic as famous military slogans like “Be all that you can be” or “We do more before 9 am than most people do all day,” it is still practical, realistic, and militaristic in character. The narrator intones: “Some people look to the stars and ask, ‘What if?’ Our job is to have an answer. We have to imagine what will be imagined, plan for what’s possible while it’s still impossible.” The message is one of optimism and determination.
The second part of the video continues with innovative military imagery, while the narrator’s language becomes philosophical and perhaps even metaphysical. “Maybe,” the voice actor suggests, “you weren’t put here just to ask the questions. Maybe you were put here to be the answer. Maybe your purpose on this planet isn’t on this planet.”
The idea that the listener was “put” here, of course, implies that someone or something, some kind of higher power, decided to put the listener here. In addition, while it is possible to talk about finding one’s purpose in a completely secular way, the term “purpose” is frequently used by Christians discussing what God’s purpose is for the planet, for his children, or for an individual trying make decisions about the future. The phrase “Maybe you were put here to be the answer” is more dramatic, designating the listener as a kind of savior. A common Christian expression is “Jesus is the answer,” and the phrase was also the title of a popular song by gospel singer Andraé Crouch. The implication is that the listener, if he or she joins the Space Force, will have the potential to play a messianic role, one of salvation, although the video doesn’t clarify whether it is the United States or the Earth that needs saving. Finally, the last phrase said by the narrator is that the listener’s purpose might not be on “this” planet (emphasis added) rather than on “the” planet. This indicates that the listener’s destiny may, in fact, be on another world. While suggesting a member of the Space Force may go to another planet isn’t openly religious in character, it contributes to the sense that Space Force Guardians (or Sentinels, or Vanguards—the name for what to call members of the Space Force has not yet been decided (Pawlyk 2020)) are fulfilling a special destiny.
The use of religious language when speaking about space is of course not limited to this recruitment video. Marina Koren has written about how Vice President Mike Pence has often used religious language when discussing space (and the Space Force in particular). She writes that “when Pence speaks of space exploration, he speaks not only of the frontier but of faith. His speeches sometimes sound more like sermons,” and cites a statement Pence made at the very first meeting of the National Space Council in 2017: “As President Trump has said, in his words, ‘It is America’s destiny to be the leader amongst nations on our adventure into the great unknown’. And today we begin the latest chapter of that adventure. But as we embark, let us have faith. Faith that, as the Old Book teaches us, that if we rise to the heavens, He will be there.”
Koren interviewed political scientist Joshua Ambrosius, whose 2015 research reveals less support for space exploration among evangelicals than among other religious groups. However, she notes, “…evangelicals maybe likely to view space exploration favorably if it is framed as something essential for a successful country. Pence’s oratory approach to space exploration may seem out of place and even out of step with his own president, who has been known to poke fun at Pence for his frequent praying. But when Pence pairs that faith with a hint of nationalism, it’s right on message.”
It is a logical next step to bring the idea of destiny in as a third element joining faith and nationalism, which is what we see in this recruitment video. Much of my recent work as an anthropologist has focused on how ideas of destiny motivate space workers. Even for explicitly non-religious space workers who describe themselves as non-believers or atheists, a sense of contributing to our species’ destiny and getting human beings out into space and living on other planets is a huge motivator (See Weibel 2019, 2020). For those who are openly religious, however, particularly those Protestants who are “born again” or otherwise associated with the Evangelical movement, the idea of destiny is often explicit.
One of the most crucial ideas in anthropological methodology is that to learn about a group of people you need to engage with them and interact directly. Members of a culture are likely to be experts with lots of inside knowledge, and these experts often share more if their anonymity is protected. Therefore, I follow my discipline’s best practices by using pseudonyms and withholding distinguishing characteristics when referring to my interviewees. An Apollo-era astronaut I will refer to as “Don” absolutely believed it was his destiny to go into space, and that the experience held a larger purpose. Don recounted a time he was approached by someone who claimed to have a prophecy for him. The man said, “God has planned your life and every step you took was orchestrated by God… He had a plan for you to go into space and to see the beauties of his creation.” Don knew then that “God had planned my life so that I would use my experience to change the lives of a lot of people and he would give me an opportunity to go speak before kings, presidents, prime ministers, thousands and thousands of people, to tell about the glory of God… I do that through my space experience.”
Another astronaut from the same era, “Tom,” also discussed being chosen to work for NASA as something that God had planned. He said, “I was coming in from a reconnaissance flight one afternoon and they said, ‘You’ve got a call up in the ready room. They’re looking for you.’ Al Shepard… asked me if I still wanted to work for NASA and I said, ‘Be there tomorrow!’ My view is that it was all… I could have taken all kinds of different routes, but I believe that God directed me.” Tom, like Don, frequently mentions his faith when speaking to audiences about his time as an astronaut, and both men are sure that God sent them into space to increase the number of people who listen to them, widening their range of influence and increasing the success of their Christian witnessing.
For many involved in space exploration—not just astronauts, but technicians, engineers, and even flight surgeons—the idea of destiny is less rooted in a conviction that God is directing them to spread the gospel, but instead in a feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves and helping humanity spread out onto other worlds. This perspective is something that increases their sense of purpose. For those who are explicitly religious, their confidence that they are chosen to play this role further emphasizes the importance of this destiny.
We are living through a period of American history where increasing numbers of people are distrustful of science, with some seeing scientists as operating to advance a political agenda that opposes traditional values. While a tension between religion and science has existed in other eras, our highly polarized climate has made following certain scientific recommendations (like avoiding the use of plastic straws or wearing masks when shopping during coronavirus outbreaks) seem politically liberal to some. Many on the right mistrust science and the motives of scientists at the moment, feeling that religious leaders and conservative politicians are more trustworthy sources of advice.
Because of this, making explicit connections between science and space exploration may be problematic at the current time. Associating space with the military is one way to downplay the scientific aspects. Military technology, for instance, is rarely seen as having a liberal bias. Another way to reduce this problematic association is to link space with religion. When we think about the early days of the American space program and the way that American religious practice was contrasted with the atheism of the Soviet Union, it is easy to see why tying religious language and imagery with the United States Space Force is the approach being taken in this recruitment video. New Space Force recruits aren’t being asked to be academic elites or rocket scientists, they’re being asked instead to fulfill a celestial destiny.
Ambrosius, Joshua D. “Separation of Church and Space: Religious Influences on Public Support for U.S. Space Exploration Policy.” Space Policy 32 (2015): 17–31.
Koren, Marina. “Mike Pence’s Outer-Space Gospel.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, August 23, 2018.
Newell, Catherine L. Destined for the Stars: Faith, the Future, and Americas Final Frontier. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019.
Pawlyk, Oriana. “The Pentagon Is Crowdsourcing Names for the Members of Space Force.” Military.com, February 5, 2020.
Swanson, Glen E. “‘Space, the Final Frontier’: Star Trek and the national space rhetoric of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and NASA.” The Space Review. Accessed May 7, 2020.
United States Space Force. “Purpose.” Accessed May 7, 2020.
Wall, Mike. “Bill Nye: It’s Space Settlement, Not Colonization.” Space.com. Space, October 25, 2019.
Weibel, Deana L. “Destiny in Space.” Anthropology News 60, no. 4 (2019).
Weibel, Deana L. “Following the Path That Heroes Carved into History: Space Tourism, Heritage, and Faith in the Future.” Religions 11, no. 1 (February 2020): 23.