Astronauts: Eternity and the Elite

by Dr. Phil Bishop

In 1992, I was collecting physiological data at Cape Canaveral. I heard the shuttle's two sonic booms and then saw it as a tiny speck in the beautiful blue sky. A few minutes later, we were testing the crew. The astronaut I worked with most closely was a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate and a veteran pilot who exuded a cool calm confidence. But, it was obvious that the entire crew was experiencing the exhilaration of a very hard job, very well done. On the morning of February 1, 2003, it is probable that, just after they had strapped into their seats, the crew of the Columbia were enjoying those same unique pleasures of a similar accomplishment, when disaster struck.

There is no doubt that these seven men and women exemplified Tom Wolfe's "right stuff." They were highly capable, highly skilled, highly trained. They had worked hard and enjoyed the many fruits of success. One mention of their occupation would bring requests for autographs, photographs, and monographs. But none of that matters to them now. Twenty-three minutes before touchdown they were celebrating. Seven minutes later they were dead.

One of the things that strikes me about astronauts (the payload specialists aren't technically astronauts, but these observations apply equally to them), is the variety they display. Some are brash and some shy. Some are prideful and some humble. All are smart, not all have a lot of common sense or interpersonal skills. Some are daredevils, others surprisingly conservative. One thing though-all are religious.

Their religions vary. A surprising number of astronauts are Christians, some of whom are quite devout. At least two, maybe three or more of Columbia's crew could be described that way, as highly committed Christians. Other astronauts are humanists. Their intelligence, their capabilities, their accomplishments, have convinced them that there could be nothing higher than themselves. It is understandable how they might reach this conclusion. They were selected from a pool of thousands to join an elite club of a little over 100 American astronauts. They have "boldly gone" where very few have gone before. They believe in themselves and didn't need much else, and certainly not God. The first man to orbit the earth, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had, in 1961, eliminated the possibility of God. He had been to the heavens, looked around, and reported from orbit, "I don't see any god up here."

As a physiologist, I have learned that you can't beat physiology or physics. When your aircraft disintegrates while traveling at 12 times the speed of sound at an altitude of over 200,000 feet, it really doesn't matter how smart you are, or how good a pilot, or how physically fit you may be. But, oddly enough, it does matter what you believe about God.

Highly educated people often see God as a super-human who is a little smarter than us. So what we typically do is create a "straw-man" view of God. Then, because this is the way we solve research problems, we test our observations against our hypothesis, our straw god. We see things in the world, with evil as the most common example, and attempt to reconcile our view of our straw god with our empiricism. As rationalists, we cannot reconcile the obvious existence of great evil with our view of how "our" (straw) god would permit such evil and still be god or good. As very smart people it is inconceivable to us that God could be more than a little smarter than us.

However, in our humblest moments, we can contemplate the possibility that perhaps God is possibly even much smarter than us. As smart people we pride ourselves on understanding complexities, yet, there remains the possibility that God could be beyond our comprehension. God, in his wisdom, might be able to reconcile what I am unable to resolve humanly.

As I think about it, wouldn't I want a God who was god-like enough to perhaps exceed my finite mental capabilities? Humbly speaking, would God be God if he were so simple that I could truly understand every thought He had? To be painfully honest, I admit that I don't understand some aspects of my own field of human physiology. Should God be simpler than physiology?

There is an interesting Biblical account of a wealthy man who decided to tear down his old barns to build bigger ones to hold his growing wealth. I think, at times, of tearing down my old résumé to build a bigger one, (fortunately, word-processing makes that an easy task). But the Bible story ends saying, "Thou fool, this night will your soul be required of you. Who will enjoy your résumé (insert curriculum vita, portfolio, Mercedes, etc.) now?"

Seven astronauts launched in mid-January on the ride of a lifetime. Sixteen minutes before touchdown, their souls were required of them. They were all smart, brave, and capable. Their souls were taken. I hope none of them were fools.

Dr. Phil Bishop is Professor of Kinesiology and Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the Univ. of Alabama. He worked at various times as a visiting scientist over a several-year period at Johnson Space Center with the Exercise Countermeasures Program.