God, space and Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos wore a cowboy hat and threw Skittles. Past astronauts read the Bible and took communion

Watching Jeff Bezos cavort with his companions 62 miles above Earth on Tuesday, it was hard not to share their excitement, no matter how you feel about billionaires in space.

From Whole Foods to whole Jetson, Bezos knows how to deliver. Blue Origin’s historic inaugural flight hit many of the emotional notes that past NASA missions did. It inspired pride in American ingenuity and exhilaration about what the future might hold.

But a few key emotions did seem to be missing. Bezos and his team showed no sense of reverence, solemnity or awe, let alone recognition of anything providential that might permeate the eery, silent blackness of space.

“Godspeed, first crew of New Shepard. Let’s light this candle,” an announcer said as the rocket launched. It was a rare reference to God in the day’s events.

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Perhaps this should not be surprising, given the secularization of the culture that has occurred since 1968, when the first crew to orbit the moon, Apollo 8, read from the Book of Genesis during a live broadcast.

The next year, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian, took communion on the moon and read from the Gospel of John. He later said he regretted taking part in a Christian sacrament when he was representing people of all faiths. But he wrote in his book “Magnificent Desolation” that “at the time, I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”

Oliver Daemen, from left, Mark Bezos, and Wally Funk, right, listen as Jeff Bezos, second from right, founder of Amazon and space tourism company Blue Origin, makes comments after their flight experience from the spaceport near Van Horn, Texas, Tuesday, July 20, 2021.
Oliver Daemen, left, Mark Bezos, and Wally Funk, right, listen as Jeff Bezos, second from right, founder of Amazon and space tourism company Blue Origin, makes comments after their flight experience from the spaceport near Van Horn, Texas, on Tuesday, July 20, 2021. | Tony Gutierrez, Associated Press

And it’s not just Christians who have felt the need to acknowledge God in space. In 2003, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon recited the Shabbat Kiddush while aboard the space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated on its way back to Earth.

In 2015, Deseret News religion writer Kelsey Dallas looked at the spiritual effects of viewing Earth from space. While astronauts have written and talked about the profundity of their journey, many of us stuck here on Earth report the same sense of awe when viewing photos from space, such as the famous “Blue Marble” photograph of Earth.

Astronaut James Irwin, who walked on the moon in 1971, became a minister who called his time in space a religious experience. He later said, “Jesus walking on the Earth is more important than man walking on the moon” and founded Colorado’s High Flight Foundation. (The name is from the poem “High Flight,” which Ronald Reagan made famous in his eulogy for the Challenger astronauts.)

The faith of astronaut and U.S. congressman John Glenn was also profoundly affected by space. “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible,” he said.

This May 18, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows Earth from 36,000 nautical miles away as photographed from the Apollo 10 spacecraft during its trans-lunar journey toward the moon. | NASA via The Associated Press

If Tuesday’s flight had any sort of spiritual effect on the travelers, they didn’t reveal it in their remarks in space or in the press conference held after they were back on land.

Bezos did begin his remarks by saying “Oh my God!” but not in a reverential way. However, he did go on to acknowledge feeling something similar to what other astronauts have reported.

“The most profound piece of it for me was looking out at the Earth and looking at the Earth’s atmosphere. Every astronaut, everybody who’s been up into space, they say this. That it changes them and they look at it, and they’re kind of amazed and awestruck by the Earth and its beauty, but also by its fragility. I can vouch for that.”

He also said he was struck by how vulnerable the atmosphere seems, compared to how large it seems from Earth. “When you get up above it, what you see is it’s actually incredibly thin. It’s this tiny little fragile thing and as we move about the planet we’re damaging it. So, that’s very profound,” he said.

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Nonetheless, video taken while Bezos and his team were in space showed little in the way of God-smacked introspection. It looked more like a frat party in space, with Bezos and his companions playing with weightlessness and tossing a ball back and forth.

To be fair, I’m the person on the airplane who always asks for a window seat and looks outside, entranced, during every landing and takeoff, despite the fact that I’ve been flying for decades. So I couldn’t understand why Bezos and his companions looked anywhere but out the window during the 11-minute journey. At least Wally Funk, the oldest person to ever go into space, did spend a lot of time by the window and seemed to enjoy the view.

On Twitter, one person noted the difference between Neil Armstrong’s soaring words as he stepped onto the moon and a New Shepard astronaut doling out candy during Tuesday’s space flight. (Contrary to the tweet, it was Jeff Bezos’ brother, Mark, not Jeff, who said, “Who wants a Skittle?” according to a transcript provided by Blue Origin.)

It was only after the men tried to throw Skittles into each other’s mouths for a while that Jeff Bezos seemed to remember there was a view. He said, “Oh, wow. So let’s take a moment to look outside.”