On the threshold of man’s first landing on the moon, CHRISTIANITY TODAYinterviewed Dr. Rodney W. Johnson, a scientist from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He holds B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate from Purdue University. His duties at NASA headquarters are with the Advanced Manned Missions Office in the Office of Manned Space Flight, where he is responsible for developing plans and studies for future manned lunar and earth orbital exploration programs. Dr. Johnson is considered to be America’s foremost authority on lunar bases. He is a fellow of the American Scientific Association and a member of the Beltsville, Maryland, Presbyterian Church.
Question: Dr. Johnson, what is the primary significance of man’s setting foot on the moon?
Answer: The significance to me lies in the fact that man will have demonstrated his ability to leave the earth and return to it freely and at will—to “escape” from earth and live and work on the moon if he should so desire.
Q: Is there special significance for the Christian?
A: Yes, I believe that when God created man, he presented man with the divine imperative to “subdue the earth.” A lunar landing marks a major new step in our dominion over the earth. Our escape from it shows our mastery over it.
Q: So you feel that dominion over all things created is a mandate from God. Does this mean that the whole of nature is at our arbitrary disposal?
A: We do not always subdue the earth wisely and well. Our pollution of our environment is a terrible thing. Yet the principle is valid. Our humanity is verified or corroborated by our response to this divine command. The more we are able to do in a technical sense, the more human we become. God intended it to be this way, and us to behave in this fashion. This event really demonstrates, again, that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God. I have often said that scientific discoveries resulting from our space programs may, in the final analysis, be of lesser significance than the spiritual understanding derived from them.
Q: How is it that we can get to the moon but cannot solve so many of our problems right here on earth?
A: Man is theoretically capable of great and noble enterprises. Practically, however, they come hard. We lack not the means but the will. This has never been more true than today in the area of social welfare programs, for example. What our lunar program demonstrates to me is that great technical problems and challenges are more capable of solution than are people problems, such as those associated with our cities, our universities, and our relations with foreign nations. Christians are partly at fault because we let culture try to change our faith, instead of changing our culture through our faith.
Q: What difference does it make whether lunar explorations have anything of a Christian rationale?
A: I don’t suppose it makes too much difference to the non-Christian. But I’d like to hope that the Christian sees such a rationale. If he does, his faith will be strengthened, and this is an age when Christians need their faith bolstered. Space and faith must speak to man’s condition, and not only to his function in the universe. If the space program can be faulted for anything, it is that it has ignored man’s spiritual yearnings.
Q: What do you mean? Why should we expect the space program to recognize man’s spiritual yearnings when no other public scientific effort makes any such attempt?
A: Space exploration deserves special attention. Man’s thoughts about God are almost invariably linked with the heavens. Man in search of God has always looked “up.” Dorothy Frances Gurney’s often quoted poem says that “one is nearer God’s Heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” But I think that our entry into space will supersede that, because people are more likely to consider spiritual matters when prompted by the vastness and wonders of space than when admiring the most exquisite rose or orchid (much as I enjoy those).
Q: Are we really doing this for the glory of God?
A: Certainly not in the normal sense of the phrase, but perhaps in a subconscious way we recognize such an element in the program. As I said earlier, it’s certainly a visible and convincing demonstration of our humanity—and in this we bring glory to God, our Creator.
Q: What would happen if Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin planted a cross or some other religious symbol on the moon?
A: I personally wouldn’t be too surprised, since the majority of our astronauts are men whose lives depend on faith in both God and man. One of the Mercury spacecraft was named “Faith 7” by the astronaut who flew it, Gordon Cooper. Instead of a cross, I’d expect a Bible to be carried because of its broader acceptance. It recalls the tradition of early explorers to carry both the flag and the Bible. Such tradition is likely to be followed on the first landing on the moon.
Q: Why are we going to the moon?
A: I said a number of years ago that man may have to go to the moon to prove he has no purpose in space. Though intended to be facetious, my remark nonetheless has an element of truth. What we do in space, as in every realm of human endeavor, must be an extension of man’s humanity and a visible demonstration of his relationship to God.
Q: In concrete terms, what does this mean?
A: Well, it’s supposed to mean that we who have been created in the image and likeness of God and commanded to live on this earth are doing just what God ordered, whether growing potatoes or streaking to the moon. We must do it in a spirit of dedication such as only a divine command could elicit, not in the way we would do something that just happened to cross our minds. Your mind and mine are not just advanced copies of the ape-mind.
Q: Do you feel, Dr. Johnson, that it is in the providence of God for man to go beyond the moon in the exploration of space? If so, how far? Where will space exploration end?
A: This question supposes that God has established a set of limits on what man can and cannot do, on what he may and may not be permitted to accomplish. In my view, we can go beyond the moon, say to Mars, and in the opinion of many, we should undertake a program to do so. How this kind of extension of space-flight capability would fit into God’s plan for man is difficult to determine. With the means and the will we could go to Mars and return—in our lifetime. I doubt that man will ever get to a star, and even if he did, in coldly analytical terms, this would really be very little in view of the countless stars in our infinite space domain.
Q: Doesn’t space travel carry the hazard of adding prestige and appeal to the cult of scientism?
A: I suspect you mean a worship of science for science’ sake. I hope not. Our space ventures present a hope that they will ultimately bring benefits of one kind or another to all of mankind. Though we recognize this goal, it’s difficult at this early stage of our space program to see all the benefits. I believe we’ll find them in great abundance, ultimately.
Q: What is the attitude among scientists—among space scientists—toward the supernatural?
A: My contacts indicate that a surprising number of scientists, engineers, and technicians associated with the space program have a deep and vital faith. More, proportionately, than in many other fields and professions, I’d say. Another surprise: most who have a faith in God hold this faith strongly, as if their association with the space program had acted to reinforce their belief. I think it has mine, as a matter of fact. Men are looking for a new verification of their faith, and I expect the space program to provide just this sort of thing sooner or later. In other words, I’m expecting a fresh new manifestation of God in some way. This could take the form of the confirmation of a significant Bible truth.
Q: What about miracles?
A: The miracles of the Bible are becoming believable for the wrong reasons. In the age of space spectaculars, they appear to be something man can do, rather than God. Fewer and fewer things seem humanly impossible.
Q: Dr. Johnson, how do you as a space scientist and practicing Christian feel about the future, especially with regard to the impact of space travel?
A: As a Christian who met the Master at an early age, I am less optimistic about our society today than I am about space travel. I would like to see along with our space program a parallel, corresponding attempt to correct man-made social ills. In reality, we can have both, if we attempt, as we are doing, to use the space program to produce problem-solving technological tools and apply them to our social problems.
Q: What do you think of unidentified flying objects? Is there a possibility that some kind of being in outer space could be making contact with us?
A: I am repeatedly asked what I think of UFO’s. Actually, I think the questioner is really often seeking a verification of his belief in them, though he often is unwilling to acknowledge belief in God. These people seem more anxious to believe in beings from space than to believe in a living Lord. Personally, I don’t believe in extraterrestrial beings.
Q: What is the most disconcerting aspect of the possible discovery of extraterrestrial life?
A: The most frightening thought regarding space exploration is that we might encounter a form of life with a higher intelligence. We might then have to choose between the possibility that human beings as we know them escaped from the earth in some time past and evolved to a higher state in a more favorable ecology, and the possibility that God made beings superior to us and didn’t tell us about it.
Q: Do you really think we might find such superior life?
A: Personally, I do not, though statistical data based on certain assumptions regarding other stars with planetary systems can be developed to show that there could be as many as one million civilizations in the universe besides our own. Some of these might contain superior life and some inferior life. Life in space, found or not found, may serve to relate the space program to man’s real needs, particularly when man begins to discover that our social welfare programs do not provide the peace of mind he seeks.
Q: Would you elaborate on that a bit?
A: I just mean to stress that discovery of any life, low or high, could well have the effect of encouraging unregenerate man to pause and reflect on who he is and where he came from, and, if prodded by the Spirit of God, to come to the point of conversion and commitment to Christ. Moreover, if we can establish that life exists only on earth, that fact too could have similar spiritual effects.
Q: If there exist in space beings superior to us in intelligence, why haven’t they contacted us?
A: Maybe they have, or have been trying to do so. We, being inferior to them, may thus not have the ability to understand their message.
Q: How do you think earth men would treat extraterrestrial life?
A: Hopefully, better than we treat one another.
Q: If we find extraterrestrial cultures, do you think we will find sin there? Did the fall of man extend throughout the universe?
A: This is a real mind-stretcher. The Bible says man was created “to be a praise to God and to worship Him.” On this premise, how many worlds, cultures, civilizations, and peoples are necessary to perform and provide an adequate level of praise and worship? Sin, as I understand it, derives from the so-called fall of man, and in that account in the Bible, we read that God “repented that he had made man.” Does this mean man on earth, or man in the universe? Here a space-age theology would help. I’m not a theologian, but I think God created man as the first and only “experiment” in this regard.
Q: Do you feel our space efforts thus far have had any spiritual impact?
A: I would say that the impact has been very little at least up to and until the Apollo 8 mission. Then the spiritual significance of space travel found a new emphasis. This question underscores what I have been saying all along. We need a space-age theology, one in which space travel can become a part of our theological reference rather than merely external to it. Of course, theologians are hesitant to speak to this point—they have been caught napping—and with some reason. The Bible does not speak directly on the subject, and literal fundamentalists are unprepared.
Q: But haven’t you said you are a fundamentalist? Are you saying you are not?
A: I consider myself a fundamentalist in a sense, but I do not consider the Bible to be a scientific book. It is a spiritual book, and though I believe in its inerrancy, I don’t have the ability to apply human methodology to supernatural phenomena: This is why I accept the accounts of miracles. We would have difficulty believing in divine creation if we couldn’t believe that God could heal that which he created!
Q: What effects is science as a whole having upon human behavior?
A: Here is just one thing: Those elements in man’s behavioral structure that relate to his relationship with his fellow men are being revealed in greater clarity than ever before. The result may well be that an understanding of these behavioral traits and characteristics is not so much a revelation of scientific research as it is of spiritual insight, it is not quite so capable of scientific correction or modification as it is of spiritual rehabilitation.
Q: What did you think of the profanity that punctuated the Apollo 10 communications?
A: I ignored it.
Q: Do you detect something of a surprising public indifference to space exploits?
Q: How do you account for it?
A: We as human beings attend carefully only to those experiences which are immediately significant to our own personal lives. The space program is difficult to understand and difficult to become interested in. Most persons are not familiar with the moon—or the solar system—and hence reject the major exploits of space as beyond their understanding and of no personal benefit to them. Early terrestrial explorers returned with travelers’ tales which their audiences could relate to their own experiences or experience which they understood. This is difficult to do in space travel, though the TV camera has helped a great deal. Surely we could expect public interest to increase if we could demonstrate a deeper spiritual or philosophical significance.
Q: Do you think, Dr. Johnson, that Scripture in the way it was originally given anticipated space discoveries of the kind we are now having?
A: No. I cannot find any direct reference to space activities such as we are engaged in anywhere in the Bible. Of course, I don’t find references to nuclear energy, either. I do expect that scientific discoveries in space will all be in keeping with the Bible. They will add further proof to the validity of the Bible, extend the body of evidence attesting to the truth of the Bible, and support if not substantiate the Genesis account of creation.
Q: What about this habit we have of constantly trying to “verify” or “confirm” spiritual truth through observable phenomena, either in space or here on earth? Isn’t God’s Word authoritative enough in itself?
A: I remember reading once that a fact that no one believes cannot be proved too often. The fact of a God, of creation, of a Christ who walked this earth, needs constant verification, especially in our day. We as humans tend to seek it, both in space and on earth. God’s Word is certainly authoritative, but who is interpreting God’s Word in this context? Up to now, one of the biggest defects in our space program, which in reality is a seeking after truth, is the fact that it has ignored man’s spiritual longings, and that the theologians have ignored space. This may be one reason why few social or cultural dividends have been realized from space-related research and activities. The new vistas of space together with man’s activities in space have attracted religious attention but caught religious thinkers unprepared. Something new and vital to our culture has received only a modicum of spiritual interpretation. The defensive posture of spiritual leaders, a heritage of the past, has prevented them from speaking with religious authority about the significance of discoveries in space upon the destiny of man.
Q: Do you feel that neglect of the implications of space travel by theologians, the indifference among current religious thinkers, is more serious than the danger of making a god out of science?
Q: How is space travel affecting the philosophical tug-of-war between science and religion?
A: Science and religion should emerge as more compatible as space discoveries increase. We could foster this compatibility by establishing an international committee on space science and theology. Its function would be to explore questions related to the impact of space discoveries on theology and the relation of man’s spiritual goals to space-exploration goals. Religious progress, restoration of faith, and an exciting new understanding of God should result from our space-age explorations and discoveries. I wouldn’t be surprised if sometime in the future an astronaut becomes a theologian, or a minister!
Q: Exactly what do you have in mind?
A: Well, one purpose would be to inquire into the implications of space science on cultural development and to inquire into the implications of space science on the behavioral sciences. Such a body would serve to promote thinking in this area as well as to provide a forum where the views of scientific and religious thinkers could be discussed, to the direct benefit of each group and the ultimate benefit of mankind. Wouldn’t it be unfortunate if some other nominally Christian or even non-Christian nation should become more spiritual than we claim to be by catching the significance of this era to a greater degree?
Q: What would you say in summary?
A: Reaching the moon, or Mars, for that matter, must not be just another escape valve for an exploding population. It must not be another glorification of man and his technical achievements. Nor must it be permitted to become a substitute for theological meaning and spiritual expression in our day. Rather, it must be an extension of the revelation of God in nature. It must cause man to ask again the question, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”