Is Mormonism Ideal for Space Exploration?

That's Dr. James C. Fletcher in the yellow coat. That's Dr. Wernher von Braun to his right. Archive Photos/Getty Images

You can argue that religion is just another childish thing that an interplanetary species should leave behind. But we seem rather attached to our gods and goddesses, so it seems just as likely that we'll take religion into space with us. Which brings us to Mormonism.

I previously blogged about Jewish, Christian and Islamic ritual in orbit and how we've had to rethink traditionally terrestrial rituals and observances. It seems that bearded prophets out of antiquity didn't even consider the possibility of space stations.

But Mormonism is a slightly different matter as Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints less than 200 years ago. Despite the religion's frontier roots, Mormon cosmology takes other planets and even the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life into account.

Roger D. Launius, the Curator of the Smithsonian's Planetary Exploration Programs paints a fascinating picture of Mormonism and space exploration in "A Western Mormon in Washington D.C." In this work, which you can read right here, Launius profiles Dr. James C. Fletcher, who served as NASA administrator from 1971 to 1977 and from 1986 to 1989.

Fletcher was a highly influential figure in the history of space exploration (heck, we owe the Shuttle program to him) and much of what made him tick came down to his Mormon heritage. Here are some of the key factors:

  • Grounded in a frontier religion, Fletcher was all about pushing the "final frontier" via manned space exploration.
  • Mormon cosmology involves a universe full of "worlds without number" that are inhabited by intelligent beings. In other words, Earthlings are far from the only game in town. It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Fletcher was committed to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

That second point is especially fascinating, especially when you consider ongoing discussions about how the discovery of alien life would affect world religion. How would the Vatican handle it? The inclusion of extraterrestrial worlds in Mormon belief hardly amounts to a get-out-of-a-theological-quagmire-free card, but it does paint a rather optimistic view of first contact with alien life.

Maybe that's why the Church of Latter Day Saints recently used a video featuring Former NASA Flight Director Ron Dittemore as promotional tool:

Dr. James C. Fletcher was adamant about the importance of seeking out and communicating with extraterrestrials, insisting that it could be "the most significant achievement of this millennium, perhaps the key to our survival as a species."

Not to say that Mormons were always gung-ho for space exploration. Launius describes how pre-1950s Mormon apostle and church president Joseph Fielding Smith spoke out against space exploration as a waste of time -- that humans should concern themselves with stewardship of Earth and that God would surely check any human excursions into space.

In the 50s and 60s, Fletcher and other intellectuals drove the stay-at-home position to the margins of Mormon society. Yet planetary stewardship remained an important theme. Even as he worked to ensure an ambitious U.S. space program and advocated the work of SETI, Fletcher also stressed the terrestrial importance's of the work and the need to preserve pristine environments on Earth.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.