Destined for the Stars
Faith, the Future, and America's Final Frontier
- ISBN: 9780822945567
- Published By: University of Pittsburgh Press
- Published: May 2019
Part biography, part art history, part study of religion, part history of science, Destined for the Stars: Faith, the Future, and America’s Final Frontier by Catherine L. Newell posits a revisionist history that emphasizes religion and spirituality as foundational tenets of the 20th-century space race. The story of the space race is generally seen as a war of technological development between the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States (US), which began when the USSR launched Sputnik, spurring the fear that the enemy could develop weapons that could attack from outer space, and climaxed in US President John F. Kennedy’s goal to land a man on the moon. While Newell does not completely disavow this tale, she changes the focus to the cultural and religious fervor that surrounded the push toward the heavens, seeing the efforts throughout the 20th century as rooted in manifest destiny, a religiously driven concept prevalent in the 19th century, and 20th-century secularization of faith that increased public trust in science. Indeed, her argument is that the underlying reason for the space race and the drive to the final frontier was divine in nature, spiritual in aim, and religious in execution.
The connections Newell draws between religion and science—and specifically her argument for science as a religion and society’s religious trust in science—are strengthened by her molding of a story centered around artist Chesley Bonestell. Known as the father of modern space art, Bonestell instilled in his art the naturalist and romantic grandeur of the Hudson River School, a collective of 19th-century artists who saw painting the American West as their mission. This artistic technique in Bonestell’s space art encouraged a religious awe of outer space that integrated into Bonestell’s partnership with rocket expert Willy Ley and his work with former Nazi scientist turned born-again Christian Wernher von Braun, the creator of the V-2 missile and the Saturn V rocket. Newell argues that Bonestell, Ley, and von Braun believed the mission to take humankind to outer space—to cross the final frontier—was a religiously motivated calling. In other words, God called these men, especially von Braun, to develop technology that would help humanity reach the heavens—and beyond. Around these three men, Newell outlines how the various works of science fiction authors, entertainment moguls like Walt Disney, and the religious excitement of the American public encouraged governmental efforts like Project Mercury, Project Apollo, and the momentous moon landing.
Central to Newell’s thesis is what she calls a “teleology of inspiration.” Her account emphasizes “institutionalized religion and paradigmatic science,” which are on “a trajectory of revelation toward application that marks both activities as essentially human creative endeavors” (29). Her book tracks this teleology well; however, I am always hesitant when teleology and trajectories are discussed within history. Her argument almost subsumes all of science into religion, seeing the scientific method as a hope and a prayer rather than a hypothesis and an experiment. While I do not believe this argument is wrong, I do wish her text did not go as far as it does in eliminating or subsuming other dimensions of the space race. For example, if, as Newell argues, imagination and faith—two actions she places in the realm of the religious—are secularized so that science is effectively a religion, then the divide between science and religion is collapsed. Such a collapse, then, elides the non-religious motives of societal advancement, like greed and power.
Even as she engages in academic discussions, Newell’s book seems to be written with a public audience in mind (although the current hardcover price makes it rather untenable for the public to frugally access her book). She engages deeply with the academic study of religion and science, but her book is written in a way that is accessible to both academic and general readers. She makes serious historical claims that contribute to the discipline, but she also patiently guides those who do not know much about the history of religion, science, and the space race. To balance these audiences, her historical narrative provides just enough context without losing her narrative. She frames each of her argumentative points—from Bonestell’s artistic style to Disneyland’s creation of Tomorrowland—with succinct background that lends itself well to her argument, preventing her audience from getting lost in the minutia of history. Her clear prose shines as she weaves a larger argument into the fabric of her re-reading of history. She doesn’t lose sight of the larger picture, which in this case is the cosmos itself.
Adam McLain is a Harvard Frank Knox Traveling Fellow (2021–2022).Adam McLainDate Of Review:March 31, 2022