NASA and the Spirit of Babel

To the moon…to Mars…and beyond

Don’t get me wrong, I like NASA, astronauts, the space program, and the whole enterprise of exploring the wonders of God’s cosmos. This affection probably finds its root in the countless times as a child that I watched The Right Stuff, a cinematic production dramatically chronicling the United States space race of the 1950’s and 60’s. Today my support of NASA comes from the fact that the images generated by the Hubble Telescope expand our finite ability to worship the God of creation. Hubble’s images present glimpses of heavens that illustrate the grandeur of Psalm 19:1 : “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies above proclaim his handiwork.” I say all that to say: I am not out to bash NASA or any of its dedicated and heroic employees. Instead, I only seek to raise a question: How similar is NASA’s spirit of cosmic optimism to the spirit of Babel found on the plains of Shinar?

Visiting the Kennedy Space Center this week was well… out of this world. The size, the technology, the history, the massive cooperative effort the engineer vehicles that travel the galaxy is in a word, “impressive.” And NASA holds nothing back from celebrating its 50-years of space exploration. In the past 50 years, astronauts have visited the moon, walked in space, and have orbited the earth countless times. In all of this, the ever-improving technology that has allowed this stretches the imagination.

Consider the V.A.B., the Vehicle Assembly Building, which houses the world’s largest and most precise crane. This building is the second largest in the world according to volume (second only to Boeing’s plane assembly plant), and the crane it stores has not only the ability to lift millions of pounds (the shuttle, twin rockets, and fuel tank), but also the capacity to delicately move this massive assembly 1/64 of an inch in any direction and 1/50,000 of an inch up or down. This is absolutely amazing. And of course, these facts along with countless others are told and retold at KSC to expound the NASA lore.

Yet, after spending half a day admiring the power, collective genius, and the sustained economic capital needed to create such vehicles, I began to wonder if Cape Canaveral was anywhere near the plains of Shinar (Gen. 11). You see, in between the well-organized bus tour, the array of multimedia presentations retelling the glories of America’s space race, and the celebrity-narrated IMAX movies, there was this refrain: “Back to the moon…to Mars…and beyond.” Carried on the tune of space age symphonies, there was a noticeable melody of human achievement, man-made power, and scientific ingenuity. In this sense, the Kennedy Space Center and NASA offers its own “gospel”–complete with its explanation of the universe, its compelling cosmic history, its impressive operations on earth and in the heavens, its manifest destiny to go where no man has gone before, and its concluding invitation to believe and follow. “Child, will you be the next (wo)man on the moon?”

All of this was eerily familiar because of how much it resembled the construction of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Six millenia ago, when the sons of Ham (Gen. 10:6), pre-historic astronauts in their own right, set out to build “a tower with its top in the heavens” (Gen. 11: 4), they did so by rejecting God and turning the work of their own hands. In order to “make a name for ourselves” (v. 4), they said, we will build a temple-like ziggurratt or tower. And why? “Lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4). The result of course is that God “came down” from heaven to confuse their speech and disrupt their plans (v. 7).
Not surprisingly, humanity is still looking to the works of their own hands, still seeking self-preservation, global protection from foreign enemies, and the right to boast in our scientific achievements–all of which were deep-seated motivations in NASA’s own push for supremacy. Today, the Kennedy Space Center is a monument to this. But this is nothing new. Since the Fall, when Adam’s small step became a giant leap downward for mankind, humanity has looked for new and improved ways to establish monuments to honor and protect themselves. The testimony of Scripture and history is that we are a people who look to deify those things which we have built. This was true in Babel’s tower, in Herod’s Temple, in Greece’s Parthenon, in China’s Great Wall, and in the United States space program.

I am not denying the validity of space exploration, but I am cautioning against the corollary idea that can come with it: the limitless capability that men, in their intelligence and cooperative effort, can accomplish anything they want. This is exactly what God violently opposed in Babel (Gen. 11:7-9). This is the spirit of Babel, a spirit that was cast out from the garden of Eden, a spirit that resides within the heart of every son and daughter of Adam, and a spirit that will not remain in the presence of God because it is the spirit of the Antichrist. For in the presence of Christ, the maker and sustainer of the heavens and the earth, humanity has no place to boast.

My visit this week to the Kennedy Space Center was impressive, and I would encourage anyone who can to visit. However, at the same time, I would offer a word of caution. You will encounter more than just shuttles, simulators, and space suits, you will encounter the spirit of the antichrist himself who casually charms people into thinking heaven is available to all through the innovation of scientists and the accleration of spacecraft. The Scriptures teach something more earthy. Heaven is only available to those who have trusted in the intercession and mediation of a savior, not a scientist, and who have accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ’s shed blood, not supercooled rocket fuel. For you see, the Kennedy Space Center might lead you to believe that the most powerful things in the world are the rockets used to propel the shuttle into orbit, but the truth is that the gospel is far more powerful (Rom. 1:16)–raising the dead to new life in Christ.

NASA may not mention this, but their whole reason for being is based on the existence of a universe created, sustained, and rhythmically controlled by God. Their endless explorations of the heavens was and is furnished by God. They claim it as their own discovery, and rob God of his glory, but we who know Christ know better. In every discovery on this planet or the Red Planet, we footnote our findings and give Jesus Christ the glory. The psalmist David footnoted did this well, making him a faithful scientist and a perhaps a model “astronaut,” and so it is with him I close:

When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which your have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? // O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is you name in all the earth. (Psalm 8:3-4, 9)

Sola Dei Gloria, dss

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