Is There a Place For Spirituality in Space Science?

A top NASA official’s biblical remarks about the James Webb Space Telescope sparked an outcry. But they’re nothing new.

It wasn’t just that he mentioned a religious holiday. After all, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson wasn’t the only person to observe, following the successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope last month, that the long-awaited feat had occurred on Christmas Day. Rather, Nelson’s comments raised eyebrows for their “spiritual tone.”

“It’s significant that we had the delays and it kept us all the way to today, Christmas Day,” Nelson said in a video released by NASA shortly after the launch. He went on to quote a passage from Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God. The firmament shows his handiwork.”

To some viewers — especially those who believe religion and science are incompatible — the very mention of a religious text seemed to undercut the messaging of scientific achievement. The suggestion that the telescope served a Christian purpose, or that its use would reinforce a Christian worldview, also seemed to belie a commitment to inclusivity in science that NASA has claimed to value. (The agency is still reeling from the controversy over its decision to name the telescope after James Webb, a man alleged to have been complicit in the persecution of LGBTQ government workers.)

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