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GVSU professor studies space travel's impact on spirituality

Buzz Aldrin moon walk photo

As Americans celebrate space exploration with the 50th anniversary the Apollo 11 mission and moon landing, a Grand Valley State University is exploring the impact religion has on astronauts travelling through the cosmos. 

Does a voyage to outer space resemble a sacred pilgrimage? Deana Weibel, a professor of anthropology at Grand Valley State University has interviewed six NASA astronauts how their travels to the heavens has impacted their religious perspective?

“Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell was not particularly religious before he went into space. NASA kept a list of the astronauts and their sort of religious preferences and he’s listed as ‘no preference’ on that document. But he went into space during his mission and while he was travelling between the Earth and the moon he had this experience of this intense feeling of knowing that the universe was all one thing, and knowing that he was a part of the universe, and this feeling that he was connected to everything in a way that he wasn’t aware of before.”

On earth, he met with religious leaders about his wrote of his enlightenment experienced in space.

“I will say, too, there does seem to be a lot of interesting research showing that experiencing awe, A-W-E, is something that makes people more open to religious explanation. So that feeling of being very, very small in a vast universe, whether you’re looking at the Earth as this enormous globe that’s next to you, but you’re no longer, you know, on, or you’re looking at stars in a way that you’ve never seen them before, there’s something about that experience that just shrinks you down to nothing and makes your brain just crave an explanation of everything.”

Weibel says this explains why astronauts tend to have religious experiences.

Patrick Center, WGVU News.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.