As a retired Air Force chaplain, I say this without exaggeration – NASA's Mars Perseverance rover made its final descent to the Red Planet last week cushioned by a chaplain’s prayer.
I know that because during the opening years of this century, I was privileged to serve as the embedded chaplain for Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. My job, along with work-site visitations and counseling, included the honor of delivering the official prayers for all Cape launches, manned and unmanned.
Among the many prayers I gave in my three-year assignment is the one I voiced for America’s return to Mars in the 2001 Mars Odyssey mission. On the day before the April 7 launch, I drove to a cinderblock building on the Cape to deliver a benediction prayer for the pre-launch briefing.`
As the spacecraft waited atop a Boeing Delta 2 rocket, my prayer drew inspiration from Psalm 139. I prayed that Odyssey’s camera eye would help us gaze into heaven and know the majesty of God that dwells in creation.
You may be wondering why an Air Force chaplain would pray for a machine. The official answer is that prayers or blessings are a routine part of military tradition.
The unofficial answer is ... “superstition.” During my three years at the Cape, I met NASA engineers and rocket scientists who could be as superstitious as ball players.
They did absolutely everything or anything to push the juju in their favor. They’d wear their lucky socks, stage their special knick-knacks on the launch panel and stuff their religious medals under their shirts.
Most engineers I knew were typically agnostic or non-religious, but if a prayer might help, why not. A few commanders said as much by confessing how desperately this prayer was needed. Apparently two previous Mars missions failed, one due to a colossal miscalculation of metric to standard US measurements.
Gratefully, Odyssey was massively successful, not only for its discovery of water beneath the surface in 2018 but for its current status as the longest-working piece of machinery on Mars.
“Honestly,” you may ask, “beyond superstition and tradition, why would you lend your chaplain credibility toward praying for a space mission?”
Because I believe space exploration inspires us to ask God questions.
No, I’m not saying NASA is trying to prove the existence of God. That can’t be done.
But space exploration helps us to probe the deeper existential questions that put us in mind of God. The search for these answers will both humble us while continually befuddling us by the exponential distance between our questions and answers.
This humility is what Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) meant when he noted, “With increasing distance, our knowledge fades, and fades rapidly. Eventually, we reach the dim boundary – the utmost limits of our telescopes. There, we measure shadows, and we search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial.”
Indeed, our search of the heavens inspires the deeply spiritual questions mouthed by our children, namely: “Mommy, where did I come from?” and “Where are we going?” and the most famous of the preschooler’s queries, “Are we there yet?”
The collective prayers of our Odyssey launch team that balmy spring day in 2001 embodied those questions. They reflected a desire that Odyssey would not only provide us with an extensive look into our past, but that it would also draw a line in the eternal sands of space that man may one day cross.
Several months later, the Odyssey returned images from the Mars surface that had even the non-religious repeatedly mouthing God’s name in holy awe.
The mission truly succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams, and perhaps, not entirely because of my providential prayer.
So today, I hold nothing back. I pray for the Perseverance and her ground crew. God Speed.