Christiani, Ad Astra

Overcoming American Christian Institutional Deficiency on the Cusp of the New Space Age

A huge educational and institutional deficit exists when it comes to American Christians and technology. American Protestants forged one of the most innovative countries in the world (the phrase “Yankee Ingenuity” comes to mind), but their physical and intellectual descendants are at present very ill organized to participate in contemporary and near-future innovation. This problem becomes more salient when we take into account the significance of some ongoing developments.   

For years, the main cost of launching into space has been the rocket, which was disposed of. As many others have pointed out, imagine what the cost of international airflight would be if you discarded the plane after taking the trip.1 The Space Shuttle, designed to appease various interest groups in ways that undermined its effectiveness, did not actually overcome this problem, with several key components disposed of each flight and with (contrary to what had been hoped when it was in development) too few flights conducted to result in a fundamental change to the economics of spaceflight. As one informed observer put it, the Space Shuttle “was a rebuildable spacecraft, but it was not reusable in the usual operational sense”.2 SpaceX can launch a payload into orbit for less than 10 percent of what the cost per pound of a launch using the Space Shuttle had been.3

Most Americans who keep up with the news have an idea that SpaceX can now reuse rockets, but don’t understand the changes this is likely to bring in the very near future and are likewise unaware of what a change the under-development (to my mind inaptly named4) “Starship” will bring. Relative to SpaceX’s currently operational Falcon 9 Starship has a variety of upgrades including a new engine5, and its larger size will both lower launch costs and allow for a greater variety of payloads. The initial cost-per-pound savings of Starship versus Falcon 9 is estimated to start around 40 percent cheaper and continue getting more affordable from there as Starships are re-flown6. Musk has suggested $2 million per flight could be achievable in the future.7 Starship is intended to carry up to 150 metric tons to low earth orbit while being fully reusable; if Musk gets anywhere near his goal, he’ll make launch per pound something that’s measured in dollars rather than thousands of dollars. We can anticipate (and to some degree, this is already happening) that as new businesses are able to operate in space as a result of lower launch costs they will in turn provide opportunities to other businesses either via the services they provide or the things they need to buy. So, Starship doesn’t just mean success for SpaceX; a web of technologies, businesses, and other opportunities will be enabled. SpaceX itself, using the Falcon 9 rocket to place them, is already the operator of the majority of active satellites orbiting the Earth (the Starlink network) (according to Musk, a goal of the Starlink program is to provide revenue to support Mars colonization).

The stated goal of Starship is to make colonization of Mars possible. Christians who are frustrated with the cultural decadence of the contemporary West have reason to be excited by the opportunities such an endeavor would provide for people to form new communities in an environment that could potentially allow for rapid growth of those communities that function well (an environment in which many eating-the-seed-corn behaviors of the contemporary West would likely be at least more difficult to sustain). There is reason to think that this being made reality is not as far away as many people assume. The obstacles have been a matter of will (1970s technology would have been sufficient for the initial establishment of a settlement on Mars had there been sufficient willingness to invest in such a thing 8) and a matter of the expense of space activities when the vehicles involved have been largely disposable. The fleet of large and reusable vehicles Elon Musk intends to build (aided, no doubt, by competitors and imitators) could allow for a base on Mars to rapidly grow and be permanent with little or no “flag and footprints” stage preceding permanent settlement. There is little Christian institutional support for young Christians wishing to hone technological skills suited for this endeavor. Likewise, there is little Christian political organization on this subject. There is no institution devoted to identifying Protestant (or other Christian) subject matter experts who could assist with an informed assessment of these developments on the part of Christian communities. A Christian who wishes to enter into this field of endeavor is likely to do so as an individual Christian with little institutional support for an integration of faith and vocation.

If I try and think of leaders in the aerospace industry who are Christian, no name stands out. I am sure there are some and if I was high up in the industry perhaps someone would come to mind as privately having shared convictions. However, there is a lack of vocal Christians in industry leadership. This doesn’t mean Christians generally or Protestants specifically haven’t contributed to space exploration. The first meal on the moon was the Eucharistic elements (albeit not by someone who appears to have kept practicing the faith, and the church whose pastor facilitated it is now in a denomination that is far down the road of apostasy). Wernher Von Braun himself professed Christianity. However, while I am sure many engineers in the aerospace industry today are Christians, there is certainly no company that embodies a Protestant or otherwise Christian corporate culture like that which can be found in, say, some companies in the restaurant industry. There’s no aerospace version of Chick-fil-A or In-N-Out. That issue is one I will not focus on directly in the rest of this essay. Instead, I will look at a couple of other structural deficits in Protestant engagement with space technology.

Where’s a Protestant think tank that addresses space-related issues? The need for that might appear limited, as such technological developments involve many issues for which there does not appear to be a unified Protestant answer and many areas of agreement with other Christians and with conservative or right-leaning non-Christians. However, the lack of organized intellectual and political leadership is a problem in a variety of areas, such as in terms of helping Protestants starting their careers find jobs and in terms of networking with political allies of other religious persuasions. Suppose a presidential candidate won with significant support from Protestants. Who would be organized to identify even non-Christians who we’d consider acceptable appointees within such an administration whom we could work with on science and technology issues? (There are Christians who are organized on issues relating to the beginning and ending of life and to some extent on technological issues related to that, but there is a lack of organization on other science and technology issues.)

The lack of a currently widely known politically salient threat or moral wrong to mobilize Protestants on space issues on the one hand is likely to make it a harder sell in terms of getting people to devote resources to it. However, setting up some sort of think tank (even if relatively small) would be one way for Protestants to exercise leadership in this area of technology rather than just react to developments created by others or engage these issues as individuals (this could be true even if the institution grew to include Christians of other affiliations). Even identifying people from other groups and ideologies who have congruent interests will be more challenging without this basic level of institutional support for Protestant (or Protestant-supported) political leaders. In the near future there will probably be more clear-cut issues of Christian concern related to space (many of the same issues disputed in governance on Earth will be disputed in space once there is long-term human habitation there), it would be better to have at least some minimal organization established prior to a more salient-to-nonspecialists conflict breaking out. 

An area that both would require bigger investment and which would offer more tangible benefits to the broader Protestant community is educational institutions. Some Christian schools have engineering departments (like my own undergrad alma mater); however, I am aware of only one Christian University where (as I understand it) the focus is on science and technology (perhaps when someone from LeTourneau University reads this, he or she can provide some feedback about how much that University’s practice already implements the sort of vision I outline here). I do not know of any Christian educational institution where space technology or space science is the focus. If Protestant leaders want to use resources in a way that allows motivated but not super-wealthy people in their communities to participate in the coming space industry boom, one way to do that is to create educational institutions that are both distinctively Protestant and train people to fill roles that are going to be needed. 

This should be done with consideration of which locations will have the most demand, and thus facilitate students getting internships and other part-time work while they are still in school. Texas and Florida have an in-built geographic advantage for many space launches because for launches from a west-to-east trajectory less additional energy is required to launch from nearer the equator because of the Earth’s rotational speed being higher there. The energy savings are a fraction of a percent but given the multitude of potential launch sites, this is likely to result in launch sites that are farther south being given preference when there isn’t some significant political or logistical concern. Logistical factors are likely why there is not more use of U.S. island territories that are closer to the equator (i.e. SpaceX did not continue launching from Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll9, despite it being closer to the equator than any continental U.S. launch site). There are other Southern U.S. states but, with the logistically more challenging exception of Hawaii, none of these stretches as far south as Florida or Texas (none is as far south as Cape Canaveral or Brownsville) and Texas and Florida have an advantage over most potential competitors by having the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean, respectively, to their east. 

Someone wishing to see Christians influence future developments in a positive direction should build a technical and engineering college near Cape Canaveral, Florida or in the southern tip of Texas. Both in terms of my own biases and honest appraisal of SpaceX’s capabilities and center of gravity, I suggest starting in South Texas and then planting a second institution in South Florida once there are sufficient resources. I think that Christians interested in the space industry would currently be wise to bet strongly on anticipated success from SpaceX—but of course, we should not make our plans dependent on getting students employment with one company. A college near the southernmost point of Texas will be well-placed to serve other businesses that can be anticipated to arise both in that part of the state and elsewhere. 

There is currently a lack of people trained in skilled labor in fields that are relevant to the space industry as well as a continued need for engineers and other professionals who typically have at least a college degree. I suggest that the best way to go about this would be to establish both a vocational training program and a four-year university; one possibility is doing this as part of the same institution, but adjacent institutions would be another option if the goals of a technical school and four-year science and engineering-focused college are deemed too different. 

Depending on what sources of funding were available, there might be some difficulties about the identity of such an institution. Someone might be tempted to work to create a simply pan-right-leaning or pan-conservative (and not specifically Christian) technological institution, but the recent wave of corporate involvement in pseudo-religious movements and events like Pride highlights the need for something with more weight to counter such things than mere institutional neutrality or a vague cultural conservativism. Future engineers and technicians need an education that includes a philosophy of what work and innovation mean, not just an attempt to avoid woke signaling. Distinctively Christian teaching provides this in a way that mere anti-wokeness cannot. With a focus on technology, an array of denominations could work together on such a project, though it is true that (even if limited to Trinitarian Christian groups with broadly orthodox anthropology and hamartiology) there would be limits at which goals for the non-technical part of the curriculum would start to clash. A broadly Christian (rather than a Protestant) institution might (or might not) have an easier time pooling funding, but what books to include in the non-technical portion of the curriculum for a Protestant-Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox project would be more difficult than say, an Anglican-Presbyterian-Lutheran-Reformed Baptist collaboration. So, while a distinctively Christian science and technology-focused institution would not need to be limited to one Christian tradition and could likely be broader than a seminary (and given the strategic nature of certain geographical areas when it comes to the space industry there may be particular wisdom in pooling resources to get something there sooner rather than later), there are likely still tradeoffs involved in getting sufficient support while still having a coherent mission and coherent curriculum. 

The goals for the above project can be seen both in terms of immediate benefits (good jobs in a state with a historically conservative culture and currently relatively friendly government) and longer term. The long-term goal is a twenty-first-century space colonization initiative in which Christians work to form exemplary Christian societies on the new frontiers of Mars, the asteroids, and the other planets and moons of the solar system. We shouldn’t have an idealized view that says that human societies in space will necessarily be immune to the problems of societies on Earth, and indeed I think the people drawn to such utopian views have tended to be non-Christians (which isn’t to say Christians could not have similarly misplaced hopes). However, some particular flaws in existing societies may be difficult to immediately replicate in space because of those flaws being heavily dependent on abusing existing social structures. A Christian approach to space settlement thus may have an opportunity to outgrow competing projects that have a confused view of human nature which was able to keep a facsimile of sustainability amidst contemporary affluence. Christians can use the need for new social structures in space as an opportunity to apply Christian political thought to a new environment and new technological conditions; we have the tools to build high-trust societies that provide a nurturing and supportive environment for families while also being a place where men can prepare themselves for the rigors of future voyages of discovery. The human heart’s deceitfulness will not be gotten rid of merely by moving to a frontier, and I am sure the Devil and evil men can construct corrupt ideologies that can grow in such an environment. However, the inaptness of some contemporary ideologies for frontier conditions may cause them to stumble and give us an opportunity to make up for lost time and outgrow them to forge cities on higher hills10 which can be positive witnesses for the truth of Christian principles as well as desirable places to live. Even so, we need to start doing the preparatory work now.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 10 footnotes
  1. See Jerry Pournelle ed. A Step Farther Out for a discussion of the economics of space operations.
  2. Jerry Pournelle, Chaos Manor, September 22nd, 2012,
  3. Our World in Data (Providing a chart which only goes up to 2019.)
  4. Sending robotic probes to other stars will (at least with regard to the commencement of the missions) plausibly be feasible during the operational lifetime of “Starship” and the name of this non-interstellar craft will provide occasion for confusion.
  5. See Andy Law, The Definitive Guide To Starship: Starship vs Falcon 9, what’s new and improved? Everyday Astronaut November 6th, 2020
  6. T-minus 6 Seconds: Starship (and Humanity’s) Next Major Step Into Space
  7. Debra Werner, Elon Musk discusses Starship at Air Force Space Pitch Day, SpaceNews, November 5th, 2019
  8. See Jerry Pournelle ed. A Step Farther Out.
  9. See Eric Berger, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX for a detailed account of this period of SpaceX’s operations.
  10.  I thought of a similar turn of phrase awhile back as far as I am aware before seeing that there was a book (by James D. Heiser) with a similar title—I suppose he and I have had some similar thoughts independently.
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Ian Perry

Ian Perry is a lawyer from Texas with degrees from Baylor and Ole Miss Law.

5 thoughts on “Christiani, Ad Astra

  1. To my non-lawyer understanding, it is practically illegal to build a large Christian for-profit enterprise in the US, because doing so would require hiring mostly Christians. Chick-fil-a has managed it because Christians value having Sunday off more than non-christians, so there is a self-selection effect that doesn’t rely on employer discrimination. That doesn’t work unless the non-christians have similar work-on-sunday employers to self select into. Small businesses are often exempt on size and can rely on personal recruiting networks, but that doesn’t scale. Perhaps the author could use his legal training to explain how to get around that at scale? Until we figure that out, we’re still going to be individual employees or small sub-contractors within larger secular institutions in space launch or other industries.

    1. An educational institution can hire people of the same religion in order to fulfill its religious mission, likewise an advocacy group or thinktank could include religious affirmations as a requirement for participation. I’m unsure of the wisest way for Christians to operate if they wish to create large likeminded business enterprises–Red Balloon and New Founding have some relevant efforts though their projects are not exclusively limited to Christians. For setting up a settlement on Mars or otherwise off-Earth, a degree of agreement would be necessary for the smooth functioning of such a community, but a business might not be the best vehicle for setting it up anyway.

      1. Sounds like a winning combination of space and Christianity! Now if there were some way to monetize such a combination!

      2. Maybe there are some lessons from John Winthrop and the (Puritan) Massachusetts Bay Company Charter that can be applied to Christians seeking to colonize Mars, the Moon, the asteroid belt, etc.?

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