I have been hailing NASA’s achievement with respect to the Mars Curiosity landing. But while the scientific and engineering achievements of NASA are admirable, it is also an organization depending upon public support and thus not above pandering to what it perceives as public sentiment.
For example, when Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon in 1968, one of the astronauts started reading from the book of Genesis. This seemed like a spontaneous display of religious awe but via Jerry Coyne I learn that Richard Dawkins sets the record straight.
Last year, at the splendid STARMUS conference in Tenerife that brought together astronauts and scientists, I had many agreeable conversations with Bill Anders, astronaut who famously read from the first Chapter of the book of Genesis while orbiting the moon on Apollo 8 in 1968. Major General Anders, a gallant, intelligent and entertaining man, told me he has no respect for religion. He read the Bible in space only because he was told to by NASA.
It turns out that famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair had exposed this fraud soon after it occurred. She revealed that NASA had carefully planned this ‘spontaneous manifestation of religious awe’ for months and even had a code name of ‘Experiment P-1’ assigned to it. The feisty O’Hair sued NASA for the records but lost her case on the grounds that she lacked standing. But that did not stop her from skewering it.
Times have changed. I doubt that NASA would insert religion into its work in such an obvious way now. In fact, Neil Armstrong’s first words on stepping foot on the Moon in 1969 (“That’s one small step…”) was also scripted (though he blew his lines) and had no reference to god, although it would have been a good place to insert one. So maybe after the 1968 mission, there was some kind of internal revolt by the astronauts at being forced to do such blatant religious pandering.