Former NASA astronaut Story Musgrave, who blasted off to space six times as part of the space shuttle program, speaks to Mysterious Ways contributing editor Evan Miller about the out-of-this-world experiences that have impacted his faith and beliefs.
- Posted on Sep 17, 2015
Mysterious Ways: Tell me about the first time you were in space. What surprised you about it?
Musgrave: A lot of funny things happen because you’re not evolved to sense it, our system is not built to function in that particular environment. The first thing that hit me when I looked out the window at our planet was the geography, like “Where am I?”
I flew early enough that the really immersive photographs of Earth had not really been out yet, and we’re used to looking at a geography book or a globe of the world and now I was seeing the real world. That’s pretty impressive, it’s quite beautiful.
Mysterious Ways: How different did the stars look from that vantage point?
Musgrave: If you were inside your house and if you wanted to see the stars at night you’d walk outside, but you can’t walk outside of the international space station, so you need to have it totally dark. Some of the kids who flew with me never got to see the stars, the heavens, from space line because the commander didn’t allow lights to be turned off. But I had a lot of night passes, permission to turn the lights off.
Of course, the stars are much brighter and they don’t twinkle. And you see so many you navigate differently. You don’t navigate through the constellations; you navigate through the Milky Way. The Milky Way is so bright it becomes your orienter, it’s so totally dominant in your view. The stars, there are just so many more of them, but of course you do see the total sky, not all the time, but you do see the sun across.
Mysterious Ways: You’ve said that one of the feelings you’ve had about being in space was the feeling that you were face to face with God. What did you mean by that?
Musgrave: You get to understand that your world is due to the fact that the earth is tilted 23.5 degrees and it goes around the sun once a year. That dictates a lot for us. When you get up there you find out, see what is going on. I guess your view of the heavens is a little wider too. You’re seeing more of the cosmos so in those terms you’re seeing more of God, and to me that’s sacred.
It’s the same feeling I got when I was a three-year-old in the forest at night, staring up at the stars. A three-year-old alone in the forest late at night is just as close to the heavens than anything related to space flight. It was just an immersion and accumulation of the cosmos, just more and more of it. And it goes on.
I have flown with 27 people, I’ve flown with 17 rookies and I know about 400 astronauts. I know what space did to them and it was epiphantic. I know who they were before they went and who they were once they came back.
Mysterious Ways: One of the things you talk about in your book is that when you were in space, you attempted to leave yourself open to receive messages from the universe, possibly alien life.
Musgrave: It’s a very far out idea. But if you don’t try it’s not gonna happen. I just resort to prayer, like “Hey, I know that I’m here and I know you’re there; I do acknowledge your existence.” So it’s a prayer that says, I acknowledge your existence. As opposed to saying, “I’m an arrogant human being who thinks I’m the only living creature in the universe.” And we’re not.
In that sense, we’re still hung up on the Copernican idea that we’re the center of the universe. We’re not. The egocentric error, which still exists today. Imagine there are 10 to the 29th power stars. I have no idea what 10 to the 29th is. I can count 29 zeros, but how big that is, I have no idea.
If the thing is 10 to the 29th galaxies and a galaxy got 100 billion stars, my God, how many are we talking about? It gets big! And then you say we’re the only smart living thing? It’s too egocentric.
Mysterious Ways: What are the big questions you ponder about space?
Musgrave: I know we can’t know the answers to big questions. Life is a journey. The journey presents itself to me. And so I’m not met by the questions, I’m met by the exploration in being in the game. About finding out what the questions are and what I can do. You can say many things but then on your gravestone you’ll say “What was that all about that I didn’t have the answers?”
But it could be offensive to have all the answers. You go through life and grab on to certain things and say, those are the things that are. But you got to understand how you gravitate to that, how you were led to that. Who indoctrinated you and why? All countries and cultures have their own beliefs, but the same thing applies.
You just live mindful and never stop exploring. You keep pushing through the journey in a mindful way, but you’re not going to get to any destination. I accept not knowing. There’s no finish line. I don’t know where I’m going, I just keep moving. I’m just an explorer. That’s who I am.
Mysterious Ways: I read in your book that you believe the universe has no beginning and it will have no end.
Musgrave: That’s definitely something I believe. The scientists are not pursuing anything earlier than the big bang. They have assumed and accepted the big bang as the beginning. It came from somewhere. The universe is expanding. For me there is no beginning or end. But some people then ask, “So when did God begin?” They believe that God did not begin and God will not end. God is.
In that same way, I refuse to believe the big bang theory. My universe did not begin, it always was. The acceptance of the multiverse, an alternative to the big bang, is growing.
Mysterious Ways: How does your scientific background influence your faith?
Musgrave: I’m not an atheist because an atheist knows the answers. I also don’t want to project or assign gender to entities. I’m not going to project myself onto the divine or the whole universe. I’m part of the journey and this whole thing, but I’m not going to project my ignorance.
I’ll try to learn. I’m in pursuit. I’m massively spiritual and transcendent. But I do understand that there are spiritual and scientific things that are bigger than me.
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