Cultural considerations in space exploration: Insights for NASA’s Artemis 2 mission
by Deana L. Weibel
|Seeing the Earth from LEO and seeing the Earth from thousands of kilometers away are completely different experiences.|
Heading to the Moon is an entirely different proposition. The ISS generally travels about 420 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. The Moon itself is about 400,000 kilometers away from the Earth and Artemis 2 is expected to go beyond the Moon by up to 7,500 kilometers. When Artemis 2 heads to the Moon, then, it will be nearly 1,000 time further away than a space station or spacecraft in LEO. Communications will be slow compared to what Earth-orbiting astronauts are used to. The isolation will also be much greater, which can have a negative psychological impact, as can the knowledge that the Earth (and any rescue) is much farther away if a dangerous situation were to develop.
Another area where a type of distance is important for Artemis 2 is with respect to time. The oldest person on the Artemis 2 crew is Reid Wiseman, who was born in 1975, almost a full three years after Apollo 17 returned in December 1972. This makes a huge difference in terms of what the current crew can learn from prior crews. Skylab astronauts could talk very easily to astronauts from previous programs who had orbited the Earth. Shuttle astronauts could always communicate with their predecessors who had taken similar journeys into space. The ISS was built during the shuttle era and there was a natural transition from shuttle-only astronauts to shuttle-and-ISS astronauts and then to ISS-only astronauts. In all of these cases, there was a direct link from the experiences of recent astronauts to the innovations being undertaken by newer astronauts.
In the case of Artemis 2, though, given that more than 50 years have passed since any prior mission to the Moon, there are far fewer people to learn from who have had any kind of like experience. What happens on the ISS is a good example. When a new crew arrives on the space station, they are greeted and acculturated by the previous crew. Acculturation is the experience of learning about and adapting to a new community. Children acculturate into their society very naturally, learning from parents, teachers, and even other children. Adults acculturate when they move to a new country or join a new family or workspace. The ISS has its own ever-changing culture and after astronauts dock they have to adjust to the new culture as well as physical differences like microgravity. As a retired astronaut I will refer to as “Alan” told me during an interview:
The training does a really good job preparing you for almost everything, but there’s some mundane things… Like where exactly do we put different kinds of trash, you know, or little tricks to preparing the food so it doesn’t make a mess, and where we keep the wrenches when we’re not using them… It changes over time because every crew does things slightly differently, too, with these things. It’s kind of like if you ever visit, if you’re going to be a house guest for a while in somebody else’s home, you’ve got to learn like, OK, where do they keep the towels you know, what if I run out of clean ones where do I get more? It’s stuff like that that gets passed down informally when you’re starting, when you first arrive. It’s not like tips on how to run the emergency procedures, it’s more of the day-to-day life kind of stuff.
As seasoned space station astronauts, Wiseman, Victor Glover, and Christina Koch will all have some experience to draw on, and will certainly help acculturate rookie Jeremy Hansen, but what they can bring to a lunar flight from ISS experience will be limited in many ways.
These limitations may be, in fact, beneficial, since research has been done that indicates the routine and sameness of ISS life can contribute to negative moods in astronauts. Anthropologist Jack Stuster wrote a NASA report (2010) in which he analyzed anonymized astronauts’ diary entries and discovered that surprises and breaks in routine made their experience much more positive. At the same time, the novelty of the lunar flight experience may be unsettling since, even with training, no active astronaut has ever been outside of Earth orbit. The retired astronauts who have traveled to the Moon previously are very few in number and made the trip using distinctly different technology in a distinctly different social setting. The Artemis 2 crew will have to learn on the job, adjusting and adapting the way the first Mercury astronauts did, although with a much longer mission, making some things up as they go.
The Artemis 2 astronauts will get perspectives of the Moon possible only for the last half-century from robotic spacecraft like the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. (credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)
Another important thing to keep in mind is that astronauts in recent years have not had the ability to see the same things that the Apollo astronauts did during NASA’s last lunar missions. I mean this quite literally. While a lot has been said about the “Overview Effect,” and while many astronauts who have been interviewed clearly understand it as a cultural phenomenon (like learning where to throw away garbage on the ISS, the Overview Effect seems to be something astronauts sometimes prepare each other for), seeing the Earth from LEO and seeing the Earth from thousands of kilometers away are completely different experiences.
Astronauts since the shuttle era have often become amateur photographers, taking stunning shots of islands and deserts, cityscapes and giant storms. They have recorded sunrises and sunsets and have talked about the amazing experience of hanging in space over a living blue planet. None of the current crop of astronauts, however, has ever seen the Earth recede into the distance, becoming so small that it can be covered with a single thumb. This view of the Earth is something that many Apollo astronauts have described, written about, or recorded on film. It is one thing to see pictures of that distant Earth, an experience that I am sure everyone reading this article has shared. Seeing your home planet so far away with your own eyes is a completely different experience.
|“I think the most profound thing I witnessed was seeing the Moon up close… The Moon’s very unfriendly, it’s very unforgiving. Very, very difficult.”|
Apollo astronauts described this experience as one of intense awe, particularly as one becomes aware of the increasing distance from one’s home world. In his memoir Never Panic Early, for example, Fred Haise discusses taking photographs of the Earth as the Apollo 13 crew moved away from the planet toward the Moon, writing, “It was surreal to shoot stills of the shrinking Earth for several hours. I have found it hard to describe the deep emotion I felt viewing these out-of-this-world scenes.” (Haise 2022, p. 107) Michael Collins memorably referred to it as, “the vision that I summon over and over again of the itsy-bitsy sphere just outside my window, motionless, cradled in black velvet.” (Collins 2019, p. xvii) The life of an astronaut is incredibly busy, so while multiple astronauts have described this view, others have noted that they were unable to fully experience it because of the never-ceasing flow of work that needed to be done during their missions. My guess is that during Artemis 2, the crew will be unimaginably busy, but will actually be expected, perhaps unfairly, to observe and report on the sensation of seeing Earth from an incredible distance. The public will be living vicariously through the return to the Moon and will want lots of details.
Another experience the Artemis 2 astronauts will have, one that does not get a lot of attention, is seeing the Moon from lunar orbit. Some of the best descriptions of this panorama have come from Command Module Pilots and other astronauts who took missions where landing wasn’t a possibility. Command Module Pilot Michael Collins’ memoir Carrying the Fire provides an excellent description of this phenomenon as the Apollo 11 crew approached Earth’s biggest satellite. He writes:
Our first shock comes as we stop our spinning motion and swing ourselves around so as to bring the moon into view. We have not been able to see the moon for nearly a day now, and the change in its appearance is dramatic, spectacular, and electrifying. The moon I have known all my life, that two-dimensional, small yellow disk in the sky, has gone away somewhere, to be replaced by the most awesome sphere I have ever seen. To begin with, it is huge, completely filling our window. Second, it is three-dimensional. The belly of it bulges out toward us in such a pronounced fashion that I almost feel I can reach out and touch it. (Collins 2019, p. 387)
Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise of Apollo 13, whose opportunity to walk on the surface of the Moon was lost to the mission’s famous accident, still found himself impressed with the sight, writing that he:
…felt strange and lucky to have a firsthand look at this landscape that could only be seen from the vantage point of a spacecraft orbiting the Moon. The back side differed from the front side that we are familiar with from Earth – it was rougher looking, with craters upon craters. The primary colors were shades of gray and a few white areas that I assumed were newer craters. Just as when I witnessed the shrinking Earth, these novel aspects of the Moon made me question whether I was really seeing what I was seeing. (Haise 2022, p. 116)
In another example, the astronaut I refer to in my research as “Zack” spoke to me about how unwelcoming the Moon looked from his position as someone who orbited the great orb but had no plans to land. He told me in one of our interviews, “I think the most profound thing I witnessed was seeing the Moon up close… The Moon’s very unfriendly, it’s very unforgiving. Very, very difficult. I think you look at a scene and you kind of decide in your mind whether it’s hostile or not, you know, that it’s not something you want to step out into…the Moon is so stark, so sharp, so forbidding, that you still have the impression, even inside the spacecraft, that it’s a pretty hostile place.”
He explained further, “You are so cut off from everything…and here all of a sudden you’re looking at the Moon that you probably looked at thousands of times growing up, and here you are, anywhere from 16 to 10 miles away from it, and it’s different… You can look at the Moon and see the dark circles and all that, but [when] you get close to it, and you see the smaller craters, and you see how sharply defined they are, and you see the very sharp shadow patterns caused by the Sun, well, you’re seeing it for the first time.”
I suspect that looking at the Moon knowing that you will not land there during your mission is quite different from knowing you’ll be touching down in a few hours, and perhaps, despite what Zack felt, less nerve-wracking. Still, the celestial body Buzz Aldrin characterized as a place of “magnificent desolation,” will be sterile, unearthly, and still. Astronauts who have orbited our colorful planet will be, no doubt, impressed by the Moon’s distinctly different appearance.
So far I have discussed looking at the Earth from space and looking at the Moon from lunar orbit, two experiences that can evoke awe and that certainly hold cultural importance as unusual sights that lunar astronauts have described in detail because they were, as Fred Haise said, “novel.” Frank White has done a lot of research on what he termed the “Overview Effect,” and there are indications that this view of the Earth from space, including views from LEO, sometimes have a personal impact on astronauts that changes their understanding of life on the planet. Very little research has been done at all, however, on psychological, cognitive, or cultural impact of seeing the Moon from close proximity, even though the memoirs and interviews I have discussed make it clear that the experience is strange and illuminating, causing the satellite to go from seeming flat and mirror-like to becoming overwhelmingly real and three-dimensional.
|It is not hard to imagine an astronaut in lunar orbit being captivated by the enormous Moon or by a “wall” of stars in space and becoming unresponsive for a few moments. It would be wise to anticipate this scenario so that it won’t interfere with crucial time-based operations.|
Another type of strange perception from space occurs when astronauts are able to look into the Milky Way galaxy from a spacecraft or during a spacewalk, particularly in situations where they are dark-adapted and, ideally, in complete shadow. A shuttle-era astronaut I’ve interviewed, whom I refer to as Theo, made sure to take in views of not just Earth but also open space during his multiple missions. Why? As Theo explained about the experience, “You were looking at galaxies with the naked eye. You were in the heavens. Holy shit. You’re in a place that will increase spirituality. You’ll do the checklist a hell of a lot better if you’re on top of your spirituality than if you’re not. It’s the same as goddamn water or food.”
He described situations to me where, when the crew was asleep and the lights were off in the spacecraft, he would intentionally go to the windows and look out into space, in order to see the stars in as close to total darkness as he could get. Interestingly, as a child he would also look out the window at the stars, although the circumstances were very different. As he told it: “I knelt in front of the window going to bed and I would look at the heavens and pray… and the prayer, I don’t know if it was [a formal prayer]. I [was] just talking to the heavens.” Clearly, it was a lifelong spiritual practice for him, and one that he continued in space. It was also evident that he felt that the context of being in space could enhance a person’s spirituality, an understanding that drove him to stargaze from space or undertake religious rituals (he described a few) when the unobstructed Milky Way was in view.
A Hubble image of a dense portion of the Milky Way, a view astronauts on the way to the Moon might experience with their own eyes. (credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Brammer)
NASA and the Artemis 2 crew should also know that the impact of seeing the stars from space appears to be intensified from lunar orbit. Like Theo, Zack took the time to become dark adapted and look out into space, but unlike Theo, he was in much deeper space, in a far darker place than LEO, which is impacted by the reflected light of the Sun on the Earth’s surface. I have written about this in more detail before, coining the term the “ultraview effect” (to both acknowledge and contrast with White’s more established overview effect) to describe intense feelings of awe and insignificance astronauts have described when looking out into an overwhelming thickness of stars (see Weibel, 2020). Theo told me that “the Milky Way is a hard white wall,” while Zack, whose experience of the ultraview effect was arguably greater, said, “All of a sudden, the star patterns out there became something that I was not ready for. So many stars I couldn’t see one. It was just a sheet of light.” Zack found the experience to be one that altered his sense of reality and human destiny in a way that I can only characterize as spiritual, as his mind struggled to make sense of something incomprehensible.
The work that Timothy Morton has done on “hyperobjects” probably plays a role here. I have written about this previously, discussing Morton’s work on these “huge objects or systems,” that are not easy to understand without the use of technology. For Morton, the “reality of a thing exists apart from our piecemeal impressions of the reality of things, and at this point in time we are starting, slowly, to comprehend them in their entirety.” (Weibel, 2020) Essentially, hyperobjects are phenomena that are so grand in scale that they are impossible to comprehend without technological help, and that humans find overwhelming when they finally realize their scope. In Zack’s case, for instance, he was unable to see the unbelievable view of the Milky Way he experienced without the technical assistance of a spacecraft that put him into lunar orbit.
I argued previously that while Morton expects human contact with and increased knowledge of hyperobjects to be “difficult” and “painful,” astronauts, who have real-life encounters seeing these objects in ways that other humans cannot, often react with more optimism than Morton would suggest. The Moon may align better with what Morton predicts, but few astronauts have responded to seeing the Earth from space with anything like the “disgust” and “pain” that Morton considers likely (Weibel 2020). One exception may be actor and spaceflight participant William Shatner, whose encounter with the reality of the relationship between Earth and space was clearly frightening and unpleasant (see Weibel, 2021).
There actually may be behavioral implications to this experience of “starstruck” awe. Yannick Joye and Siegfried Dewitte have done some fascinating psychological research on the way that human beings react to objects perceived as “vast,” focusing primarily on huge buildings and other architectural features. They argue that one predictable reaction to large buildings and other sources of awe (one would assume the first glimpses of the nearby Moon or a clear view of the Milky Way from a shadowed spot would count as well) may be what they call “freezing.” They explain, “Within the recent literature on awe, different researchers have hinted at the immobilizing potential of awe and awe-evoking stimuli. In particular, awe has been linked to a state of ‘freezing’, ‘paralysis’, ‘stillness’, ‘passivity’, and ‘immobility’. Recent linguistic research also shows that old English notions for awe have been metonymically used to express ‘sluggishness’ and ‘physical paralysis’. Inasmuch as emotion labels can be diagnostic of the emotion’s associated behavioral response, this tentatively suggests that (at least in earlier times) people experienced immobility as part and parcel of awe episodes.” (Joye and Dewitte 2016)
From an evolutionary perspective, animals may fight, flee, or freeze when faced with danger. An amusing example of this can be found in this compilation of Jurassic Park and Jurassic World scenes where Dr. Alan Grant (played by Sam Neill) tells companions inclined to panic or flee, “Don’t move…” when confronted with various deadly dinosaurs. Freezing in response to certain predators under specific circumstances may make sense and can occur even without a reminder from a helpful paleontologist. As Joye and Dewitte explain, “Freezing prepares the organism for escape or defensive fighting by optimizing visual and attentional processes to the threat. Freezing is typically characterized by hyper-vigilance towards a threatening stimulus or environment, and crucially implies a state of general immobility, evident from a tense body posture and muscle stiffness. In addition, by staying immobile, the threatened organism avoids being discovered, or further drawing the threatening agent’s attention, thereby reducing the risk of being captured and killed.” (Joye and Dewitte 2016)
This “freezing” isn’t based in logic but is instinctive. Surprise and awe may evoke it even if the trigger isn’t actually a threat: Joye and Dewitte have studied how large buildings and “religious monumental architecture” like giant pyramids and cathedrals may have the same effect of causing a person to stop or slow down until the perceived “threat” is assessed. It is not hard to imagine an astronaut in lunar orbit being captivated by the enormous Moon or by a “wall” of stars in space and becoming unresponsive for a few moments. It would be wise to anticipate this scenario so that it won’t interfere with crucial time-based operations. In a largely automated spacecraft, though, astronauts may be free to surrender to this short-term “paralysis.”
While it is probable, then, that all crewmembers of Artemis 2 will experience some kind of awe in response to the visions they see on their journey, it is less likely that they will all process or experience this awe in similar ways. Travel to a culturally significant, awe-inspiring site like the Moon resembles religious pilgrimage in many ways, and years of anthropological research on the experiences of pilgrims demonstrate that who you are matters just as much as where you go.
|The Artemis 2 mission will be our first chance to see a diversity of reactions that we can so clearly connect to a diversity of cultural and religious backgrounds.|
Anthropologist Glenn Bowman spent months in Jerusalem participating in the visits of Catholic, Protestant, and Greek Orthodox visitors engaged in pilgrimage and found distinct patterns. The Greek Orthodox pilgrims treated the city as an icon and kissing the walls of buildings; the Protestant visitors focused on sites where Jesus had walked or preached, imagining themselves in those scenes; and pious Catholics sought to attend Mass in one of the holiest places on the planet (Catholic astronauts also like to receive the Eucharist in outer space, when circumstances permit.) The cultural values and beliefs the Jerusalem pilgrims brought with them shaped the journey (Bowman 1991). I found similarities in my work at the French shrine Rocamadour, where atheists, Catholics, and NeoPagans intermingled but had dissimilar experiences: many atheists appreciated the site as an architectural marvel, the Catholics focused on the centuries of Christian worship that had taken place there, and the NeoPagans concentrated instead on the site’s innate “energy” or the goddesses that had been worshipped there before Christian missionaries arrived (Weibel 2021).
The first visitors to the Moon did not have this type of diversity among their ranks. They were uniformly of European ancestry, were almost all Christian, and (except for Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt) shared a military background. This is not to say that there were not distinctions among them, but it’s true that they had comparable cultural backgrounds and had been trained in largely similar ways. An emphasis on sameness was an important part of military training, and worked to create cohesion and predictability during times of war when soldiers were expected to act first and ask questions later.
With the space shuttle program in the late 1970s, NASA began to permit more cultural differences among their recruits, welcoming scientists in larger numbers than ever before, and inviting applicants from a wide array of ethnic, religious, and other backgrounds. Women were included for the first time. Among other benefits, this variation has given researchers in NASA’s human space program better and clearer data about what it’s like to have a range of different types of people under conditions of microgravity, radiation exposure, and the like.
Artemis 2, however, will be the first time there has been clear cultural variation in astronauts heading to lunar orbit. The first non-United States citizen, for instance, will head to the Moon: mission specialist Jeremy Hansen of the Royal Canadian Air Force. He will be joined by two members of the US Navy, commander Reid Wiseman and pilot Victor Glover, who will be the first Black person to ever travel to the Moon. Christina Koch will be the first woman and only the second person without a military background to travel to the Moon, after Harrison Schmitt.
While some might be dismayed at the lack of uniformity among the crew, fretting that diversity is only sought for suspect reasons, for those of us who study culture and spiritually significant forms of travel, Artemis 2’s astronauts are especially interesting. Glover, for instance is a devout Christian whose religious beliefs have already been an important part of his prior experiences as an astronaut. In an interview with Christianity Today, he expressed concern that any emphasis on his being the first Black person to go to the Moon could be divisive, but he was much less hesitant to serve as a representative of his Christian faith. Like other Christian astronauts before him, he brought communion with him to space (Buzz Aldrin and Tom Jones are two well-known examples), and, in his statement during the press conference that introduced the Artemis 2 crew, he “very intentionally put God at the front, in the very first comment, and at the end.” (Silliman 2023)
It is probable that Glover’s experience seeing the Moon and looking from a shadowed spot into the Milky Way, perhaps experiencing the “ultraview effect,” will be, because of the specific cultural and religious experiences he brings into space, different from what Koch experiences, and that her experiences will be different from those of Hansen, whose experiences will be different from those of Wiseman. The Apollo astronauts responded differently from each other, of course, too. But the Artemis 2 mission will be our first chance to see a diversity of reactions that we can so clearly connect to a diversity of cultural and religious backgrounds.
What’s more, we are living during a time where people are quite open to describing their subjective experiences in outer space. The NASA web series Down To Earth features an array of astronauts talking about experiencing the overview effect from the International Space Station. Many of them become visibly and audibly moved by what they describe. Conversely, the stereotypical “steely-eyed missile man” of the mid-20th century was expected to keep his emotions in check and maintain a calm exterior at all costs. Astronauts of the 21st century have adapted to longer spaceflights and a more casual lifestyle in space, cultural changes that, given the shared ISS experiences of Koch, Wiseman, and Glover, make it extremely likely that we will hear very candid personal descriptions of their Artemis 2 journey. In addition, the rapid increase in space tourism in recent years has made it common to hear about space travel from celebrities, for instance, who tend to talk more freely. These changed expectations will certainly influence the questions the Artemis 2 astronauts will answer from the press and from the public after they return or even during their lunar mission.
It’s likely, then, that the first crew to return to the Moon will have a lot to say about their experience. They will share what they felt and saw with future crews, who will then journey to the Moon themselves following the advice of the Artemis II crew. The Artemis III crew will enculturate the Artemis IV crew next, and so on, until a Moon-going astronaut culture is back in place. There has been a LEO astronaut culture in place for decades. Shuttle and ISS astronauts have told me they were told about the overview effect from more experienced astronauts before their own first flight – getting tips and receiving wisdom from those who proceeded you is one of the most common ways that culture is shared (this is one of the reasons why space tourists on the longer Axiom flights fly with astronaut “guides” like Michael López-Alegría and Peggy Whitson.)
Perhaps the Artemis 3 crew will get advice from Wiseman, Koch, Glover, and Hansen about how to deal with that first glimpse of the Moon or the Milky Way without “freezing,” or how to dark-adapt to have the absolute best experience of the ultraview effect, one that will change them forever. Whatever happens, NASA and the Artemis 2 crew should be aware that the resumption of lunar missions will have a significant impact on astronaut culture and, in turn, on the rest of us.
Bowman, Glenn. “Christian ideology and the image of a holy land.” Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage, edited by John Eade and Michael J. Sallnow (1991): 98-121.
Collins, Michael. Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys: 50th Anniversary Edition. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.
Haise, Fred, and Bill Moore. Never Panic Early: An Apollo 13 Astronaut’s Journey. Smithsonian Books, 2022.
Joye, Yannick, and Siegfried Dewitte. “Up Speeds You down. Awe-Evoking Monumental Buildings Trigger Behavioral and Perceived Freezing.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 47 (2016): 112–25.
Morton, Timothy. “Poisoned ground.” symplokē 21, no. 1-2 (2013): 37-50.
Silliman, Daniel. “NASA Astronaut Asks for Prayer for Moon Mission.” News & Reporting, April 6, 2023.
Stuster, Jack. Behavioral issues associated with long-duration space expeditions: review and analysis of astronaut journals: experiment 01-E104 (Journals). Houston, TX: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Johnson Space Center, 2010.
Weibel, Deana L. “The overview effect and the ultraview effect: How extreme experiences in/of outer space influence religious beliefs in astronauts.” Religions 11, no. 8 (2020): 418.
Weibel, Deana L. “Black Ugliness and the Covering of Blue: William Shatner’s Suborbital Flight to ‘Death.’” The Space Review. October 18, 2021.
Weibel, Deana L. A Sacred Vertigo: Pilgrimage and Tourism in Rocamadour, France. Rowman & Littlefield, 2022.
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