In Depth

Tim Peake and intelligent design: why do astronauts have spiritual experiences in space?

The British astronaut is not the first to question whether the universe was created by a higher power

British astronaut Tim Peake has said that his experiences on the International Space Station had prompted him to consider that the universe was the result of intelligent design.

The Times reports that the celebrated spaceman, 46, said that the “views of Earth had inspired wonder rather than faith, but that his mind was still open” at a talk at Peterborough Cathedral.

“Although I say I’m not religious it doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t seriously consider that the universe could have been created from intelligent design,” he said while stood beside the capsule that helped him return to Earth from the ISS in 2016.

“There are many things in science that lead us towards that conclusion. From a point of view of seeing how magnificent the Earth is from space and seeing the cosmos from a different perspective, it helps you to relate to that.

“That’s the macro level. When you look at the smaller scale, the micro level, and you understand quantum mechanics and quantum physics, there are many things that lead us towards intelligent design of the universe.”

Peake’s theory of the possibility of intelligent design - which stipulates that the universe was crafted by a higher being or power - is almost unanimously rejected by scientists, but the Brit is far from the first astronaut to report similar experiences in space.

Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell spoke of experiencing what he described as “interconnected euphoria” after walking on the lunar surface in 1971. “Something happens to you out there,” he said. “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”

Meanwhile Eugene Cernan, who took part in the Apollo 17 mission the following year, told a documentary crew in 2007: “There was too much purpose, too much logic. It was too beautiful to happen by accident. There has to be somebody bigger than you, and bigger than me, and I mean this in a spiritual sense, not a religious sense.”

Quartz reports that in more extreme examples, this “moment of awe” has had a “permanent effect on some astronauts’ lives”.

“Charlie Duke, a lunar module pilot for Apollo 16, became a Christian after seeing Earth from space,” the site reports. “Jim Irwin of Apollo 15 became a preacher, Edgar Mitchell formed the Noetic Institute to research altered states of consciousness and Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart began transcendental meditation and dedicated himself to voluntary work.” 

In 1987, writer Frank White coined the term “overview effect” to describe this phenomenon, which he described as “a profound reaction to viewing the Earth from outside its atmosphere”.

But psychologists believe there may be a legitimate scientific reason for the reaction.

In a 2016 paper published in the American Psychological Association Academic Journal, David B. Yaden proposed that “the juxtaposition of Earth’s features against the black vacuum of space might be sufficient to emphasise themes both perceptual (beauty, activity, visible signatures of human civilisation) and conceptual (vitality, interconnectedness, preciousness)”.

Psychology in Action hypothesises that the fact that astronauts are often advanced scientists and engineers means “their experiences reflecting on the Earth might be contextually rich”, and “they may be thinking about the advanced processes in our magnetic field, the structure of the atmospheric layers or our ‘goldilocks’ orbit around the sun”.

“This, combined with the sense of vastness the Earth provides orbiting in a black sky, and perhaps some personality traits may all play a role in this effect,” the site adds.

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