Maryland Space Center Director Swears Her Oath on ‘Pale Blue Dot’
Last Thursday, former AIP-ASA Congressional Fellow Dr. Makenzie Lystrup made headlines as she was sworn in as the new director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which is “home to the nation’s largest organization of scientists, engineers and technologists.” While some fixate on the 45-year-old’s distinction as the first woman to lead the Maryland space center, others have focused on her unconventional choice when it came to taking an oath.
As NASA Administrator Bill Nelson swore her in, Lystrup placed her left hand on a copy of Carl Sagan’s book, “Pale Blue Dot.” The moment was captured by a photographer and posted to NASA Goddard’s social media, provoking an immediate and controversial reaction.
While “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States,” the U.S. Constitution requires that government officials “be bound by Oath or Affirmation.” For Lystrup, it appears that scientist Sagan held a deep enough sentiment for her to bind an oath on.
The book, which was named after the famous picture of Earth taken in 1990 by NASA’s Voyager 1, follows the “exploration of space” and suggests that “survival may depend on the wise use of other worlds.” Lystrup justified her choice in an email statement, saying, “Given its personal significance to me and how its message resonates with the work we do at NASA Goddard on behalf of the world, it felt apropos to include it in the ceremony.”
Although the general response to Dr. Lystrup’s unconventional choice was one of praise, others have raised concerns about the vacancy of God’s authoritative Word.
“The whole reason we swear on the Bible is because we are affirming our fear in God and our recognition that we are accountable for the things we do,” said Joseph Backholm, senior fellow for Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement at Family Research Council. By choosing a book written by Sagan, a man who was often framed as an atheist, Lystrup was not only “denouncing any fear of God and any sense of accountability to an authority higher than herself,” Backholm argued, but “declaring her faith in naturalism, which is not actually a faith because it is a belief in nothing.”
Decisions like Lystrup’s are not isolated events, as many other government officials have done the same. “In 2018, Mariah Parker was sworn in as a member of the Athens-Clarke County commissioners with her hand placed on a copy of ‘The Autobiography of Malcom X.’ When former U.S. ambassador to Switzerland Suzi LeVine took her oath in 2014, she put a hand on her Kindle.”
Although using something other than the Bible is legally binding when taking an oath, Backholm concluded that, “It’s a concern when you are led by people who publicly declare they have no fear in God. Even pretending is better than publicly denouncing it.”