Welcome to the Spacecraft Tarot

For many years now, I have been wanting to design my own tarot deck. Well, I’m finally doing it. I’m designing and sharing with you the Spacecraft Tarot.

Spacecraft are extensions of our selves.

They venture out into the unknown with instruments that serve as our eyes and ears, taking in stimuli and sending us messages about worlds beyond our imaginings. In many ways, their missions into the darkness reflect our own journeys through life. They wander. They observe. They try to make sense of it all.

Like us, spacecraft face their own kind of obstacles. We work hard to accomplish our goals, while maintaining our health and not falling apart. So do spacecraft. Some, like Parker Solar Probe, have to survive flying so close to the Sun that they must travel through material blazing at millions of degrees. Others, like the Perseverance Mars Rover, need to survive plunging into the atmosphere of another planet faster than a speeding bullet.

Space is hard: so is life.

In order to succeed in their missions, spacecraft must take directions clearly, make sound judgments, and have reliable support back home. The same could be said of us. And even if sometimes they don’t succeed, they will inevitably learn lessons to advance the mission farther the next time they try.

Spacecraft remind us of ourselves. We mourn their losses. We celebrate their victories. We draw inspiration from their stories.

As a science writer, I have had the privilege of witnessing various spacecraft at different phases in their respective journeys — conception, assembly, testing, launch, transit, landing, and even death (or, decommissioning). I have had the opportunity to learn about a number of incredible spacecraft first-hand from the people who have engineered them, studied them, or even lived onboard them.

I have had the pleasure of watching the James Webb Space Telescope be delicately lifted out of its cryogenic testing chamber, after surviving temperatures of nearly absolute zero. I have seen in person the launch of cargo spacecraft, headed to the International Space Station with tons of science experiments, fuel, and fresh food on board for astronauts living onboard. I have seen people across the world celebrate the milestones of a spacecraft’s life, just as they would the milestones of a person’s life — such as when Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to enter interstellar space, which begins at the end of what we consider our own star system, on Aug. 25, 2012. Or when OSIRIS-REx successfully stowed a sample of an asteroid on Oct. 28, 2020, the first mission from the United States to do so.

I have also seen people mourn the loss of spacecraft that have reached the end of their missions, the way they would when a beloved movie star or celebrity passes on — such as when the Opportunity Mars rover stopped responding after a massive dust storm and NASA declared the mission had ended on Feb. 18, 2019, or when Cassini embarked on its final plunge into the planet Saturn on Sept. 15, 2017.

Spacecraft connect us. We build them to advance our own knowledge of the universe, to give shape to how planets and stars form or to seek life elsewhere, but then something deeper and unexpected happens — they take on personalities of their own.

Running parallel to my space-writing career is my regular tarot practice. Many people see tarot cards as a source of divination, or perhaps a fortune-telling trick to impress their friends at parties. I see them more as an exploration of human archetypes.

The symbols on the cards are universal. Everyone, no matter where they are from or what generation they belong to, has a relationship with these concepts — concepts like the Moon, the Fool, or the Lovers. I see tarot as a type of conversation people can have with these symbols, to learn more about their own relationship with the world.

The more you practice tarot and study the cards, the more you begin to recognize patterns in your own life. An example of this is how a certain card framed my understanding of life’s troubles: the Wheel of Fortune. The Wheel of Fortune refers to the idea that life is a series of ups and downs. Whenever I’m at a low point, this card is a reminder that this too — whatever ‘this’ is — shall pass.

It wasn’t long before I began to draw connections between my tarot practice and the spacecraft I was studying in my everyday life. I could discern the threads between themes of success, themes of perseverance, and themes of loss.

Many of the ideas behind the cards cards stem from mythology — partially because the original fourteenth century Italian tarocchi imagery originates from a time that precedes the printing press, and so people relied on the understanding of imagery from common folklore to be able to interpret the cards.

Spacecraft echo aspects of our mythology in their chosen names and symbols. The NASA program that successfully landed humanity on the Moon from 1969 to 1972 was named Apollo, inspired by the image of the Greek god riding his chariot across the heavens. The spacecraft built to investigate Jupiter and its many moons was named after Jupiter’s wife, Juno, in Roman mythology. (It’s not a coincidence that Jupiter’s moons are also named after his many extramarital affairs.) In many ways, the stories of these spacecraft’s successes and obstacles reflect those that we encounter in fables, archetypal journeys, and our own lives.

What follows are a selection of cards from the Major Arcana of a standard tarot deck. The Major Arcana is home to the main archetypes of greater significance, as opposed to the Minor Arcana, which contain suited cards similar to those of a deck of playing cards.

For each tarot card I explain which spacecraft I believe embodies that card and why. The card may encapsulate something about the types of discoveries that spacecraft has made, or perhaps its significance to humankind in general. It may have something to do with an obstacle it has faced, or perhaps an obstacle that conquered it.

I will not be including spacecraft that have not embarked on their mission into space yet — however, the beauty of a tarot deck is that it can always be updated or interpreted differently.

I hope that you enjoy what I have put together. Accept it with a grain of salt. I am by no means an authority on all things spacecraft nor on all things tarot — but I have greatly enjoying entwining the patterns that I see in both subject areas. I am excited to see what parallels you can draw from your own life.

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