Michael A. Comberiate: Dialogue with an Adventist rocket scientist

Michael A. Comberiate, a systems manager for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in Greenbelt, Maryland, has worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center since 1969. He holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland. As an engineer, he has designed electronics for numerous satellite projects. Some of those missions have reached the moon and beyond. Since 1984, Comberiate has also initiated more than 50 special projects (http://coolspace.gsfc.nasa.gov), involving interagency cooperation to produce quick response results with very limited resources. On the recommendation of the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey named a glacier after him for one of his contributions to the modern exploration of Antarctica and other remote regions.

Internationally respected as a leader with innovative ideas, he is well known for his unique hi-tech educational outreach program called, “You Be the Scientist,” sponsored by NASA’s EOS Aqua Project. His work with the greater academic community since 1995 has created a practical means of economically distributing sophisticated data products throughout the United States with the tools and techniques they need to process the data and fit into their ongoing curricular activities.

Comberiate’s others interests include house building and martial arts. He has taught martial arts since 1968 and holds a 5th degree black belt. Performing in national championships and house building were both responsible for developing in him a strong “can do” spirit. He is also quite a traveler, having been around the world 17 times, including to the South Pole seven times and to the North Pole three times.

Comberiate was born into a line of Catholics, dating back at least as far as the first millennium. Never satisfied with minimal explanations for his faith, he questioned everything and eventually found that the Bible had more answers in it than most Christians realize. Applying his engineering and scientific background to understanding this ancient text, he has been able to unravel some long-standing mysteries in a logical way that a rocket scientist could accept.

Comberiate is married to Karla, an occupational therapist and home-schooling mother. They have two sons and live in one of the houses they built outside of Washington, D.C. If you want to send a postcard to them from anywhere in the world, just address it: NASA Mike, 20777 USA.

What inspired you to pursue a career at NASA, and how long have you worked there?

The space race was on while I was in elementary school, and the place to go when I graduated from the University of Maryland in the 1960s was NASA. I have now worked in NASA for more than 32 years.

You grew up Catholic. How did you learn about the Seventh-day Adventist Church?

I was one of those Catholics who really questioned what they believed. I would ask about these mysteries—three persons in one God, eternal hell, life after death, and so on. I never got any really good answers. As I was still looking, I caught some TV shows that talked about the Seventh-day Sabbath and the Book of Revelation. I got interested in it, and one day my wife gave me a pamphlet from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which I knew almost nothing about. They were giving a Revelation Seminar in the area, so I went. The people giving the talk came to my house and we ended up playing golf together. We started studying these issues for a couple years. I went to church with them at the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Maryland, and then got into Bible class with them. I didn’t think they could answer all these questions I had any better than the next person, but they did answer them differently and they used the Bible literally, which was a first for me. So I stayed with it until I could get answers. I attended church regularly from 1988 and was baptized in September 1994.

What was it that really convinced you to become an Adventist?

The mysteries as they make sense to me now fit perfectly into Adventist theology. Their understanding of the state of the dead, the definition of hell, and the seventh-day Sabbath–fit perfectly into a Big Picture view that all made sense, so that attracted me to the Adventist Church.

You can use certain texts to prove what you want. Another person can use the same texts to prove the opposite. One has got to be wrong, but how do you figure it out? The only way to ever get through it is to get the big picture. Most churches have stopped with huge voids in their understanding. Their version of the puzzle is still full of major holes. As long as you have mysteries, you have room for interpretations. Science is very similar: As long as you don’t know the answers, you can have another theory. As long as you don’t know the answers, you can start another religion. And you can all say, “We believe the Bible, even though we only understand 10 percent of it. So 90 percent of our picture is holes.” But then they’ll cover it by saying, “But you’re supposed to have faith!” And that’s an insult to a person who’s really scientific. Faith in what? The holes?

I think we Adventists have more of the puzzle filled in, and we should use that to defend our interpretations of the Bible, because if you don’t know the truth, you’ll believe a lie.

What currently inspires you to continue in your field?

At NASA, I had the ability to make a positive difference. We’re on the cutting edge of the technology explosion that’s characteristic of our age. And it’s changing the way we do things.

Tell us about your online book How a Rocket Scientist Can Trust God.

Generally you think of a rocket scientist as someone who’s really logical, somebody who’s into mathematics—and the things of the world—and not interested in any kind of emotional or passionate belief system. A rocket scientist is more into practical applications and things you can reproduce than he or she is into just feeling good.

How is it then that a rocket scientist could end up as one of those people with passionate religious beliefs? Most people look at religion as “the opium of the people.” You’ve got a system of beliefs that make you feel good, but what God is looking for is a relationship.

So how can a rocket scientist trust God? Because you can have a relationship with Him. You can learn to talk to Him. It doesn’t make any difference whether you have any math background or not—if you have a relationship with God, that is what’s important.

Another important thing is that the belief system makes sense. A rocket scientist can trust God if their concept of God makes a lot of sense in view of the observable evidence. If I said to an atheist: “What kind of God you don’t believe in?” we’d find that atheists believe in God also. They just don’t believe in a personal God. In other words, they generally believe that there’s a First Cause, that had no cause, but their question is whether that First Cause is personal. So when you say to me: “You’re a rocket scientist, and you don’t believe in God, right? You believe in ‘big bangs’ and all that, but you don’t believe in a God that’s got a plan for us here on planet Earth?” I say: “No, I do. I believe in a God who can think at least as well as I can, which to me means that God is personal.”

Did your conversion cause you to reconsider your professional aspirations?

No. My conversion was a slow process, developing over time. I’ve always thought of myself as a seeker of the truth. I’m looking with all my heart for the answers. So where I was at the time, and where I am now, is not that important as long as I’m still looking. I now talk to God about whatever it is I’m doing, whereas in the past I didn’t identify that as an important thing to do. Now I’ve found that there’s this relationship with God that depends on communication, and I spend more time trying to bring that into whatever is happening. When I’m good, bad, happy, or sad, I talk to God.

Have you been successful in your faith and your work?

For me, “success” is to live life to the fullest and to know that God is sharing it with me because of the close relationship we have had through it all. I expect to continue this relationship into forever. The only difference in heaven will be that there is no grief, no disease, and no waiting in lines.

What advice would you give to students struggling to marry their scientific knowledge with their Adventist faith?

I can see how Adventist theology actually makes logical sense and fits both the Bible and the observable facts. You can, too, if you think about it logically. My advice is to find the model of how all the mysteries of your belief system fit into a consistent big picture, which makes sense in terms of the observable evidence.

I explain this big picture, as I understand it, on my website [www.nasamike.com]. You can begin from there and complete the puzzle by seeking answers with all your heart. You must use the scientific method to collect the facts, but then you must make an emotional decision on how to respond to what you understand to be truth.

Interview by Kimberly Luste Maran. Kimberly Luste Maran is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review: www.adventistreview.org