David, a NASA engineer, has dreamed about working in aerospace since the third grade. What his coworkers don’t know: He’s been passionate about astrology for almost as long, and is a practicing astrologer.
For an hourly rate, David offers readings on the weekends to clients. He’s considering writing a book about his method of reading natal charts. But he keeps this passion tightly under wraps because he’s afraid stigma against astrology in the scientific community and among lovers of astronomy, the study of celestial objects and phenomena, can cause problems at work. (David is not his real name—he agreed to this interview on the condition of anonymity.)
“I’m basically in the closet. It sounds terrible but I don’t know how else to phrase it,” he said.
In reality both astrology and astronomy date back at least thousands of years, with logs of observations by astrologers playing a key role in modern meteorology and other studies. Until the last several hundred years, many astronomers including—famously, Johannes Kepler— openly studied or practiced astrology and believed celestial bodies had an impact on people.
But from a steady parade of think pieces debating the merits of astrology, to an entire segment of Bill Nye Saves the World devoted to challenging the practice, astrology is a favorite target today for many space lovers. Astrologers believe the hate is based on a misunderstanding of what astrology is. “Astrologers love astronomy but many astronomers hate astrology,” said Annabel Gat, senior astrologer at VICE, adding that she could empathize with the frustration people feel when astrology and astronomy are confused.
A common misunderstanding by skeptics, for example, is that interpretations are based on the physical location of those constellations today. But if you look into a telescope, you’ll find they are not where they’re “supposed” to be, David said. “Constellations are not equally spaced...Every 72 years, [they] drift by one degree, and every sign is 30 degrees, so after a certain amount of time you can be off by a whole sign.”
“When an astrologer calls something that is open to interpretation a ‘science,’ then asserts that the sun is in Virgo right now when it’s really in Leo, then astronomers are not going to be very happy,” he said. Non-astrologers often think the position of these constellations today prove that astrology isn’t real.
Modern western astrology bases interpretations on the location of planets, the sun, and the moon—also called “planets” in astrology vocabulary—from the perspective of a person’s location on Earth. When reading natal charts or doing forecasting (readings of the cosmic “weather” of the day), astrologers use zodiacal archetypes, which are indeed linked to 12 constellations, but only symbolically—their locations do not matter.
Those who use the tropical zodiac base their interpretations on fixed zodiacal seasons that correspond with the seasonal movement of the sun. “At one point, the constellations did align with the signs. That was meant to be a temporary guide. What’s really valuable is how the season progresses, how the sun travels through the season...not where the actual stars are,” David said. “Nature is driven mainly by the season...and we are linked to the natural cycles of nature.”
This disconnect between how astrology is practiced and how astrology skeptics think it is practiced, is enough for David to practice astrology in secret. That wasn’t always the case—he harbored passion for both science and astrology since age 11, when his parents first brought home a copy of Kepler, a computer program by Cosmic Patterns Software Inc. that generates and interprets natal charts. In high school, he began studying astrology and doing readings for his classmates.
When David went to college to study aerospace engineering, he didn’t immediately tell his classmates he was into astrology since he wasn’t sure how it would be received. But a writing class that was part of his honors program led to a paper on the correlation between space shuttle disasters and astrology, and his cover was blown. “Everyone was impressed [by my presentation], and it helped that the teacher was a strong believer in astrology,” he said.
David is careful again at work, however—not because he thinks his coworkers would take issue with his interest in astrology, but because he worries about people outside of NASA causing trouble. NASA itself has published some literature, including this Tumblr post in 2016 about constellations and the beginnings of Babylonian astrology—a post that seems to incorrectly position astrology as being related to current locations of constellations, but which astrology skeptics nevertheless seized on to pen pieces titled, “Astrology is bullsh*t. NASA's scathing takedown perfectly explains why.”
“Astrology is not in our purview, but astronomy and space science is,” a NASA spokeswoman said. The Tumblr post “merely pointed out the history and math of how the 12 constellations used in astrology came to be.” As for employees studying or practicing astrology, she said, “What employees choose to pursue personally on their free time is up to them, and we have no concerns or comment.”
David doesn’t think the Tumblr post is representative of everyone at NASA. People who work at NASA are “human..they’re open-minded,” he said. But on the outside, “people are ruthless” with attacks on the Internet, and it’s those attacks he fears the most. Just like people attack astrologers online, “they would attack a government agency like NASA probably ten times harder,” he said.
On the list of ruthless critics? The science guy himself, Bill Nye, who debated with astrologer Samuel Reynolds on his Netflix show, Bill Nye Saves the World, in 2017, arguing that astrology is a “pseudoscience.” Reynold’s response was that, in order for something to be a pseudoscience, its practitioners would first have to believe it is a science.
David said he feels the same way. Whereas an attribute of science is repeatability, “astrology is an art...it’s subject to interpretation,” he said. “My reading will be different than another astrologer’s reading.” He also uses astrology as a tool for self improvement—not as a predictor of the future. “My specialty is using astrology to get to know yourself...It gives you clues for how to exploit your strengths and overcome your weaknesses.”
Likening astrology to science makes it easier for skeptics to write astrology off, David said. “On the scientific level, none of the known scientific forces apply to astrology,” he said. “Electromagnetic forces are too weak. The gravitational force between you and the person next to you is stronger than the gravitational force Pluto has on you, because it’s so far away.”
Still, some aspects of aerospace design are also “based on statistics, not science,” David said. “A lot of things in aerospace are based on empirical approaches, just as my belief in astrology is. In that sense, they’re both non-scientific.” One may plot a bunch of data points on what other planes have looked like, to predict what would happen if the size or weight of a wing is changed.
In astrology, “what I’ve seen is significant beyond mere coincidence, by far,” he said, noting what fans of astrology know well, which is that a person’s chart involves not just their sun sign—the most common way astrology is discussed in pop culture–but also their moon sign, and all the planets, asteroids, and more.
Even as astrology is enjoying as much popularity as ever, reactions to astrologers can be mixed. Ashley Otero, an astrologer who writes lunar horoscopes for VICE’s Astro Guide app and also practices acupuncture, said people have fallen silent or seemed surprised when astrology came up in conversation as an acupuncturist. Once, she was told by a colleague that they didn’t want to be associated with that part of her life.
Alice Bolen, an osteopath and astrologer who writes advanced horoscopes for Astro Guide, said negative perceptions of astrology are “something every astrologer has to get over at some point.” Because it takes so much time and energy to learn astrology, it will always be easy for skeptics to remain skeptical, she said, adding that she disagreed with the idea that “things need to be this OR that,” like both spiritual and scientific, or intuitive and logical. “Aren’t we dynamic, fluid beings at this point capable of multi-modal analysis?”
Meanwhile, Priya Kale, who writes Astro Guide’s rising horoscopes, likens staying in the proverbial closet to invalidating something David believes in. “There comes the bigger question in every individual’s life—do I live in alignment with what I have experienced to be true, or in fear of what society will think?” Kale said she was questioned by her family when she said she would be a full-time astrologer.
David disagreed. “What I believe in, or what I don’t believe in, doesn’t need to be validated for the world,” he said, adding that he believes he can have more of an impact in the scientific world if he avoids giving ammunition to people who want to attack or discredit his work.
The double life David lives is weighing on his decision of whether or not to publish a book on astrology. In fact, his day job at NASA is also secretive. “It works both ways. Most of the things I do at work are non-sensitive, but there are a few things that I have to keep more on the downlow,” he said.
“I’m still not sure how to come out and still be safe..I want to do it, but I have this invisible hand pulling me back,” David said. For now, as a naturally private person and Gemini—the sign represented by twins and known for dual personalities—he doesn’t mind. “Geminis are good at keeping secrets, when they want to.”
Download the Astro Guide app by VICE on an iOS device to read daily horoscopes personalized for your sun, moon, and rising signs, and learn how to apply cosmic events to self care, your friendships, and relationships.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.