Sunday, July 01, 2007

World Without An Edge

The term “space race” sounds rather quaint now, but more than four decades ago it was in common use. The Soviet Union (USSR)—a country that formed in 1917 and broke apart and disappeared more than thirteen years ago—and the United States were busting themselves to see who would reach the Moon first. The Soviets electrified the world with a surprise launching of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, just about fifty years ago on October 4, 1957. Their success shocked the United States, which had a couple of spectacular failed launch attempts at about the same time. But the U.S. dug in and less than twelve years later “won” the space race on July 20, 1969 with the first of several manned landings on the Moon.

In a lot of ways, the years of the space race were pretty heady, optimistic times. Underneath the course of normal living was kind of a feeling of having a grand, cultural “dream”. In that era Walt Disney put a lot of “tomorrowland” shows on television, there were plenty of rocket models for preteen and teen boys to build. There was a lot of classic science fiction for kids and adults in the form of movies, television shows, and books. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Tom Corbett were household names long before Captain Kirk. The Griffith Park Planetarium in Los Angeles was a big attraction. Even as a small child I knew the name “Mount Palomar” very well. It was the home of the world’s largest telescope with its 200 inch mirror in the mountains near Temecula, California. Its work began the year I was born—1948.

Rocketry was a popular hobby. One of my neighbors—an older teen to my ten years—designed and tested his own rockets. I remember going out to the desert with him and our fathers and a few others on a Saturday morning, and watching him shoot off rockets he had built. We all got behind a concrete bunker-like thing and he closed the circuits on the electronic launcher. It was just like the movie “October Sky”. It was real.

There was a lot of anticipation that the “space age” would just keep going and that within a few decades human beings would land not only on the Moon but on Mars and beyond. The movie “2001” came out in 1968; its title articulated the expectation that just 33 years after the movie, human beings could be exploring the moons of Jupiter.

I doubt that anyone could have imagined then that after the Moon landings we would just abandon space. The U.S. won the space race, and then the race was over and everyone went home. Interest and national budgets went elsewhere. The dream, the excitement, just faded. I remember in the late 1980s having lunch with a member of the parish who was an engineer for Hughes Aircraft and a published science fiction writer. We were talking about these things, and she shocked me by saying, “I don’t think we even have the ability to go to the Moon right now.”

Well, maybe, just maybe now things are beginning to change. There have been remarkable astronomical discoveries in space in recent years and the general interest seems to be piqued. There are rudimentary plans now to return to the Moon and to prepare for a manned landing on Mars. Robotic probes have gone to every planet of the Solar System and to many of their moons and a few comets and asteroids.

On June 9 this year I finally went to the Mount Palomar Observatory for the first time—fifty years after I first heard about it. (That's me on the stairs.) Though I had seen photos of the Palomar telescope before, I was not prepared for the overwhelming sight of the real thing. It was five or six stories tall, with parts constructed in a shipyard—the only facility at the time with the ability to build such enormous components.

Sadly, light pollution has now cut its ability to see into the heavens to about half what it was. Even so, it was here that the “tenth planet”—the body beyond and larger than Pluto—was discovered in 2003 and popularly labeled as such before the International Astronomical Union decided last August that there are only eight planets now. Pluto, Ceres (in the Asteroid Belt), and the “tenth planet” Eris were defined as dwarf planets. (I think that the status of Sedna, Charon, and Quaoar is still being debated.)

At Palomar there was a display that showed that a new earth-based telescope is in the early stages of planning. It will be more than five times the size of the Palomar telescope, and its ability to see will be eight times better than that of even the space-based Hubble telescope.

I remember well watching the Moon landing in July 1969. I was working at a summer camp in Big Bear. I worked there for four summers and this was the only time that a television was brought out. Never at any other time in my life do I remember the people of Earth being as united as they were on those days when men walked on the Moon. It seemed to me that all the nations, peoples, languages, etc., for this brief moment, realized that they were indeed one race. A racial dream that was many generations old was fulfilled as we watched. “We came in peace for all mankind,” reads the plaque that was laid at Tranquility Base, and everyone knew and believed it.

Are there dreams today? Is there optimism anywhere, culture-wide optimism? Dreams may be insubstantial, but they are solid soul-food for human beings. They remind us of the dignity God has given us by being made in his image, and they cause us to reach outside ourselves. It has been so from the earliest days of humanity. Dreams remind us that the world has no edges. To be cognizant of the immensities of creation and our place in it inspires humility and wonder—both qualities essential for true worship and therefore learning who we really are and what we were made for.


Joi said...

I always felt sad that I missed out on the space race. I always loved astronomy as a kid, and always loved to watch shuttle launches on TV. I keep hoping that we'll start trying to get to the planets again.

The Archer of the Forest said...

I am sort of amazed that people in the 60s actually made it into space. Before all the high tech computers and GPS and such, how on earth did they do it?

Now, ironically, we actually do have space age computers and no one wants to go to space.