On July 8th, space shuttle Atlantis will lift off from launch pad 39a, ending the 30 year space shuttle program. Launches have become so routine that the media barely take notice -- perhaps a few seconds of the rising rocket or crew maneuvers. More attention is given only when the unusual happens, such as the attendance of recovering Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
After 125 missions, perhaps this is to be expected. We can get used to almost anything, taking for granted what our energy, ingenuity, and dreams have granted us. The space program itself, now over half a century old, seems more the subject of budget battles and questions about relevance and priorities than it does about science.
Of course, space exploration costs money in a debt-ridden government. Of course, manned space flight has had its share of tragedies (the loss of Apollo and two shuttle crews). Of course, there are more serious problems on earth to be solved. Of course, the end of the shuttle program is not the end of NASA. But the lack of attention to recent flights and the silence from Americans about their end are striking. The Mercury astronauts lifting into space, the lunar landings of Apollo, and the photos of deep space from the Hubble telescope have somehow receded into history, no longer the subject of the awe with which we first beheld them. It's not the loss of the shuttle but the loss of that awe that should cause us to reflect.
The world is in need of awe. Beset by wars, debt, terrorism, climate change, religious fundamentalism, and poverty, humans are too focused on themselves and severely shell-shocked. Our lives need more of the miraculous. But the wonder that we need is not just the stuff of the conquest of space. It is the sense of our collective smallness in the universe, for some of our current troubles are also the products of our hubris. We thought, as the dominant species on the planet, that we could control far more than we should and can. Mother Nature and our complex societies are teaching us that we were wrong. In this sense, NASA's successes and tragic failures have reminded us not just of what we can accomplish but of how our accomplishments must be in harmony and not against forces greater than ourselves. NASA has lifted our hearts while at the same time anchoring us in humility. It has made us realize not only how amazing the universe is but that there is something more astounding than we are.
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And from The Urantia Book:
100:1.5 The soil essential for religious growth presupposes a progressive life of self-realization, the co-ordination of natural propensities, the exercise of curiosity and the enjoyment of reasonable adventure, the experiencing of feelings of satisfaction, the functioning of the fear stimulus of attention and awareness, the wonder-lure, and a normal consciousness of smallness, humility. Growth is also predicated on the discovery of selfhood accompanied by self-criticism—conscience, for conscience is really the criticism of oneself by one's own value-habits, personal ideals.