Reflections as the U.S. Space Shuttle Program Ends

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking
new landscapes but in having new eyes.
– Marcel Proust
If somebody’d said before the flight, “Are you going to get carried away looking
at the earth from the moon?” I would have said, “No, no way.” But yet when
I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried.
Alan Shepard
[Humans] had to free [ourselves] from earth to perceive both its diminutive place in
a solar system and its inestimable value as a life-fostering planet. As [humans], we may
have taken another step into adulthood. We can see our planet earth with detachment,
with tenderness, with some shame and pity, but at last also with love.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh

In recent days, I have joined the entire U.S., if not the world, in acknowledging the final flight of the space shuttle program. As the crew of Atlantis carries out the final steps of its mission and prepares to return to Earth, we down here are all caught up in reflecting on the meaning of the government-sponsored NASA space program, and its greatest achievement, the journey of humans to the moon.

The space program matched my own passion for knowing more of where and who we are. It was during the early 1960’s, probably coinciding with the first launches of the manned Mercury spacecraft, when I developed an almost insatiable appetite for all things dealing with astronomy, adding reading about stars, planets and space travel to my other school work.

Some 50 years later, as we get ready to bring closure to the shuttle program, we are still struggling to learn how to deal with the implications of seeing our planet from space. The image sent back to Earth of its own incredible, beautiful wholeness was shocking back then, but has become commonplace for succeeding generations. Perhaps that is why young people today are so frustrated with oppressive governments and institutions. They have grown up knowing we all exist on this fragile planet as one human community. How can it be right for some to “own” portions of it, feeding their own demand for luxuries and excess, while the rest of the human community goes hungry to the point of death.

Thomas Berry has summarized the evidence of evolution by stating that our Universe from its beginning has held both a physical and a psychic dimension. In other words, everything in our Universe has both an external dimension that transforms over time, and an internal dimension that does the same. Externally, our Universe has evolved the structures of atoms, galaxies, planets and human bodies. Internally, our Universe has evolved its psychic dimension into the complexity of human self-reflective consciousness.

Seeing Earth from the Moon began another phase of our inner evolution, as Ann Morrow Lindbergh suggests.

These were my thoughts as I prepared to write this blog earlier this week. Then, synchronistically, I picked up the latest copy of Spirituality and Health magazine and began to read my favorite columnist, Peggy LaCerra. I was surprised and pleased to see that she has taken the occasion of the beatification of Pope John Paul II to critique the Church’s stance on evolution. She praises the Pope’s decision to apologize for the error in condemning Galileo, and for declaring Darwin’s theory of evolution as “natural law.” But she points out that the Pope did not go further than acknowledging the story of external evolution. She writes:

He explicitly excluded the church’s acceptance of a critically important corollary of evolutionary  theory: that our motivating “spirit” arises from an evolving substrate and that its nature is shaped by our experience in the world. In other words, the church acknowledged that our bodies evolved over billions of years, but claimed that the part of us that motivates our behavior – and is obviously critical to the survival of our species – was somehow not part of that process (July/August 2011, 14)

Perhaps the last shuttle flight is a good thing. Perhaps, at least for us as Americans, we all need time to reflect on what we have learned so far from our travels in space. We need time to adjust to seeing ourselves with new eyes.

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