In a back issue of National Geographic, astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt gave his top seven reasons why he believes we must go back to the moon. His varied and optimistic list includes the familiar call to promoting education as well as the almost science-fictional notion of moon rockets preventing earth's annihilation by asteroid. Interestingly enough, he speculates "there's something in the dust that will make it worth the trip." Perhaps there is. But as I gazed through the binoculars tonight, it appears that more than what may lie on the lunar surface, there is something that lies within us that makes such space exploration "worth the trip." It seems as though we will never stop pondering the cosmos because such consideration is innately human; there is something in our dust that reaches to explore our place in the universe.
Eugene Cernan commanded Apollo 17; one of the few lunar landings involving geological exploration of the moon's surface. Cernan and other astronauts readily testify to the idea that the experience of space exploration is not merely scientifically valuable but is also of uncalculating spiritual worth as it provokes the deepest teleological questions of the human heart; perhaps questions that science cannot answer on its own. Cernan writes in his memoir, Man on the Moon:
"Stars and eternal distant blackness everywhere. There is no end. I'm not an overly religious person, but I am certainly a believer, and when I looked around, I saw beauty, not emptiness. No one in their right mind can see such a sight and deny the spirituality of the experience, nor the existence of a Supreme Being, whether their God be Buddha or Jesus Christ or Whoever. The name is less important than the acceptance of a Creator. Someone, some being, some power placed our little world, our Sun and our Moon where they are in the dark void, and the scheme defies any attempt at logic. It is just too perfect and beautiful to have happened by accident. I can't tell you how or why it exists in this special way, only that I have seen the endlessness of space and time with my own eyes."
Obviously, up there in the threshold of the outer world, this guy experienced something glorious. I've wondered what it would be like to be one of the handful of human beings to trespass the realm of the unknown. I'm sure such an encounter with grandeur would be difficult to describe in words. As prepared as the Apollo crew was in the technical mechanics of space flight, nothing can sufficiently prepare a person to step into the celestial manifestus. Cernan describes in his book how he and Schmitt just "sat mute, transfixed...and gazed in wonder at the unfolding details" as they entered "the unknown, the terra incognita of lore." What a mission!...to stare into what Plutarch called, The Face Which Appears on the Orb of the Moon; such a sight would not merely move the eyes, but move the mind and inspire the heart to extol the glory of the moment.
What is it about that moment; the unveiling of the undiscovered, which makes, as Cernan put it, "the power of the situation simply overwhelming"? Is it the removal from the comprehensible to the incomprehensible that produces this unavoidable spiritual experience? Tonight, as I stood in my pajamas with my barefeet on the driveway, I considered it a privilege to see something so perfect shining in the dark of night. In chemistry, when matter is converted from a solid to a vapor, it has been "sublimed." In the same sense, when we are moved from the state of held certainty to a place independent of ourselves, our perception becomes unable to be processed solely throught the intellect.
Janna Levin, in her book, How the Universe Got Its Spots, writes, "Distance and perspective are everything. With distance and perspective I can understand life on a connected surface fairly effortlessly, while the same visual is incomprehensible to a two-dimensional animal trapped on the surface, its vision blurred by sheer proximity." Levin argues that we lose both distance and perspective when looking at the universe because, "we can't just jump off space and see it from the outside." However, we actually do gain such a proper view when observing from space. The Apollo astronauts were the lucky few who were able to jump off the earth and gain such distance and perspective.
"When you leave Earth's orbit, there is a total break from the familiar, from what you know, from what you have always relied upon...out here, confronting a foreign and hostile environment where there is no horizon, no up or down, and where speed and time take on new meaning, we didn't know the answers--we didn't even know the questions."I love those words.
The questions that were indiscernable for this astronaut as he loomed in space are most likely the same questions that have forever been and will continue to be part of the collective inquiry. When did all of this magnificence come into being? Who is responsible for it? Why is earth so unique in sustaining complex life? What is humanity's place in it all? How is it that I can go outside on a hot evening in June and peer out into the universe and think about the cosmos? Dennis Danielson, editor of The Book of the Cosmos--Imagining the Universe from Heraclitus to Hawking, asks, "Are we not drawn to the heavens in the first place because they are beautiful and because they are awesome? Their grandeur humbles us, thrills us, calls forth our contemplation."
Space exploration and discovery has, is, and will continue to be prompted by and pursued because of these timeless questions. Humanity ventures out in search of something beyond itself, something that will explain the beauty and the awe, and something that will give our lives great meaning. "My space voyages were not just about the Moon, but something much richer and deeper--the meaning of my life, weighted not only by the facts from my brain, but also the feelings from my soul. Too much logic. Too much purpose. Too beautiful to have happened by accident." Such questions are important and inherent or we wouldn't keep asking them.
Expelled was a great documentary in exposing the suppression of such questions. Many scientists interviewed believe questioning should be sequestered within the confines of philosophical or theological study; that they do not belong in the domain of science where reality is defined in terms of the physical, the natural, and above all, the impersonal. After all, has not scientific achievement been procured by relegating such non-naturalistic possibilities to the realm of the imagination? But it is precisely the imagination that allowed us to even believe space flight was possible. I wonder if Richard Dawkins is ever surprised that as human beings, we are able to observe, reason, and draw conclusions. Afterall, it doesn't have to be so. Scientific exploration has nothing to do with our basic needs to find food or survive as a species. Maybe he is taking it for granted that what we seek to know about the world and what lies beyond its canopy is actually capable of being understood. The universe could have just as easily been random and arbitrary; unable to be comprehended or ever discovered in the first place. There is no "science" that can explain why the cosmos is rational or why such rationality can even be partially discerned by the only complex life we know of: ourselves.
It has been noted in recent years that nationalism and cultural rigidity inhibits the progress and that all extreme exploration within and without the planetary limits requires an international effort. Similarly, scientific enterprise must dethrone itself and begin to remove its crown of superiority. Who gave scientists the sole authority to pronounce which are the legitimate borders of scientific inquiry and reality? An interdisciplinary effort is required if we are to ask such fundamental questions and if there is any hope of finding our way. Robert Jastrow, a scientist and agnostic, would agree,
"Scientists cannot bear the thought of a natural phenomenon which cannot be explained, even with unlimited time and money. The world had a beginning under conditions in which the known laws of physics are not valid, and as a product of forces or circumstances we cannot discover. When that happens, the scientist has lost control. If he really examines the implications, he would be traumatized."As long as scientific endeavor continues, it will inevitably raise questions that it can and cannot answer. For the undiscoverable and the unanswerable, especially int the areas of cosmology and astrobiology, science must be willing to consider the possibility that theology and philosophy may have a better methodology to offer in finding answers. The scientific enterprise jeopardizes its integrity when it fails to admit that although it may produce informative discovery, it will never be able to produce certainty in the way of testable hypothesis when it comes to origins, destinies, or complex extraterrestrial life.
Yes, it is our destiny to continue to look out into the sky. Our heart's want to know what may lay beyond. Our frame will always hunger for a taste of beauty and order and our intellect will be long be inspired with questions about our purpose here and what it all may mean. They are valid questions because they are borne out of "something in the dust" that makes us human; for we are more than physical matter. As such, our experiences on a night like tonight will necessarily stir a wonderment that begs to be answered by the eye, mind, and heart.