Space travel lets us see the earth as God sees it—and us
We boomers grew up with the moon in our eyes. The space race against the Soviets was a formative presence in our lives. My big brother’s bedroom was lined with the models of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft he had built. Nothing in his young life crushed him more than when he learned that his bad eyesight, which we all inherited from our dad, would prevent him from ever becoming an astronaut.
The earliest public event I remember is President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was in first grade. I will always associate this national trauma with the pre-Thanksgiving ritual of gluing colorful construction-paper-finger-feathers onto a traced turkey-body-hand. I will never forget the startling tears running down Mrs. Farley’s cheeks. After the president’s death, the country shared a sacred trust that we would fly Americans to the moon in his honor. Each liftoff, each splashdown, each success, each failure was a main event in our house, a step toward fulfilling that promise.
Apollo 11’s touchdown on the moon was a holy moment for us. “The Eagle has landed,” came the message from space. It was a normal July night where we lived, but the men in the spacesuits on our TV were close to heaven. We squinted at the crescent moon in the night sky but could not quite discern those tiny figures or the flag they had planted. As the summer of 1969 closed out a decade of Vietnam and assassinations and civil unrest and the generation gap, the small step and giant leap onto the moon felt like an affirmation of all that was good about our country.
We boomers remember, even if we do not retain, the lovely sense of idealism that shooting for the moon in real life gave us.
I visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., many years after Apollo 11 and was amazed that the rickety tin can on display had made it to the moon and back. What were those men thinking, trusting their lives to the flimsy technology of that capsule? I guess they believed in space even stronger than we did.
All these decades later, the Apple TV+ show “For All Mankind” has reawakened the child in me. Never mind that the series purposely messes with history and our memories—spoiler alert: In the Apple TV+ version, the Russians beat us to the moon, for example. The show accurately portrays the baby boomer obsession with the space race. I know: O.K., boomer, and all that. We’re old. It does surprise me a bit to hear other boomers proclaim “For All Mankind” the best show on television because despite its thrilling start, by the third season, it has gotten kind of dumb. Note, however, that my boomer husband and I have still devoured all three seasons. Most of the younger people I know are not interested in watching this show. They seem blasé about space stuff. It doesn’t speak to them like it does to us.
Because we grew up on a steady diet of space exploration. We love everything about space. I am not alone in my disappointment that the United Federation of Planets has not, as was portrayed in our prime-time viewing of “Star Trek,” come to pass in our lifetimes. The Federation’s core creed of interstellar justice and peace and harmony eludes us still. But we boomers remember, even if we do not retain, the lovely sense of idealism that shooting for the moon in real life gave us. I don’t know that any of us were ever the same after seeing the photo of ourselves from space, a blue marble floating small and fragile and lonely, yet beautiful. We suddenly saw our celestial planet as God sees it. As God sees us.
It may be a stretch to say that space made us believe in God, but the possibilities and potential of space shaped us.
The space race gave us a jolt of the divine, of something far greater than us. Space was the final frontier but also the intimation of a closeness to the eternal, the ineffable. How much more of the unknowable could we know? Or was the appreciation of a much wider mystery enough? It may be a stretch to say that space made us believe in God, but the possibilities and potential of space shaped us. We boomers were good at rejecting the religion our parents brought us up in, but we were grounded in the belief in something. Some of us as adults have returned to our religious roots. Many of us have not. But the spirituality of space has stayed in our souls. We haven’t done a great job of mitigating human-caused harm to our struggling blue marble, but perhaps we can use our later years to lead the movement to heed Pope Francis’ call to live “our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork” (“Laudato Si’,” No. 217).
The work of NASA has become less magical over the years, but we boomers almost can’t help following space developments closely. Skylab, the International Space Station, the shuttle trips and tragedies, the probes, the robotic landings, the photos from faraway telescopes, the dream of making it to Mars: These are the news stories that fascinate us still. And as for the most recent report about NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) blowing up an asteroid with a high-speed projectile to knock it off its course? Come on! How cool was that? We remember what happened to the dinosaurs, and we thrill to the idea of advances in planetary defense! There is a reason that “Star Trek” spin-offs keep spinning. We are still believers. Our imaginations are lifelong captives of space.
In my early 20s, a man tried to interest me in dating him by promising to get me on the list for the first moon colony. It wasn’t a pick-up line that worked then, and it definitely wouldn’t work now, but it did pique my fancy for a moment. Now I am watching a TV show about fictional women who said yes to that invitation and wondering what ever happened to that guy. He’s probably watching “For All Mankind.” And, like all of us boomers, he’s remembering a childhood full of giddy promise as we hold onto that fleeting feeling of wonder and awe, that little glimpse of God in all of us.