I recently finished Wyn Wachhorst’s The Dream of Spaceflight, a series of essays about the history and meaning of–and desire for–space. There are a number of quotes in the book that perfectly expressed my own feelings about space and space exploration (whether that exploration is actual or virtual).
Wonder, in its larger sense, denotes the mysterium tremendum, the aura of unfathomable majesty, utterly humbling and wholly Other, surrounding the sublime and terrifying unknowns that border our models of reality–the dark forest, the empty desert, the sacred mountain, the boundless sea, the black silence of cosmic infinity. Thus we gaze into the night sky and feel not diminishment but dilation. We sense the vastness and passion of creation and glimpse an equally vast interior . . . We are aware of the stars only because we have evolved a corresponding inner space. (136-137)
I have loved space for as long as I can remember. There have been times in my life that I have wanted, even desperately so, to be able to explore the cosmos, to see nebulae and black holes; to explore worlds of acid atmosphere’s etching patterns on strange rocks; to find our reflection in another sentient race; to listen to the vibrations of the big bang still reverberating throughout all of the universe. I used to fantasize about being abducted by aliens and while I would miss my family and friends, the chance to stay with them and explore “out there” would always be to good to give up and off I would go with my strange captors.
When looking at pictures from the Hubble or other space telescopes, I nearly always catch my breath, feel a tightness in my belly and a swirling motion in the center of my chest and feel like I am witness to something so truly majestic, beautiful and humbling that I am all at once reminded of how small we are as a species and so incredibly proud of our ability to take those pictures. We are smart enough to take pictures like this:
These are images that make me believe in humanity, in our capacity and potential to get past all the bullshit of violence and greed and desolation and anger that seem to rip peoples lives to shreds on a daily basis. The problems we face are incalculable, to be sure. But so is our potential.
I still remember, so very vividly, standing in in the middle of a Nevada desert at 3 am and soaking in the silence and the vastness and the intimacy of space. Space wasn’t something “out there.” Rather, I was always already in space. My spaceship is just a bit bigger and more unwieldy than the spaceships of science fiction and my own fantasies. I was, all a the same time, in and of and yet outside of the universe, aware that what I could see was such a small portion of the whole as to be nearly laughable.
Exploration, evolution, and self-transcendence are but different perspectives on the same process. (151)
I miss the sky. I miss the silence of living outside of a city. I miss the darkness that overflows from space and fills in all the cracks and crevices of the landscape late at night, when you sit still and silent for a long time, gazing at the universe through such limited eyes, but knowing that something deep inside of you is wholly connected to that endlessly exceeding hugeness. Connected by the very materials that make up your cells to those stars and galaxies and nebula and quasars and black holes and all the strange, beautiful collaborations of matter–collaborations on such scales that you really will never fully grasp them–wrapped, like islands of light, within the arms of an emptiness that can only be understood at deeply profound.
I want those nights back, those moments of peace and stillness and silence. Wachhorst didn’t so much awaken these desires as he enunciated them, as well as pointing out some of the reasons that I have become enamored with the idea of moving to Truth or Consequence, New Mexico and becoming part of the creation of Spaceport America. Reasons that have to do with being part of something larger than myself, with making a small contribution to our species’ long, long road from ocean to cosmos. Images of space have always triggered a spiritual feeling in my heart and mind. To help humanity leave our world, and venture–even tentatively–into the larger universe seems to me both an exciting adventure and a joyful, and deeply spiritual, undertaking. The following passage, while lengthy, speaks so eloquently to my own feelings, hopes, and desires surrounding space and space exploration that I will simply conclude with his words:
Perhaps in some recess of the psyche the human organism knows that it is a fractal of the reflexive universe itself, repeated in microcosmic multiplicity like a holographic plate–worlds within worlds within worlds–and that, far beyond the cold war reflex, our emergence into space rose inexorably from the taproot of evolution, the heartsong of a cosmos that is finally the dance of spirit. We are fascinated by the roiling surf for the same reason we are transfixed by fire; we too are matter asserting itself as energy. So are the fires of the night sky, where our being was written long before planets were born or oceans condensed or mortal cells emerged from primordial soup. The communion of cells formed a lung, a heart–an eye. And the world awoke. The price of vision was mortality, but its prize was the capacity for love and wonder. And if the cosmos is spirit incarnate, the the flame of life, the eye of consciousness, is its resurrection. Like salmon, we hurl ourselves against entropy, returning in fits and starts and occasional heroic leaps to our place of origin; as though the primal spirit had fallen into infinity multiformity and had somehow forgotten itself in the process. We are that ineffable essence, slowly, agonizingly, remembering. (164)