I am a "NASA brat." When I was young, my dad would bring home from NASA Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center in Cleveland the newest photos of the astronaut crews and the planets. My father and I shared a special "space bond." Together we watched the first Moon landing Apollo 11), mourned the Apollo 1 flash fire, and cheered as Apollo 13 returned safely to Earth.
So when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry Feb. 1, my heart ached as if those killed in the tragedy had been cousins or friends of mine. Unfortunately, as when Columbia's sister ship, Challenger, blew up in 1986, naysayers and critics of the space program have been quick to question the relevancy of space exploration to life on Earth.
Space travel is relevant. The medical and technological advances made through the space program have spun off into advances in everything from patient care, medical procedures and testing in hospitals to materials used in clothing and home insulation.
But the most poignant and important significance of space exploration is in the realm of the spiritual. Consistently, coverage of the Columbia tragedy has mentioned the deep faith of the seven who lost their lives: faith in God, faith in each other, faith in humankind's vision for the future. The women and men aboard Columbia were members of faith communities and felt blessed to be part of the shuttle program, which they considered a dream come true. They were prayed for before lift-off by churches, mosques and synagogues around the world.
The Rev. Steve Riggle, pastor of Grace Community Church in Houston, told CNN of Commander Rick Husband's final instructions in the event of a tragedy, written before Columbia lifted off. Husband wrote, "Tell 'em about Jesus. He means everything to me."
Like their predecessors in the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury programs, shuttle astronauts see our home planet from a place "away from home," and are changed by it. I remember a show on public television in 1989, on the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11. One after another, the astronauts interviewed on that program talked about how profoundly their faith had been positively affected by the experience of space travel, how awed they felt gazing at Earth from the moon. Their words remain inspirational to me.
A decade later, on Apollo 11's 30th anniversary, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin wrote, "Beyond all rationales, space flight is a spiritual quest in the broadest sense, one promising a revitalization of humanity and a rebirth of hope no less profound than the great opening out of mind and spirit at the dawn of our modern age."
Astronaut Janice Voss, whose first shuttle flight was in June 1993, was asked a few years ago about sunrises in space. "It feels like a door is opening on the secrets of the universe," she said.
It is this coming together of spiritual vision and practical advances that makes the space program not only relevant, but essential, for humankind.
Gene Cernan, the last person to leave footprints on the surface of the Moon (Apollo 17), remembers that, as he looked out from the lunar Taurus- Littrow landing site, "the Earth stood still in the inky southwestern sky, my silent guardian star." He has written eloquently about seeing the Earth in the context of space:
"I'm not an overly religious person, but I certainly am a believer, and when I looked around, I saw beauty, not emptiness. No one...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...Someone...placed our little world, our sun and our moon where they are in the dark void...It is just too perfect and beautiful to have happened by accident. I can't tell you why it exists...only that it does, and I know that for certain because I have been out there and I have seen the endlessness of space and time with my own eyes."
In times of great tragedy or change, people are forced to look within, to examine their relationships with God and each other, to grow in their faith, discover new paths on their faith journeys. The human experience in space is the challenge to us now. It is a chance to see humanity and our planet as the global community so many write about. It could be a springboard, finally, to our coming together as a planet. It can help us understand the work of God in the broader context of the entire universe.
Barb Powell is Director for Production of the UCC's Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry in Cleveland.