Cover Story

CONSIDERING THE HEAVENS

God created the universe, a fact that gives space exploration profound theological implications. As Americans debate taking another giant leap into space, here's a look at what theologians, poets, and an astronaut say about the Christian basis for studying the stars

Issue: "Considering the heavens," Jan. 24, 2004

FOUR DECADES AGO, SPACE travel fired the American imagination. The whole nation gathered around TV sets (often black and white) to hold vigil with the astronauts fired up into orbit. When in 1969 the first man stepped down onto the surface of the moon, it really did seem like a giant leap for mankind.

Today, the space program continues, but it has become so routine that Americans mostly ignore it, until a tragedy like the space shuttle Columbia disaster last year reminds them how dangerous these missions are, leaving many people to say the risk to human life is just not worth it.

We now have even more amazing technology than we did in the pioneering days of the Mercury and Apollo programs, but our culture is different. In those days, we were optimistic, convinced that "if we can put somebody on the moon," we can do anything. As it turned out, the colossal achievement of flying to the moon proved much easier than solving the breakdown of America's families or stemming the tide of crime, poverty, and war. Now American culture has become cynical, suspicious of lofty ideals and skeptical of grandiose projects.

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In the days of Mercury and Apollo, we were modernists, confident that our science, technology, and rational expertise could conquer anything and that progress was unlimited. Now we know better. But we have gone to the other extreme of being postmodernists, convinced that truth-even scientific truth-is relative and irrelevant, that progress is nothing more than a power play and that the proper stance to the mysteries of existence is not wonder but irony.

Yet now a probe lands on Mars, sending back astonishing photographs of a new world both familiar, in its rocks and drifted dust, and alien, a red planet with features that we cannot explain. We start to marvel again, like we used to, and the old curiosity and sense of adventure feels like it could reawaken.

America, still culturally battered and divided, may be getting a sense of confidence back. Attacked on our own shores, we fought back and, though great challenges remain, we tasted victory. America is feeling its strength. Now, President Bush is calling for the nation to renew its exploration of outer space, to go to the moon to stay this time, and to send explorers off on the six-month voyage to Mars.

Is this wise? Can we afford it? Is it worthwhile to risk lives and treasure to go to those bleak and empty worlds? In the Mercury and Apollo days, space exploration was hardly controversial, garnering bipartisan support and overwhelming public favor. Today, the new space initiatives will spark angry debate.

But whether the new initiatives are feasible or imprudent, it is worth asking what space travel means. Is there a Christian perspective on the exploration of outer space? What about the questions that drive our imaginations-the possibility of life on other planets-even to consider going there? What about other questions involving our comprehension of the immensity of the universe and humanity's tiny place in it? Will the scientific knowledge gained by space exploration undermine the Christian faith? Or might we instead by considering the heavens bring glory to God?

Col. Jeffrey Williams is a Christian who has firsthand experience with such questions. As an astronaut, who in May 2000 flew in the space shuttle Atlantis, he walked in space for six hours. Col. Williams, now in training for future flights, talked with WORLD about what this experience meant for him and how it affected his faith.

"In orbit you view Earth and the vastness of space," said Col. Williams, and see that "we are an infinitesimal speck in light of the Creator Himself." This is profoundly humbling, but the vastness of the creation is a testimony to the infinite power and majesty of the One who called it into being. This sense of our smallness and God's unlimited glory is important for self-centered, self-absorbed human beings to realize. "One of the problems inside the church," said Col. Williams, "is that we forget this."

And yet, Col. Williams, when he was floating in the void, with the Earth below him, looking out at the far-flung galaxies, was not dismayed or depressed at the experience. Quite the contrary. It was exhilarating. It was inspiring. "My experience in space," he said, "only amplified my belief in the Creator."

That's different from the common view of those who say that the age of unbelief began with the discovery of outer space. According to this line of thinking, the old cosmology that Earth is the center of the cosmos, with the heavenly bodies rotating around it-the so-called Ptolemaic model, named after the Greco-Egyptian scholar who worked out the math in a.d. 140-allowed for a meaningful universe. Everything had its place; there was order and hierarchy; and man had a basis for dignity, with everything explainable by a religious faith.

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