To eternity and beyond! Faith and space

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Article Faith and Science
Forget about terrestrial matters for a moment and think outside the blue planet.

Our American Spirit is stuck--and I'm not talking about that intangible dimension of our national identity that keeps us upbeat and confident in these "tough economic times." I mean that little multi-wheeled, remote-control land rover that's been combing the sands of Mars since 2004 in search of signs of life.

Actually, only some of its wheels are stuck in that red sand, and NASA engineers have been working feverishly for months to come up with a plan to free it. If they can't, Spirit faces an icy death, though its twin rover, Opportunity, is still exploring the Martian plain.

But Spirit's likely demise leaves the 10-year-old aspiring astronaut in me bereft. With the rover's mission complete, the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2010, and any further lunar or Martian exploration tabled, the American chapter of our human quest to head out into what Star Trek fans call "the final frontier" will have officially stalled. Human beings and their governments, it seems, have lost the will to fund anything interplanetary.

Being a science fiction lover since childhood, I have always been captivated by the possibility of what is "out there"-even if it turns out to be grumpy, bumpy-headed Klingons. Unfortunately, throughout my life-now more than ever-I have been thoroughly disappointed in our collective unwillingness to get our feet off the ground and our heads into the vacuum of space. Despite the promise of what lies beyond our little blue bubble of atmosphere, we earthlings seem content to dump almost all our resources into decidedly earth-y affairs.

Consider what we could accomplish in the realm of space exploration if we took just a tenth of the billions we spend fighting over petroleum and sent it to physics and rocket labs. We'd have warp drive faster than you could say E=mc2.

Our lack of imagination is hardly restricted to our political and economic choices: Our religious communities are no less bogged down in this-worldly thinking.

We've got daggers out over everything from the proper translation of Latin to sex in its various dimensions. Yet on any clear winter night the unaided human eye can see thousands of stars-many more with a telescope-whose light reaches us from distances we can scarcely imagine. Can I get a "wow"?

Indeed, the vastness of space is probably the closest analog in creation for the unimaginable infinity of God. Yet do we allow our imaginations to run wild, dreaming about just what kind of God could come up with a universe so mind-boggling, or contemplating what other life forms might await us if we got off our earthbound backsides? No, thank you. We'd rather debate which direction the priest should face at Mass.

It's not that our earthly concerns, religious or secular, are unimportant, it's just that we could use some perspective here. Recalling that the Big Bang occurred somewhere around 14 billion years ago, that life on Earth is only around 3 billion years old, and that humanity popped onto the scene in the galactic equivalent of the last nanosecond might help us take a wider view.

Maybe if we thought for a second about how small and fragile our little blue oasis is-and how vast, inhospitable, and incredibly cold the surrounding desert-we might scale back our plans for using our planet up, much less blowing it up. We may even discover that we actually can live with some of our differences.

But it's the problem of imagination that we must first solve, and that's where our little Martian dune buggy comes in. Far beyond the protective wrap of our atmosphere, we human beings have sent little adventurers to comb an alien planet. It took engineers and scientists from all over the world to build those little robots, and it took our collective tax dollars to finance them. Together we sent two souped-up remote-control toys hundreds of millions of miles from home, and Opportunity at least is still puttering around out there. There's no better word for that than cool.

If we can do that, I hardly think it's out of the question that we can come up with equally cool solutions to big and little challenges that face us here on earth, even when our wheels get stuck.

Opportunity knocks. Use your imagination.

This article appeared in the February 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 2, page 8).

Image: William Petersen