Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Inner and Outer Space

When I was growing up in the late '50's and early '60's, my biggest heroes were the astronauts of the Mercury manned space program. They were called the Original Seven, and their names I know from memory: Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Schirra, Cooper, and Slayton. It's hard for anyone who was not alive at the time to appreciate the status that these men attained in our culture. Each mission was televised from countdown to splashdown as I, and countless other boys my age, rode the Redstone and Atlas rockets as vicarious co-pilots.

The early days of the space program still fascinate me. For Christmas, Kathy gave me Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, and even though it is flawed in many ways, it did not leave my side until I had finished it. Toward the end, I came across a lovely quote from Apollo 14 crew member Dr. Ed Mitchell, who described an experience he had on the way back to earth after walking on the moon in January, 1971. In order to keep from overheating the spacecraft due to exposure to the sun, or freezing it when in shadow, the Apollo command module would slowly rotate like a barbecue rotisserie in space:
The biggest joy was on the way home. In my cockpit window every two minutes: the earth, the moon, the sun, and a whole 360-degree panorama of the heavens. And that was a powerful, overwhelming experience. And suddenly I realized that the molecules in my body, and the molecules of the spacecraft, and the the molecules in the bodies of my partners, were prototyped and manufactured in some ancient generation of stars. And that was an overwhelming sense of oneness, of connectedness. It wasn't them and us, it was 'that's me, that's all of us, it's one thing.' And it was accompanied by an ecstasy: 'Oh my God, wow! Yes!' An insight. An epiphany.
The ancient seers would say it this way: "I am that, you are that, all this is that, and that's all there is." This insight is available to any of us at any time. We don't have to travel hundreds of thousands of miles into space to know it.

For all of my interest and fascination with the early days of space exploration, I see it now as a somewhat misguided adventure, spurred on mainly by Cold War paranoia as a way of getting ahead of the Soviet Union. I worshiped the astronauts of that era as gods, and yet I never heard a compelling reason why we spent all that treasure and risked all those lives to send them on their voyages. 

What resonates with me now, however, is that we were answering some primitive inner calling that would, eventually, bring us back to our intrinsic nature: that we are are, and always have been, one with everything. 

T.S. Eliot said it like this:
We shall not cease from exploration 
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.

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