This past weekend we went to see Gravity. I really enjoyed the movie, and Sandra Bullock did an amazing job. The movie reminded me of a family vacation to the Cape Kennedy Space Center where we saw the relics of the space program. I was amazed at how flimsy everything looked. We sent them out into space in the equivalent of tin foil, duct tape, and binder twine. I was and still am so impressed by the bravery of the astronauts.
On July 20, 1969, my family gathered around the old black and white television and watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. His words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” stirred my heart and fired my imagination. We puny humans had actually made it to the moon, and someday we would build a ship capable of going to the stars. In the meantime we could ride along with dozens of writers who would transport us to new planets to meet alien people and learn about their strange cultures, writers such as Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Gene Roddenberry.
While at college, I discovered the Star Trek TV series and instantly became a Trekkie. This fascination continued through the years with each Star Trek TV series, movie, and book that came out. When my sister gave me the set of Star Trek movies for my latest birthday, I immediately tore open the package and popped a DVD in the machine. “Space… the Final Frontier. These are the continuing voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” (Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan) These words still thrill me.
What is it that fascinates us about space? Some think about how we are thousands of light years away from the nearest star, how immense space is, and how beautiful the galaxies are. They learn about gas giants, black holes, and why some stars are red or blue. But some of us look up at the vast blackness sprinkled thick with diamonds and think, ‘What if?’ Some create fierce aliens intent on using humans for food or slaves. Some are intent on blowing up our planet to make way for a intergalactic freeway. Some of our spacefarers are like us, eager to explore and learn, wanting to find out what’s out there. They come in peace. In other scenarios, we are the aggressors out to conquer the alien races, not taking the time to listen, learn and understand.
In all of these wonderfully creative books and movies, we are asking the question, Is there anybody out there? Are we alone, or are there others like us? And if so, what will happen when our two civilizations collide? Beneath our fascination lies deeper questions. Can we learn to be better human beings, to have more compassion for each other, to see our common humanity in spite of the awkward, strange outer trappings of our appearances, languages, cultures, and memories?
Until recently, scientists were convinced that there was no one else out there. (This reminds me of what people told Columbus about sailing off the edge of a flat planet.) But I am convinced that someday we will boldly go where no human has gone before, or they will come here in a similar effort. We will meet, and it will be amazing. In the meantime, we can watch, read, and dream.