Recently, I found out that one of my favorite childhood foods – freeze-dried space ice cream – was only used on one space flight: the 1968 Apollo 7 mission. Apparently it just wasn’t very popular among the astronauts. But for millions of kids like me, that $3.99 package of crackly sweet goodness represented the dream of one day going into space. To this day, when I see a wrapper of Neapolitan space cream, I’m transported back to my seven year old self, surrounded by LEGO bricks and model space shuttles.
So as the space shuttle Atlantis lands safely for the last time, let’s spend a few moments eulogizing its impact the way we see the world, our selves, and our mission.
The Space Shuttle Changed How We See the World
The Scriptures record several places where men like Abraham (Gen 15:5; cf. Ex 32:13) and David (Ps 8:3; 147:4) reflected on the innumerable stars in the endless night sky. For them, the stars were a fixed, other worldly guide and a reflection of the vastness of God and his creation.
But for all their reflection on the stars, it would never have occurred to them to think of the those tiny lights in the sky as a “place to go.” Yet, for anyone living in the last 50-60 years, the stars have become very much a “place to go.” I grew up knowing that if I were talented and lucky enough, I too could become an earth-transcending astronaut. And today’s kids know that a lack of talent or luck can be overcome with just a few million dollars (Lance Bass?).
The space program has made the moon and going to it a part of our reality. So what does this mean theologically? Do we have any moral obligation toward the moon, Mars, or Kashyyyk? God commanded us to “cultivate and keep” the Garden (Gen 2:15), but how far does the metaphor of “the Garden” extend? It is limited to this planet? Does it extend to the entire universe that God has made?
The Space Shuttle Changed How We See Ourselves
The space shuttle is not the first tool that has shifted the way people look at the world and our obligation toward it. In the past five or six centuries, we went from believing the world was flat to believing that it was a sphere at the center of the universe to seeing it as one tiny planet among billions.
In some ways, each successive revelation has made individual humans seem smaller and smaller. Yet, concurrent with these scientific discoveries were technological innovations which gave humans newfound powers. With bigger and stronger seafaring ships, we no longer feared falling off the edge of the flat world. And now that we know we are not the center of the universe, the space shuttle allows us to see ourselves as those who can explore beyond this world.
In other words, when science makes us feel smaller, technology makes us feel bigger. We are no longer mere land dwelling creatures; we are those who dominate the sea, the air, and the stars. But we should remember that although this dominion is God-given (Gen. 1:26), history has shown that fallen humanity is prone to abuse their technological powers (Gen. 11:3-4) when they start to think too much of themselves and too little of God.
The Space Shuttle Changed How We See Mission
Finally, let’s get a little weird and think a few generations into the future. What happens when flights to Mars or other, more distant planets are normal? And more importantly, what if we finally do find E.T., the Cylon final five, or the Ferengi? Should we tell them about Jesus?
About 1600 years ago, Gregory of Nazianzus, in response to heretics who claimed that Christ was not fully human, wrote, “What God has not assumed, God has not saved.” (i.e. if Christ was not fully human he could not fully save humanity). So can Christ not save aliens if he doesn’t assume their nature? Does he need to become a Klingon Jesus, get phasered, and resurrected again and again for each new alien species?
Of course not. This is only true if we, like those who thought that the earth was the center of the universe, see humanity as the center of God’s salvation. But if we believe that Christ’s incarnation is the basis by which he will save, redeem, and recreate all of creation, then our theology of redemption could theoretically include aliens. Did the great commission just get way bigger?
The Space Shuttle Is a Metaphor for All Technology
I confess: I really have no idea what to do with alien salvation (or robot salvation!)
I only bring it these possibilities up as a way of showing that when technology expands what humans are capable of doing, it also has a way of changing how we see ourselves and the world around us. We now see the universe through the space shuttle. Or, rather, we see the universe through the power the space shuttle gives us. And that new universe that we see through the space shuttle brings up new questions.
This is pretty clear in the case of the space shuttle, but it happens in much subtler, more imperceptible ways with all of our gadgets. Cars, iPhone, Kindles, Google+, space ice cream, and all the rest empower us with new ways to have dominion which lead to new ways to see the creation, each other, and our calling.
To put on the mind of Christ, we need to hold the space shuttle in one hand and the Scriptures in the other, intentionally looking at the world through the story each of them tells and then comparing the two visions they give us. This can be hard work, because where there is conflict between the stories, there is probably hard ministry to do. So make sure you have plenty of spare freeze dried ice cream.