At 11:26 a.m. last Friday (July 8), I joined millions to watch in silent awe as the space shuttle Atlantis, for the last time, "slipped the surly bonds of earth" and soared into orbit. Our generation has seen the shuttle launch many times, but it never seems to get old, each time there is a special sense of beauty, as if we know we are watching magic unfold as we see our species, over thousands of generations, move out of Africa, settle the continents of the globe, and now in just a blink of historical time go from Kitty Hawk to the moon and then a space station made by ourselves.
While there is a sense of sadness at the end of an era and a seeming slowdown in the next stage of space exploration, I have a sense of long-term optimism about our exploration of space inspired by my understanding of the writings of the Baha'i Faith, which I'd like to share.
The first relates to the gift of flight. For thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years, humans have dreamed of having the ability to fly, from Icarus to Leonardo Da Vinci. But this dream only became a reality in 1903, and since then has allowed many of us to fly around the planet and some of us to space.
Why did it happen so quickly, after such a long time as just a dream? My understanding is that it has to do with the stage of human evolution we are now in -- the beginning of the stage of the maturity of the human race. It is one manifestation of a line in the Lord's prayer: "Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." One of the images almost every religious tradition has of heaven is that it is populated by beings that have the gift of flight. If our earth is also in the process of becoming heavenly, it is not surprising that we now have also been given this gift, and that it will continue to develop.
While most of the writings of the Baha'i Faith focus on the current imperative needs of peace and unity for the human race on earth, there is a statement made by Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith, about other stars and their planets: "Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute." Logic also shows that a Supreme Intelligence that created this vast universe would not leave 99.99999999 (keep going with the 9s) percent of it barren and uninhabited with sentient life, and only our tiny speck of dust inhabited. Any landlord would be tremendously saddened by such a low occupancy rate!
A question naturally arises: Why have we not yet encountered these creatures? One day we might find out why it took so long, just like our gift of liftoff from earth seemed impossible, but then suddenly happened. A possible explanation is that we still have a lot of work to do on ourselves -- a planet and a species that is still often at war with itself. If technological and spiritual evolution ultimately go hand in hand, it could be that more highly evolved beings know to leave us alone until we can at least first be united among our own kind.
It is interesting that our exploration of space has also led to a deeper understanding of our soul. It allowed us, for the first time, to see our planet as a whole in its dazzling beauty, without the man-made borders for which so much blood was shed. It provided a visual image of another statement made by Baha'u'llah: "The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens." The images we are now seeing of the surfaces of other planets and their moons also have a beauty to them that I have heard modern artists remark on their intricate and majestic forms and patterns, which brings to mind another statement of Baha'u'llah: "Every created thing in the whole universe is but a door leading unto His knowledge, a symbol of His majesty, a token of His power."
While our national debt, ironically acting like the law of gravity binding us to earth, may well slow down our space program for now, hopefully the sense of wonder and exploration will continue to be cultivated in new generations that will expand both our knowledge of the universe and deepen our understanding of our soul. The progress of both science and religion, like two wings of a bird and two different ways of understanding the same ultimate reality, are both important to an ever-advancing civilization.
As Albert Einstein said: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science." May we keep experiencing the beautiful mysteries of the heavens.