Why does that bother me so? I suspect there’s at least an element of pride involved. As a kid I watched with passion the race to the moon between the United States and the Soviet Union. It seemed to me when those Americans set foot on the moon in 1969 that in some way it was a validation of something good about our country. It is humbling, perhaps even humiliating, to see how far less capable our country seems today than it did those many years ago. So, yes, there is likely a bit of national pride at stake. That blow to national pride carries with it some concern and sadness over our national trajectory. Is our diminished capability just one more manifestation of a much larger reality, that in general this country simply is not what it once was? Are we on our way down and is the descent accelerating? Where once there was greatness now there are only lingering traces of that magnificence and reveling in what we once were able to do but no longer can. Is our nation like the aging, once great athlete who in his prime was the best in his sport, but now is merely a shade of his former self with only the memory of the flashy skills he once displayed on a regular basis?
As I reflected on this reality it occurred to me that some of my dismay over the loss of the quest of the manned exploration of space has an element that is deeper than concern over the state of our nation. That element has to do with the human spirit. Manned space flight is absurdly costly and more than a little dangerous. It would be easy to conclude that it is a luxury that we don’t need and can’t afford. In economic times like these when the government and the entire economy is in such desperate straits, what sense does it make to spend millions or billions on rockets and spacecraft? What return do we get that will be commensurate with such vast outlays of money? When the federal government is so far in debt that there is nothing but red ink on the horizon for decades to come how does one justify spending vast sums of money to launch people into space? I think these are valid questions. But Joel Stein made another cogent comment in his essay. He wrote, “Now that we’re stuck on earth, it feels as if we not only stopped trying but stopped caring. U.S. human spaceflight was not supposed to end with a garbage-collecting mission.” I agree. It’s that comment about not caring that speaks of the loss of something important.
Perhaps it is the little boy in me who never grew up, the wide-eyed lad whose heart was full of dreams, but I think there is a longing in all of us to do something great. With precious few exceptions we are not going to fulfill that dream in a personal way. I’m pretty sure at this point in my life I’m not going to throw the game-winning touchdown pass in the Rose Bowl game or the Super Bowl. I’m not going to hit the walk-off home run in the final game of the World Series or score the overtime goal to win the Stanley Cup. I’m not going to discover the cure for cancer or explore previously unknown lands. I’m not going to star in a movie or become the President of the United States. In a sense the national accomplishment of a great quest like putting a man on the moon allowed us all to share vicariously in a small slice of doing something great and historic. Now that we can no longer achieve something like that and seem to have no chance of renewing that quest, in a sense all of us are diminished just a little. Our imaginations perhaps experience just a little less passion and vision, and when that happens I think we all lose something. I think we lose something that makes life on this earth more full and hopeful.
In his book, Wild At Heart, John Eldredge claimed that for a man to be really alive he needs three things, a battle to fight, an adventure to live and a beauty to win. Those three ideas are not gospel. Though they strike a chord in my heart, I believe Eldredge’s elements are not universal nor are they derived from Scripture. Nevertheless I think he has something to say to us. As I have alluded to, I clearly have seen the desire for those things in my own life. Particularly that comment about men needing an adventure to live I believe is true not only for men, but also for women. All of us, male and female, want to know that our lives have meaning and that we are accomplishing something great. Boring and routine fire no one’s heart with passion. We want to live out an adventure. As I have thought about my sadness over the end of our country’s manned space flight program I have gotten in touch again with that boyish desire to do something great. I do not think I need to feel sheepish about that. It is boyish passion like that that keeps us young at heart, full of enthusiasm about life, looking forward not back. I still need to believe that I am alive to do something great in order to be passionate about life. I believe that a person who is in his or her twenties but does not have that enthusiasm will be old even when they are young. And I believe a person who has that passion whatever their age will be, in a sense, young even when they are old.
So you’re saying that the end of manned flights into space made you older and less enthusiastic about life? In a small way, yes, I suppose. That’s one less thing to be wide-eyed and excited about, one less thing to look forward to seeing happen, one less thing to be proud of, one less great quest to have even a tiny share in, and that’s too bad. But I think more than that I’m saying this event reminds me of an important reality about myself. I want to do something great. And I need to believe that God has put me here to do something great. Oh, it won’t be great in the sense that the world will sit up and take notice. But God has called us to a great quest. The quest is to know God and to serve him in everything that I do. It is a quest to love people, often unlovely people, the way he loves us. It is to know that while the world may not notice, the most powerful beings in the spiritual realm are watching us. They see what we are doing and shake their heads in wonder. They give glory to God over every little victory of grace, love and holiness that they see in our lives. We are on a quest to bring honor to God and channel his grace to people in the world around us. We are on a quest to tell people about the Lord Jesus Christ and save them from eternal peril.
The bad news is the current state of NASA means that space geek wannabes like me have lost a little of the vicarious thrill of seeing our nation “boldly go where no man has gone before” as we explore “the final frontier” (apologies to Captain James T. Kirk). The good news is even that loss can remind us of a far greater quest that is of eternal significance.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).