Saturday, July 23, 2011

Space Travel and Spirituality

Space travel has recently gotten to the point where NASA is probably no longer sending out astronauts, the last space shuttle, Atlantis, returning a few days ago. The next stage, many predict, is space tourism, where people will travel to the International Space Station for vacation. There would, of course, be the need for strict training and limitations, but people would have yet another goal to motivate them to work harder or exercise and change their diet so that they could be qualified in the future. In retrospect, for many astronauts, the very experience of travelling beyond their planet and seeing it amongst the vastness of space could be said to be spiritual. Whether you believe or don’t believe in God is not the factor here, as being spiritual is religion neutral for the most part. Unless you want to underestimate human experience and our capacity for creativity and imagination, then you’d probably be amongst the many people who seek space travel tourism for similar reasons we travel halfway across the world: to broaden their perspective and see new horizons.

Much of what affects the spiritual part of our minds in space travel would probably be the vastness that is experienced in seeing the entirety of the planet you came from. You can see pictures, but it’s the direct view itself from a vantage point that has such a strong impact upon a person. One might see the beauty of the earth and imagine something like the verse from Job 26:7, stating that God holds the earth on nothing. There might be a deep and strong feeling of communion with the universe as a whole from a Hindu. In my own case, I could speculate that I’d feel almost insignificant and yet all the more grateful for my existence, wanting to preserve it and aid others in seeing the beauty through a perspective many would initially call nihilistic for saying that the world is unsatisfactory, impermanent and insubstantial (the trilaksana or three marks of existence in Buddhism). There could also be an experience of shared humanity, since there wouldn’t be the distinctions you’d normally see on a globe. No country boundaries, just a blue and green sphere which we all share space on and live on without even realizing how vast it is and also how tiny it is in comparison to other planets we may eventually be able to experience firsthand in the future. The dual sense of awe and gratitude is almost paradoxical at first. More importantly, we’d probably just be amazed at what we originally thought was an everyday sort of fact about the world as we see it more directly as a subject or spectator in space.

But even prior to the free fall in space, there will be tension, anxiety and anticipation of that eventual experience, fear of failure, concern of safety in the launch procedures. When you are about to embark upon a journey of such a grand scale as leaving the planet there is a feeling of nostalgia even before you leave home which becomes more poignant as you leave, but then passes in realizing that at your return, the home will be all the more significant as you have seen it from a proverbial “God’s eye” point of view. Experiencing such a new and eye-opening event as space travel is already reflective of your strength of body, but your strength of mind will be tested in space, since the magnitude of what you’re doing and where you are could conceivably 
be too much of a strain and drive you mad staring into a proverbial and literal abyss.

I never really wanted to be an astronaut, and it would seem that NASA will be focusing on space exploration without as much use of humans. Perhaps there will always be some need for astronauts, but it won’t be on the same level that it was back when I was a kid, for example. Being an astronaut was something of a stereotypical career goal still, though probably moreso for my parents’ generation. Now the goal of going into space may eventually be something one can do for a week or two, like travelling to a country across the sea. Of course, this will make being a space tourist only accessible to the very rich, but in the future, it may be possible for the next generation to engage in space travel on a more regular basis. The sky’s the limit, so to speak and I look forward to even a minute chance of going into space myself, if only to see things from such a vast horizon as the void of space. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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