Perhaps it is an outworn cliché, but it still holds true: everyone remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing at the moment. I was a 5th grade schoolchild in Melbourne, Australia, sitting in a tiny classroom with 20 other children as the voice, crinkled with static, rumbled from the television set and across the room. We sat transfixed knowing, without any real prompting from our teacher, that we were watching a major historical event, quite unlike any other we were likely to witness in our lifetime.
Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon and his resonant words “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” still impresses me as a mark of extraordinary human daring and technological wonder. Perhaps it all seems rather commonplace now, but in the 1950s the idea that man would travel in space or would be able to place a foot on an extra-terrestrial surface seemed as remote as the idea as the ability to travel through time. But in the eight years that passed between Yuri Gagarin’s epochal orbit of the Earth in April, 1961 and the Apollo 11 moon mission of July, 1969, our entire perspective on what applied human intelligence coupled with unfettered determination could achieve, was greatly expanded. Suddenly we were aware that the cosmos was not some inky, impenetrable blackness that could not be understood, but a vast panorama of possibilities for exploration, study and adventure.
The conversation which followed on that wet winter’s day (remember this was Melbourne, Australia) revolved around not what we had just seen, but on the next step humanity would take in its exploration of space. A mission to Mars or Venus seemed inevitable and for the next two hours we debated with one another about the new civilizations that would soon be discovered and the possibilities for travel toward them.
Our generation was to be flatly disappointed in its expectations. In fact, despite several more lunar landings in the five yeas that followed, the NASA program, at least from a relatively uninformed adolescent perspective, seemed to slow down and that its greatest implied quest – of finding other forms of intelligent life in the universe, had become just a passing interest, not its fundamental mission. As the years passed, the space shuttle program, the unmanned explorations of Venus and Mars and the Mariner, Venera, Viking and Voyager expeditions sent to explore the outer reaches of our solar system, might have all been historic programs, yet they seemed to pale in comparison to the tactile act of placing a human foot on the surface of an extra- terrestrial sphere.
Why was this? Because, gazing for millennia into the vast night sky, we humans have longed to be reassured that we are not alone. The conviction that there must be other forms of complex life or intelligent beings in the universe has embedded itself in the human imagination and become an obsession. It has also led, sadly, to a dismissal of the notion of Earth’s uniqueness. From the time of the first modern astronomical discoveries in the 16th Century, most scientists have supposed that our solar system is rather ordinary and that the emergence of life somewhere other than Earth is almost certain given the vast size and age of the Universe. The discoveries of other planets, the realization that our sun is one of hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, which is, in itself, one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in a very large and very ancient universe, is indeed humbling and can leave us with an extreme sense of isolation. This has led many to cast the Earth as an inconsequential planet, lacking any unique purpose or place in the universe’s general order. This “Principle of Mediocrity,” popularized by the late Carl Sagan, has been adopted with gusto by many scientists today who also espouse, not unsurprisingly, a denial of the existence of a Creator or of a higher intelligence involved in the design of the Universe.
Yet since those formative years I have come to understand some important things about the Earth’s place in the universe that I could not have appreciated as a child. For instance, the mere presence of other planets and Earth’s position in the inner solar system reduces the number of asteroids and comets that could likely hit earth, giving us a level of safety not enjoyed by planets in the outer solar system. Earth has a transparent atmosphere that provides a platform to study and explore the universe, an ability that would be unknown to most other planets that have gaseous, opaque atmospheres; that its position in the Milky Way puts it at the greatest of advantages for the development of life – not too close to the sun which would make it too hot and not too distant, which would make it uncompromisingly cold; that the conditions for the existence of complex life are exceedingly rare and that the probability of all those conditions coalescing at the same time and place is infinitely improbable; that carbon and water are the two most important ingredients necessary for the creation of life and the fact that they cannot be detected on any other planet in the combinations necessary for life is extremely perplexing.
Today it is possible to look up at the night sky, possessed of the knowledge of both the immensity of the cosmos and the incomprehensible distances across which it stretches – and feel crushed by our seeming insignificance.
But isn’t there another way to look at this existential dilemma?
Could it be that the universe came into existence not as a random accident but for both the Earth’s and humanity’s benefit? Is there perhaps a purpose and order to the universe that we have been actually programmed to discover? Jim Lovell, aboard Apollo 8, the first manned mission to orbit the moon, sensed this. Gazing out the window of his spacecraft and watching the Earth “rise” above the Moon’s horizon, he exclaimed: “the Earth from here is a grand oasis in the big vastness of space!”
The idea of an oasis, feeding and watering the universe, is a profound understanding of life that not only gives us confidence in exploring space but also in a sense of purpose that the current proponents of the Principle of Mediocrity can neither fathom nor appreciate. If the universe is truly as dead and barren as the surface of the Moon, have we, in fact, been created in order to seed it with life?
As a boy I could not imagine that forty years after Neil Armstrong’s famous walk, we would be no closer to the discovery of intelligent life in the cosmos than we had been in 1969. But science itself, coupled with the ingenuity of the human mind, may have provided us with something far richer and more significant than any such discovery could afford: the overpowering acceptance of our uniqueness and purpose. And it this realization which has provided me with a deep appreciation of this tiny blue dot in the “big vastness of space” and makes me feel not alone, but glad to be alive.