David Bowie imagined it this way:
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
For here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.*
On October 13, 90-year-old William Shatner took his first true space flight, after pretending to explore all corners of our galaxy in the Starship Enterprise during his 50 years playing the part of Captain Kirk in multiple episodes of Star Trek. He was one of four passengers on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space capsule that was rocketed out of earth’s atmosphere and spent three minutes in weightlessness, before falling back to earth with the help of parachutes.
Shatner was in awe of the experience, from beginning to end. He had difficulty putting his thoughts and feelings into words, and he even shed a few obviously genuine tears during his after-flight interview:
“This comforter of blue that we have around us; we think, ‘Oh, that’s blue sky.’ And then, all of a sudden, you shoot through it, like you would whip off a sheet when you’ve been asleep, and you’re looking into blackness. Into black ugliness. . . There is mother and Earth and comfort, and there [pointing to the sky]. Is that death? Is that the way death is?” **
It’s not surprising that a 90-year-old man would think of death at a moment like this, but it made me feel bad that all he could see “out there” was black ugliness.
On the TV news program where I first saw this Shatner interview, it was followed by guest commentary from Dr. Mae Jemison, the first female African-American astronaut, who made her visit to space on the shuttle Endeavor in 1992. She spent eight days in orbit of the earth, which gave her a lot more time to think about what she was experiencing. She was a Mission Specialist on that flight because of her background and training as a chemical engineer and a medical doctor. In the news interview, she agreed with Shatner’s overwhelming sense of wonder. However, she said she differed with him in his reaction to the “black ugliness” of space, in contrast to the blue comfort of Earth’s atmosphere:
“My experience was different from his. Because I am a scientist, I saw in the dark expanse all kinds of realities to be discovered in the universe. I connected with it as completing my destiny, and I’ve never seen my life the same since then.” ***
It was interesting that Jemison said this as a scientist, not as a religious believer. (I’ve searched, but I can’t find anything about her personal faith or church connection.) This was fascinating to me because her experience parallels my own journey. The more I’ve studied the sciences, the more I’ve come to see my personal destiny as tied up with the meaning of the whole universe; everything I learn about stars and galaxies, as well as everything I learn about ants and viruses, helps me better understand the meaning of my life — and my death. I’m with Mae, except that, for me, this scientific discovery is harmoniously intertwined with my Christian faith.
– Pastor George Van Alstine
* Lyrics from “Space Oddity” (1969). Listen to this haunting song at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYYRH4apXDo