Science Corner: All That You Can’t Leave Behind

Apollo 11 photo of Earth from the moon

The film First Man suggests images like this are the space program’s greatest contribution to humanity. Sorry, Tang. (Photo by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center )

Fifty years ago this Saturday, the first humans set foot on a celestial body other than Earth. I imagine there will always be skeptics. I particularly like the joke about NASA hiring Stanley Kubrick to fake the moon landing only to have Kubrick insist on filming on location for authenticity. We are living in the time of Photoshop, visual effects, and DeepFake videos; a couple of months ago I watched a talking raccoon travel back in time through a subatomic realm and then fight a purple giant alongside a shrinking man and a woman riding a winged horse. So you can see why the photographs, stunning as they may be, are no longer as compelling. While I am convinced astronauts really did make the quarter-million mile journey, I’ve found myself thinking about the sense in which they did not fully depart the Earth.

The surface of the moon is not merely unwelcoming, it is downright lethal. The moon is generally said to have no atmosphere; there are small amounts of gases near the surface, but at such low densities that on Earth it would be considered a decent vacuum. The gases that are floating around won’t support our physiology; the most abundant are the inert noble gases argon, helium and neon. And not only can you not breathe them, they won’t absorb any appreciable amount of the solar and cosmic radiation space has to offer. Oh, and the temperatures vary wildly; you can boil water in the sunshine and freeze carbon dioxide in the shade. So, yeah, the moon has plenty of ways to punish visitors. Fortunately, we did not have to learn these facts the hard way, and those first lunar visitors were properly equipped. They brought along a bit of Earth with them, most notably oxygen to breathe. While they exited the lander craft, they never stepped outside that bubble of home.

Given my interest in theological analogies, there is a temptation here to draw a parallel with being in the world yet not of the world. Certainly Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are not “of the moon” yet for a time they were on the moon. Still, that doesn’t mean they are a good analogy for what Jesus was talking about in John 17.
I think the disconnect for me is that they were not fully participating in the moon environment. They were temporary visitors in a place not meant for them. Whereas God created this world for us. Yes, we have strayed from God’s intentions and look forward to a new creation. Still, it remains that when God created this world, he had us in mind. We are not here to investigate or explore; we are here to inhabit and interact.

At the same time, we do bring something to this world. We may not wear it around ourselves as a buffer. And we definitely don’t need to worry that it will run out like a fixed reserve of oxygen. But we do represent the kingdom of God. We bear God’s image and mediate his spirit in the world. I think it is pretty cool and worth commemorating that we managed to bear that image further into the cosmos than it had ever gone before, and I think it would be exciting to take it further still.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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