Tuesday, May 13, 2008

They saw us waving

by John D Ramsey

Last summer the International Space Station (ISS) flew over our house with Space Shuttle Atlantis following close behind. Atlantis had undocked and was preparing for return to earth within a day or two. It was evening after sunset, but the western sky was not dark. The ISS appeared north-northwest from Raymore as if it were coming from Kansas City, Missouri. It was on time and it appeared exactly where NASA said that it would. I had herded the girls into the front yard. Cara was living at home for a few weeks after graduating from college. She did not know what to expect except that the neighbors would think we were crazy. Nevertheless, Lisa and Cara indulged me out of kindness, but the little girls seemed to be genuinely interested in seeing spaceships.

The reflected light from the ISS moved directly toward us for several seconds before the light from Atlantis also became visible. The two spacecraft moved silently through the sky growing gradually larger, brighter, and faster as they approached. The girls watched intently as the ISS and shuttle drew near. Gabby and Claire began to wave energetically at the light in the sky, but Cara began to chuckle at Gabby and Claire. As the ISS flew directly overhead, it caught a ray of sunshine and flashed brilliance against the darkening sky. Gabby exclaimed, “They saw us waving, and they turned their lights on!” The two craft flew around the ash tree by the driveway and over the garage roof. The little girls dashed into the backyard to watch the ISS and the Atlantis disappear into the night.

I am impressed with rocket scientists and especially their project managers. It is amazing that they can build, launch, and retrieve spacecraft and preserve the life onboard. I was enthralled with the spectacular view of the ISS from my front yard. I am glad that the dazzling lights captivated Gabby’s imagination. Nevertheless, neither the ISS nor the Space Shuttle is the most spectacular object in the summer-night sky. In fact, the ISS is amazing to me primarily because it is manmade.

The moon orbits the earth every 29½ days. It rotates as it revolves keeping its dark side hidden from Earth’s view. It reflects the sunlight in a cycle that signals to some the arrival of seasons. As it orbits the earth, it pulls the ocean tides in concert with the sun. The gravitational attractions of earth, moon, and sun comprise a machine that helps keep the ocean currents flowing. Along with the sun’s heat, the ocean currents also influence the earth’s winds bringing both rain and clear skies in season.

While we are enthralled on summer nights by manmade satellites sailing silently in space, they are less amazing than the moon which is visible nearly every day. The ISS will help men learn about the earth it floats above, but life on earth is not directly dependent upon its orbiting on a schedule. Nevertheless, the sky follows an intricate if unfathomable schedule that directly contributes to life on earth.

When Daniel was a little guy, we camped near a pond along with my brother-in-law, Steve. Mars hung out over the water low on the horizon. It appeared to be so close that you could almost see its spherical shape with the naked eye. The next time Mars and Earth were in perihelic opposition was the week that we took Cara to college. Lisa and I walked the beach on Assateague Island and saw Mars hanging in the Atlantic mist. It appeared to be not too far out nor too high up, but rather just beyond breaking waves and over the open water. When I saw Mars at its brightest from the beach at Assateague, I remembered that sixteen years had passed since I had seen it with Daniel as it hovered over Uncle Paul’s pond. Gabby will be a teenager before we see Mars nearly so close again. Earth has never observed a closer approach to Mars as in 2003. It was sublime and it was fleeting, none of us will see it quite the same way in our lifetimes.

While the earth repeats a daily pattern of night and day, and the moon repeats its cycle from new to full, the planets and other celestial objects follow their choreography in such a way that no night sky is exactly like another. We might confuse the heavens’ complexity with randomness, yet each object follows its course with precision. In each day’s concert, together they play subtle variations of their repertoire.

The sky is an orchestration of infinite design and complexity in which man, by virtue of rocket science, now plays a cowbell. When we glimpse spacecraft sailing above the margin of night and day we exult, “Look, there is the Space Shuttle!” or “Wow, see the ISS?” In comparison with the beauty of space, it is like saying, “More cowbell!” We want more cowbell because men like us play cowbells. We cannot understand, let alone control, all the physics of the sun, moon, planets, and stars; however, some brilliant among us can play cowbell: “More cowbell!” That is all right; it takes a lot of human skill and effort to play cowbell in the symphony of the sky.

Man’s conquest of space declares his glory, but Psalm 19 begins by saying,

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:1-4a (NIV)


Man pushes into space in pursuit of scientific knowledge, preferably useful information; yet Psalm 19 says that the purpose of the heavens is to reveal the magnificence of God. Observing the heavens without acknowledging God is like attending a symphony and ignoring the music but rather concentrating merely on the shape of the instruments. Likewise, when we observe man’s creations we should exult not only in man, but also in the God who made us all in his image. When we view the heavens, we should hear the symphony that proclaims to us the glory of God, and we should respond. Psalm 19 concludes,

May the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
O LORD,
my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14 (NIV)

The God who created the heavens and choreographed the celestial courses is also aware of the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts. Either they please him, or they do not.

When Gabby saw the ISS move from partial shadow into the full illumination of the sun, she said, “They saw us waving, and they turned their lights on!” I did not tell Gabby that she imagined fiction. Nevertheless, all the lights of the heavens shine for our benefit. They were not turned on in response to our waving, but rather so that we could see the magnificent glory of the Creator. Man is not waiting on God to reveal himself; the heavens declare his glory and “the skies proclaim the work of his hands . . . There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.” Will we thus acknowledge him?

More important than merely acknowledging God, is our relationship to him. David addresses him, “O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” When we acknowledge God, we should ask him, “Are you my LORD? Are you my Rock? Are you my Redeemer?” Then we should say, “Be my LORD. Be my Rock. Be my Redeemer.” God illuminated the host of heaven to draw our attention to him. God is now watching from heaven awaiting our response. He turned his lights on; will he now see us waving?

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