It’s no exaggeration to say that the Space Shuttle doesn’t get off the ground without a prayer. I know, because for almost three years I was the Air Force Chaplain who wrote the official prayer for most launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida. But the shuttle (STS-103) scheduled to repair the Hubble Telescope in December of 1999 seemed to be beyond the help of prayer. Due to numerous problems, the mission seemed infernally grounded, which caused me to rewrite the launch prayer nine times.
Finally, on December19th at 7:50pm EST, after voicing the collective prayers of an interfaith launch crew, we launched the shuttle and a few days later even the non-religious found themselves repeatedly mouthing God’s name as astronauts successfully upgraded Hubble’s brain with a new 486 computer processor. But the news this week is that it will take more than an upgrade to keep the Hubble
program alive. In fact, it seems now that the Hubble doesn’t have a prayer. The Hubble, which only last year discovered the coldest place in the universe, will soon discover the unforgiving heat of earth’s atmosphere as NASA sends a Judas satellite to give it the nudging kiss of death. Sometime after the fatal nudge, NASA will eventually replace the Hubble, but we will have to live for a period of time alone and disconnected from our universe, incognito from our beginnings and our destiny.
Despite all we know about our universe, the distance between our questions and answers about destiny and history is increasing exponentially. And, as Edwin Hubble (1889 1953) noted, “With increasing distance, our knowledge fades, and fades rapidly. Eventually we reach the dim boundary the utmost limits of our telescopes. There, we measure shadows, and we search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial.” The substantial prayers of the launch team that balmy December evening reflected a belief that the Hubble would not only provide us with a substantial look into our past, but that it would also draw a substantial line in the eternal sands of space for us to one day cross.
Our hopes that December day echoed the words of Psalm 139 as we prayed that Hubble’s eye would help us ascend our gaze into heaven and know the majesty of God that dwells in creation. Our prayer was that, as we stared though a God’s eye view into the eternal bounds of space, we might also see an internal reflection and discover something infinitely eternal about ourselves.
Indeed, the boundaries drawn by the Hubble telescope call us to a spiritual purpose by encouraging the echo of the questions mouthed by children at each stage of growth, namely: “Mommy, where did I come from?” and “Where are we going?” and” Are we there yet?” But most of all it has encouraged all of us who will look through its lenses to continually ask the question “Why are we here?” and “Are we here alone?”
Of course all those questions will never be totally answered. But the urge to search must continue because, as Mr. Hubble put it, “The urge is older than history. It is not satisfied and it will not be oppressed.” It’s hard to watch something die that has been a part of life.
And although I know a newer telescope will most likely be a better one, sometimes it’s the power of relationship that gives something value. And every time I saw a picture from the Hubble, it bought me back into a relationship with creation in a childlike way, full of wonder and awe. Through its lens, the beauty, mystery and power of the universe was made more tangible until it seemed as though I was watching the breath of God blowing life into the universe, and it was good.