The moon has never felt so close.
Irrational? Maybe. After all, this summer will be 55 years since Neil Armstrong took his first steps on our nearest neighbor. We’ve walked, driven, even played golf on the moon. And since then, we’ve remotely flown helicopters on Mars, peered into distant stars and black holes, and been serenaded by music played aboard a space station. After all that, shouldn’t returning to a bunch of rocks and craters feel old hat?
And yet, something about Thursday seemed special. No … WAS special.
For the first time since the ‘70s, an American spacecraft returned to the moon. No astronauts, not yet. Just a robot craft with a challenging landing, an uncertain signal and a few science instruments. Just that. And with it came the promise of a new start.
So much has changed, of course. New technology, new players. We’re not the only ones bringing spacecraft to the lunar surface anymore and everyone has had a lot of learning and re-learning to do. Especially since the folks who did it the first time are long since gone from the field (or from life) and their experience with it.
But we are learning. The drive is there again. And this time, instead of just a monument, it may become a stepping stone.
Oh, you could argue that Thursday remained an ordinary day for the overwhelming majority of us. We still had the same needs to fulfill and jobs to do, the same joys and stresses and looming headlines. My own attention to the Odysseus landing came as I was helping a family member recover from a stomach bug, about as un-science-fiction a task as you can imagine.
But in a real way, it put another crack in a wall that we build far too easily.
We tend to make our universe a very small place. I don’t mean the stars and planets, but the mental worlds we build around ourselves. It’s easy to tightly focus on our own routines and concerns, partly in self-defense against a media landscape that keeps threatening to overwhelm us with the troubles of 8 billion people.
But while some distance may be necessary for survival, it also becomes isolating. Over time, it can become a tunnel vision that limits horizons, diminishes joy and turns all but a select few into strangers. In tending our own garden, we look less and less over the garden wall.
No judgment. I do it, too. And that’s why I value the moments of wonder that turn my eyes upward again.
Suddenly, the universe is both big and close. Space suddenly isn’t something way out there, but close at hand, not apart from us but a part of us.
And once we lower our barriers, there’s a lot we can bring inside.
No one reaches space on their own. It requires a lot of teamwork and connection. That same sort of connection can strengthen us here on Earth, reaching to neighbors near and far, being and doing so much more than we could ever manage alone.
Sure, there are practical benefits from space exploration and plenty of people will write about them. But for me, at its heart, it goes back to those first words of Neil. When any of us makes just one small step outwards, it can become a giant leap for all of us.
May that hope always shine as brightly as our old friend does right now. May it always inspire us to look upward and outward and inward to find a larger world … and a closer one as well.
In a world where so much can weigh so heavily, it’s not a bad thing to let ourselves be moonstruck.