A Breathtaking Endeavor
I've been blessed to have some breathtaking experiences in my life. I've seen the sun set on Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya and I've experienced the thunder of Victoria Falls in Zambia. I've watched whales in the Pacific, great white sharks hunting seals off Cape Point, and I've been horse-riding in the Alps. And, of course, I've had close encounters with lions, cheetahs, bears, elephants, hippos, beluga whales, and a host of other remarkable animals. But this past summer, I had an experience which, to my surprise, was as breathtaking as any of these.
Los Angeles was full of flyers advertising a new exhibit on display at the California Science Center: the NASA OV-105 (Orbital Vehicle 105), better known as the Space Shuttle Endeavor. I duly took my family to see it. What I wasn't expecting was that upon seeing it, I would literally (and I mean "literally" literally) gasp, and feel a powerful emotion of awe. (If you're reading this in a web browser, you can click on the hi-res image on the right to embiggen it and get a better sense of its awesomeness.)
Now, it's true that the space shuttle was always a big deal for me. As a kid (and, truth be told, even as an adult) I was always a huge fan of spaceships. Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Battle of the Planets, Lego Space models, you name it. I remember that as a third-grader, I did a school project which I called "Into The Future," about space exploration; in an ironic precursor of future events, a zealous classmate slammed it as kefirah!
Still, I wasn't the only one to feel such powerful emotions upon seeing the OV-105. My wife, who was was certainly no spaceship enthusiast in her youth, was tending to the baby when I entered the exhibit, and thus entered later and separately. She told me that when she saw the shuttle, she was overcome with emotion, with tears welling up in her eyes.
Why was it such an awesome sight? The shuttle is not as big as an airliner. But it does look very different. For example, instead of a smooth exterior, it is covered in textured insulating tiles - each about eight inches square, individually numbered, separately sized, costing about $2000 apiece, and fragile enough to be crushed by hand! The shuttle also has all kinds of ports and hatches and devices all over it, setting it aside as a Very Unique Vehicle. And those engines!
But it certainly wasn't just the appearance of the shuttle that made the experience so breathtaking. Rather, it was what the shuttle represented. As a child/ teenager in the 80s, the space shuttle truly epitomized the wonder of technological progress. It looked like soon there would be lunar bases and interplanetary exploration, with the USS Enterprise not far off in the future. Of course, the space program didn't quite work out that way, and it seems to have taken a step backwards with the decommissioning of the space shuttle; nowadays, the most exciting part of the space program is when a frog tries to hitch a ride. But for people my age, the space shuttle was mankind's most glorious technological achievement.
For me, seeing the OV-105 was a religious moment. Floundering for the correct response, I pronounced the blessing of Baruch shenasan me-chachmaso l'bnei adam, "Blessed is He who has given of His wisdom to mankind." This is a blessing recited upon seeing a great scholar of secular wisdom; I figured that the shuttle represents the fruits of such wisdom.
My wife told me that when she saw it, she spontaneously wanted to recite the blessing of Baruch Oseh Maase Bereishis, "Blessed is the One who makes the work of creation." Then she felt that it would not be correct, because that is a blessing to be pronounced upon the work of God, whereas the shuttle is the work of man.
I'm not sure that it wouldn't be appropriate. The space shuttle is the pinnacle of man's technological prowess, which in turn is the result of his three-pound brain. Which in turn is the single most complex entity in the known universe - the single greatest and most remarkable element of creation. In The Challenge Of Creation, I quoted the following from mathematician Morris Kline:
A study of mathematics and its contributions to the sciences exposes a deep question. Mathematics is man-made. The concepts, the broad ideas, the logical standards and methods of reasoning... were fashioned by human beings. Yet with the product of his fallible mind, man has surveyed spaces too vast for his imagination to encompass; he has predicted and shown how to control radio waves which none of our senses can perceive; and he has discovered particles too small to be seen with the most powerful microscope... Some explanation of this marvelous power is called for.
Who would predict a universe in which the laws of nature are able to produce a being that can figure out a way to leave its home planet? Baruch Oseh Maase Bereishis!