Thursday, October 4, 2007

Sputnik and the Beaver

Fifty years ago today, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I into orbit, thereby inaugurating the space race. The small satellite, which was about the size of a beach ball and weighed about 184 pounds, caused shock waves across America because the Russians had beaten us in the race to enter space. The United States would launch Explorer I, its first satellite, on January 31, 1958.

Another significant event also occurred on that same date when CBS aired the first episode of Leave it to Beaver. The family comedy about the Cleavers—father Ward, mother June, older son Wally, and younger son Theodore aka “The Beaver,” is treasured for its warm depiction of late 1950s/early 1960s middle American family life. The fact that its depiction of such family life does not match very well with reality has given us words to bemoan the state of modern life, as when we say something like “This ain’t no episode of Leave it to Beaver, you know.”

I and those of my generation grew up in the thrall of the early years of space exploration. Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of episodes in the story of the American effort to get to the moon. I grieved the loss of the Apollo I crew in a flash fire on January 27, 1967. I thrilled to the first lunar landing by the crew of Apollo XI on July 20, 1969. I hung on every word of every news report about the fate of the crew of Apollo XIII following the accident that threatened their lives. I remember being amazed by an artist’s rendering of a proposed multi-use space shuttle that I saw in a publication when I was in elementary school in the late 1960s and being thoroughly amazed when I saw Columbia, which looked very much like that drawing, fly into earth orbit in 1981.

The thing about space exploration is that it is by its very nature outward looking and future oriented. We are becoming more and more aware of just how much “out there” is out there and, to a layperson such as I, it is mind-boggling. Lord, how I’d love to live long enough for the development in real science of such science fiction favorites as warp drives that can send a spaceship into hyper-speed so we can go ahead and get a better look at what is waiting to be discovered and explored. I would gladly be the first preacher in space if my wife would go with me.

Again, space exploration is outward looking and future oriented and we desperately need to have those traits as a part of our psyche and a characteristic of our efforts. There is something of an eschatology of hope in the effort to go deeper and deeper into space. As we move farther and farther out we learn more and more about God’s creation and about ourselves. The cover story in the October 2007 issue of Scientific American is “The Future of Exploring Space.” Among the articles is one on the ongoing Orion project, one goal of which is to land on Mars, and one on “Five Essential Things to Do in Space,” among which are “seek out new life” and “break out of the solar system.” I get tingly just thinking about the possibilities.

Sometimes, I believe, we become a little too inward looking and a lot too earthbound in our thinking. Problems sometimes get worse and seem insurmountable when we keep focusing inward; solutions often present themselves when we keep our attention focused outward. We should seize every opportunity to look beyond ourselves and to work together to explore space to enhance the common good.

Perhaps our fascination with TV shows like Leave it to Beaver is symptomatic of our tendency to look inward; it is assuredly a sign of our tendency to look backward.

It’s mixing TV shows, but a statement made to me a few years ago by a childhood friend tells the truth: “We grew up in Mayberry,” he said. He could just as easily have said “Mayfield,” the fictional home of the Cleavers. I have to say that my home life was about as close to that of the Cleavers as you could get. My father was good, sound, and faithful. My mother was kind, loving, and dependable. We were barely middle class but we had a solid roof over our heads, decent clothes to wear, and plenty of food on the table. We went to church on Sundays and Wednesdays and any other time they met. I would play in the creek across the street from our house and lie in the clover in the backyard with my dog Ruff and play baseball with my friends for eight hour stretches. For the first six years of my educational life I attended an excellent grammar school with small classes and fine teachers. It was wonderful but it was not perfect.

A wise person once said, “They don’t make them like they used to—and they never did.” The same could be said of the “good old days” of which Beaver reminds us—they really weren’t as good as we remember them being. I have known more than one person who will never be happy until American civilization returns to what they remember it being in the 1950s. Therefore, of course, they will never be happy, because it wasn’t as great as their idealized memories would indicate and even if it was, we can’t go back.

It’s ok to look back; it’s not ok to look back so as to want to go back. Time marches on. Life marches on. We’re better off if we intentionally, purposefully, and, as wisely as possible, march on, too. I believe that’s how the good Lord intends for us to live.

Besides, if the Beaver was in fact a normal red-blooded American boy growing up in the late 50s and early 60s, don’t you think he would have gone up in one of those Apollo spacecraft had he gotten the chance? The on film Beaver is consigned to Mayfield forever; a real life Beaver would have blasted into space in a heartbeat.

So may it be for the rest of us.

1 comment:

Joshua Ruffin said...

I'd be the first preacher's son in space, if Lauren would go with me.

This kind of ties in to your last entry. And there are two ways to look at this particular issue. On the one hand, our founding fathers warned us against excessive expansion...well, we see where that's gotten us on the Earth stage. On the other hand, i don't think that really applies when it comes to...well, infinite space.

Generations from now, we're going to have colonies in some other part of the solar system, galaxy, what have you--mark my words.

My only fear is being stuck at the tail end of the last Earth-confined generation.

"Who runs Barter Town? MASTER BLASTER runs Barter Town!"