Apollo and Sputnik

July 9, 2016


I was born in 1968 in the midst of the many moments of space-race frenzy.

Lovers of Toy Story know well the lament of the turning of the season as western frontier Cowboys and Outlaws are superseded by Astronauts and Spaceships in the playful imagination of the child.

apollo11newspaper2The year after I was born the Americans landed a human on the surface of the moon. This became, in the public imagination across the world, a crowning achievement of human brilliance, bravery, ingenuity and industry.

Like many other people, as I grew, the large cosmos of my imagination grappled with the possibilities and terrors of Space.

Throughout my childhood and well into my adult years I suffered a recurring nightmare: Bundled into a barrel I was flung far out into space where I spun and spun on interminably, cramped and cold in the dark of the barrel, nausea and giddiness defining my existence. It was apparent to me in the nightmare that I would spin on alone, contained, dark and cold forever – that there was no end to space. Even now, after four decades, I sometimes find myself orbiting the small hours in this same dread-filled dream.

So many parts of it are terrible – but the worst of it is the sense of complete isolation and aloneness.

The Americans named their space missions after the gods of Greek and Roman mythology.

apollo11_launchThe early programs of Gemini conjured the images of the sons of Leda, Castor and Pollux – one immortal, one mortal – but forever bound together when Castor shared his immortality to restore his brother to life, as together they became the Gemini, the guiding gods of sailors. Perhaps as humans we held aspirations that Space might bring to us an immortality.

Other programs were called Apollo and Mercury – suggesting the mythologies of bearing messages from the gods and the many power of the gods over human existence.

The Americans sure knew how to elevate their science experiments onto a grander scale of meaning making.

jl781_rMeanwhile, the Russians – no less intent on space mastery – and in indeed ahead of the Americans in terms of unmanned launches – famously gave their projects a characteristically Russian name – Sputnik.

I remember my mum talking about the Sputnik. It sounded quirky and cute. And she said it with a kind of eastern European mimicry.

Apollo 11 simply sounded awesome.

Just recently, doing the General Knowledge crossword in the Saturday paper, I learned that Sputnik means ‘fellow traveller’.

I don’t think one can infer too much about the theologies of the American or Russian people or even their scientific communities as a whole from the way they named their early space programs. And perhaps the political analysts might see these as inherent expressions of opposing philosophies – Russian socialism acclaimed in the fellow traveller or companion/comrade, and Western hierarchies of meritocratic power enshrined in the icons of super-humans and demi-gods.

But it does provoke the personal question – when I look up into the vast expanse of space and consider the nature of what kind of force or being might envelope or spark and fuel or give life to it all – do I imagine an Apollo or a Sputnik? A super-powered god or a fellow traveller?

What do I seek as I am hurtled spinning through this cold cosmos? A god or a fellow traveller?

These days, I confess I am far more drawn to the Sputnik than I am to the Apollo.

I blame my Bible reading of course.

In the ancient narratives of nomads, the protestations of the prophets, the grist of the gospels and the snippets of epistles I see the God who joins us as a fellow traveller. The Sputnik God. The God who ‘rolls out his swag’ and moves into the neighbourhood.

For some people, the Space programs ended their quest for God. If God were out there in space we would find him when we went there.

But perhaps for others, the Sputnik God was never out there, but always a fellow traveller here with us. Maybe better known as the Emmanuel God-with-us.

As I have come to know this Sputnik God. And I’ve realized that all around me are other God-given Sputniks. If you are one of them, you know who you are.

And most miraculously of all – the contained, frightened, isolated, nauseous little girl is a sputnik herself to others. Sometimes I even think I come into land, and a few of the barrel staves peel off and I crawl out a little…

Who we imagine God to be creates a template for who we will be for others. The image of a powerful Apollo has always played a part in authorizing humans to claim powerful, unchallengeable messages of dominance.

On the otherhand, the Sputnik, fellow traveller God – the incarnate, Jesus, Beloved of God, makes for us a way to be fellow travellers, companions on the way for each other…to infinity and beyond.

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