I must have been about fourteen years old when my physical science teacher announced that he would be setting up his telescope on the school football field one evening. He invited all of us who were in his class to drop by to take a look at the night sky. Since I literally lived just down the street from the school, I eagerly accepted his invitation along with my mother and brothers who were equally excited by the opportunity to view the heavens.
It was a clear night with hundreds of stars sparkling in the sky. Back then Houston was still a relatively small city and out in the suburbs where we were there were not that many lights, so the stars shone more brightly than they now do. There was a bit of a chill in the air that somehow made the event even more exciting.
A small crowd had already assembled around the telescope that the teacher had adjusted for maximum viewing. We took turns looking at the craters in the moon and different stars, but it was when our host aimed the lens at Saturn that I experienced a breathless moment. I squinted into the eye piece and suddenly there was the most extraordinary sight I had ever seen. Saturn with its r rings was as clear as if it had landed on the field where we all stood. I screamed with delight at the wondrous vision.
I’ve spent many a night camping under starry skies and each time I look toward the upward I remember that moment in my youth when I saw the planet that before had only been described with words or drawings. Until that moment Saturn was only a celestial concept in my mind. Seeing that it was real was life changing.
I have a fascination with space that has only grown as we humans have traveled to the moon and sent expeditions to Mars. Thinking about my place in the universe humbles me. I am little more than a tiny speck, but I am important in the grand scheme of things just as every creature and living thing is. It is mind boggling how life bursts forth only in places with the a precise balance of elements. There is something quite spiritual about the idea of the evolution of the heavens and our own planet Earth over time .
Our human curiosity and inventiveness has allowed us to learn more and more about where we live and faraway orbs of light. Perhaps our ancestors felt the pull of the sky just as I did on that night of long ago. Perhaps it is a natural human yearning to understand the place where we live, the tiny universe inside our bodies, the inner workings of our minds, and how the vast expanse beyond our atmosphere affects us. I often wonder what worlds are out there waiting for us to discover.
I am bound to the earth by gravity and age. It is unlikely that I will ever explore the heavens the way I fly from one place to another. It is only in my imagination and with the images from explorers that I know so much more than I did on that chilly night when Saturn became so real to me. I felt the kind of adventurous exhileration that has pushed humans to explore since the beginning of time. I became addicted to learning more and more.
The skies where I live are filled with millions of artificial lights these days. There is a haze that hides the brilliance of the stars. It is as though they are purposely hiding from view, angry that we have blotted them out of sight. Sometimes I forget what it once looked like to gaze at the night time sky. Then I find myself camping in far west Texas where people are few and stars are many. I look upward and feel a rush of excitement. The stars crowd the sky with their light. It is a glorious and magnificent sight. I am reminded that those orbs are always there, but we humans have all too often hidden them with our artificial illumination, forgotten that they are a constant in a universe that we do not always treat well.
The balance of life depends on maintaining our delicate atmosphere and protecting the air and water that all living things need to survive. We have learned much about our planet and those beyond. We have an understanding of how things work. We know that we are but specks in the vastness of the heavens and yet we act as though we do not need to treasure the unique gifts that we have. In our pride we ignore those who have devoted their focus and their work to understanding the delicate equilibrium of life on the earth. We foolishly feud among ourselves pretending that only one place or one group of people really matter. We waste our resources and trash the earth piling up momentary riches that will become meaningless when we are gone. Perhaps it is time for us to better cherish this place that we call earth and all of the people who inhabit it. We will have to work together to keep it as magnificent as it was meant to be.
I can still see Saturn so vividly in my mind. I remember the craters of the moon. I think of my science teacher who attempted to show me the importance of understanding how things work and the need for continuing to learn and seek answers. I know I must heed the warnings that modern day explorers of the heavens have sounded. They look down from space to see changes that place our planet in danger. We need to hear what they have to say and believe them. We are but small parts of a grand scheme. We must always be certain that our hubris does not destroy the heavenly balance that was meant to be. That perfect night under the stars taught me to honor my place in the universe.