Thinking about outer space inevitably brings me, and likely many of our readers, back to childhood memories. One of my earliest is lying on a blanket in the back of my grandfather’s pickup truck with my two brothers and a cousin watching for a satellite to pass over. I don’t remember which of the early satellites we were hoping to glimpse—Sputnik, Vanguard, Explorer or another—but I do remember watching the tiny pinpoint of light silently gliding across a sea of stars and wondering what it all meant.
Mostly I was puzzled that the adults—my mother, an aunt and uncle, and my grandparents—were so excited about a little dot of light moving across the night sky. I couldn’t comprehend that my grandparents, who grew up in horse-and-buggy days, were now witnessing mankind’s first tentative steps to leave the bounds of our planet.
The “space race” and outer space were background themes to life in the 1960s. Like many boys I had a collection of plastic toy spacemen to go with my toy soldiers and cowboys and Indians. An uncle worked for aerospace contractors and occasionally presented me with a model rocket courtesy of his company.
My older brother liked things that moved fast and made loud noises, so he gravitated toward model rockets that actually flew. He made several that would disappear in a flash of smoke and light, hurtle several hundred feet into the air and disappear from sight before returning to earth with a small thud. He let me help with some of the launches, although in hindsight I’m wondering if that wasn’t motivated by a curiosity as to what might happen to a somewhat pesky little brother if one of his rockets were to explode on liftoff.
And then there was the burning question: Was there life in outer space? Tabloids and magazines featuring UFOs were popular on newsstands. TV series like The Invaders, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone and Star Trek explored strange new worlds, sought out new life and new civilizations and boldly went where mankind had never gone before—assuring us that other planets teeming with alien life forms existed all around us.
Now, more than half a century later, what do we know?
We have sent men to walk on the moon—starting 50 years ago this month. We have sent probes to every planet in our solar system, and even to some of those planets’ moons. We have driven remote-controlled vehicles across the surface of Mars. We have flown spacecraft past Saturn’s famous rings, past frozen Uranus, Neptune and Pluto and out beyond the edge of our solar system. We have even landed spacecraft on an asteroid and a comet!
Through the astounding photos produced by the Hubble Space Telescope we have glimpsed wonders in the universe previously unimagined. We have been able to peer billions of years back in time to see the formation of suns and galaxies. We have gazed across countless light-years of distance at marvels we could never visit in a billion lifetimes of travel. For decades we have scanned the skies with powerful radio telescopes looking for transmissions indicating the presence of intelligent life.
And in all this time, and with all this effort, what have we found?
We’ve found zero evidence of intelligent physical life beyond our planet—or of any other physical life at all, for that matter. And considering the astounding distances involved—the star nearest us, Alpha Centauri, is 4.367 light-years away (more than 276,000 times the distance from earth to the sun!)—there’s no way any of us will visit a planet outside our solar system anytime during this physical life.
This is not to say these questions about life and the universe and our role in it are not important. They certainly are! Humankind seems to be “wired” to want to explore, to learn, to reach out, to understand why we are here and where we are headed. In this issue we explore some of these all-important questions, because they are key to giving your life meaning and to understanding your future!