A Small Step for Mankind
Assessing the real value of America’s new $10 billion space shuttle.
by Prahladananda dasa
With a resounding roar “like sustained thunder,” the most advanced spacecraft ever built, the orbiter Columbia, rose from the launching pad at Cape Canaveral last April 12 and propelled the United States back into the space race. Its main engines are so powerful that they could generate enough electricity to light up all of New York State. Its miles of pipes and wires could equip a small skyscraper. Its “nervous system”—five computers, each able to perform 325,000 operations a second—protect the shuttle and its crew by instantly reporting to the astronauts even the slightest equipment malfunction. Said astronaut John Young, commander of the Columbia, “If there is a vehicle we can have confidence in, it is this one.”
The Columbia is certainly an amazing vehicle, but there’s one that’s even more’ amazing—the human body. U.S. space engineers hope to send the shuttle aloft as many as one hundred times, with a week’s layoff in between for maintenance and repair. But with the proper health regimen, John Young can expect to use his bodily “vehicle” every day for as long as eighty to one hundred years. His body is also unique in that it can repair itself and produce offspring. (Imagine how many billions of dollars would be saved if a “male” and a “female” space shuttle could create a third spacecraft.)
Still, even more remarkable than the human body are the human mind and intelligence, which can conceive and direct the manufacture of wondrous machines like the Columbia. And as for speed, no spacecraft can compete with the ship of the mind and intelligence. They can transport a person’s consciousness thousands of miles in less than a second.
Yet even more marvelous than the human mind and intelligence is the soul. Without the soul, the mind, intelligence, and physical body become inoperative, lifeless. Why hasn’t science discovered the soul? The Vedic literature tells us that the size of the soul is one ten-thousandth part of the tip of a hair, too small for even the most powerful electron microscope to detect. The Vedas define the soul as the actual self within the body, the source of consciousness, which, while remaining unchanged, animates the body and mind and perceives their activities. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna explains that the soul exists within a physical body that changes continuously from childhood to youth to old age. At the time of death the soul leaves the old body and enters a new one, unless the soul has achieved liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
The Vedas explain that a person can attain scientific understanding of the physical body, the mind, and the intelligence through yoga practice and thereby achieve extraordinary powers. Such yogis can perform feats of travel that would make the Columbia look like the Wright brothers’ biplane. Leaving his physical body at will, an advanced yogi can travel instantly to distant planets in the vehicle of his mind and intelligence.
But such powers are not the ultimate achievement. The Vedas further describe that the topmost yogis, the devotees of God, can at the time of death travel beyond the material universe and reach the spiritual planets. There such fortunate souls live eternal lives of unlimited happiness and complete knowledge. Even if the most advanced spacecraft traveled at the speed of the mind for many thousands of years, it could not reach the spiritual planets. Only by practicing the yoga of devotion, Krsna consciousness, can one become qualified to go there.
Space exploration undoubtedly yields fascinating information about our universe. But the Vedas encourage us to look inward to discover what is more immediately relevant—our eternal, spiritual nature. Great saints and sages have made this inward journey throughout history, and their experiences are recorded in the revealed Vedic scriptures. Such exploration promises greater rewards, with smaller economic sacrifice, than a space program of dubious merit.
We do not decry scientific advancement; we welcome it. But we urge that it be directed toward the proper goal. The science of bhakti-yoga, devotional service to the Supreme Lord, reveals information not only about the phenomenal universe but also about the supremely intelligent person who conceives, creates, and maintains it. The Vedanta-sutra, which contains the essence of all spiritual knowledge, declares, athato brahma-jijnasa: “Human life is meant for inquiring about the Absolute Truth, the origin of everything.” That is the proper function of scientific inquiry. The Columbia may help us discover the mysteries of space, but our real success will come when we discover the mysteries of our relationship to God.