Hail Endeavour and Her Crew!

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At this moment I’m sitting in my living room watching the coverage of the final launch of Endeavour.  What a magnificent craft she is!  I salute her and all those brave souls who have entrusted her to carry them to the threshold of the universe. God speed, Endeavour!

Space Shuttle Endeavour Landing with Drogue Chute Deployed. Photo: Nasa.gov

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The Final Launch of the Orbiter Endeavour

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Endeavour in Her Element...And Hard at Work. Photo: JPL/NASA

And here is a nice photo of the replica of the HMS Bark Endeavour, Captain Cook’s ship under full sail.  It looks large because of the tall masts and the sails, but in reality, the original was 106 ft (32 m).  By way of comparison, Orbiter Endeavour is 122 ft/37 m long (not counting the main external tank, which is 154 ft/47 m).  A number of years ago I had the chance to tour the replica of the HMS Endeavour.  It is a wonderful ship and a fascinating look at history and brings home how difficult the crew’s life was day after day.  No real amenities.  No mission control, and years at sea to circumnavigate the earth instead of 90 minutes.

The HMS Bark Endeavour, Full Size Sailing Replica. Photo Courtesy: thevilloz.com

Correction Update: Much to my embarrassment in my original post, I misspelled “Endeavour.”

Rocket Powered Camels

Okay, let’s start with the obvious.  The sun, the moon, planets and stars rise in the east and set in the west.  We all know this; everybody knows this.  Even before Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo (in the 1500s and early 1600s) figured out the motion was due to the rotation of the earth and not of a cosmic celestial bowl turning over a stationary earth, the day and night cycle was something everybody just knew because that’s what everyone observed, day after day.  And aside from the occasional comet or meteor shower, everything in the sky rose in the east and set in the west.  “Sicut erat in principio, et nunc et semper, et in secula seculorum. Amen.  Alleuluia.

What few astronomical references we have from the Bible, it’s always rise in the east and set in the west.  The passage in Joshua 10:12-15 doesn’t contradict this.  According to the text, Joshua asks the Lord to stop the motion of the sun and the moon “in the middle of the day” (v. 13a), and “[the sun] did not hasten to go down for about a whole day” (v. 13b).  Some day, huh.

Neither does the curious passage in Isaiah 38, in which the Lord directs Isaiah to tell the dying Hezekiah that the sign of his healing will be, “‘I will cause the shadow on the stairway, which has gone down with the sun on the stairway of Ahaz, to back ten steps.’  So the sun’s shadow went back ten steps on the stairway on which it had gone down” (Is 38:8).  Isaiah then heals the king’s near-fatal boil by applying to it a “cake of figs” (v 21).  That’s the NASB’s translation.  The NIV says a “poultice of figs,” but to my way of thinking the whole idea of a poultice has a much higher “yuck” factor even if it is more literal.  Of course, why they just didn’t do the whole fig-cake thing to begin with, we’ll never know.  Anyway, modern Astronomy doesn’t have an answer to either of these accounts, but it doesn’t matter.  The Israelites won the battle over the Amorites, and Hezekiah got a 15-year lease on life, so don’t knock it.

All right, where is this going?  I do have a plan.

Fast forward to the Nativity narrative in Matthew, with the Magi.  When Magi AstroConsulting ™ show up at Herod’s court in Jerusalem, they said they had seen this new star in the east, that according to their Cray Supercomputers, er, magination and divinations had determined it signified a new King of the Jews.  Aside from the fact this rather impolitic announcement spread like wildfire in all the local papyrus tabloids and cable TV talking heads, their announcement, was astronomically correct.

These astronomer/astrologers were east-centric.  From our modern perspective, space is a big, big place and the whole notion of the cardinal points of north, south, east and west, are not of much significance in a universe that stretches infinitely away on all vectors from our small blue dot. That’s for us landlubbers, anyway.  Navigation by air or sea requires the correct heading or bad things will happen.

But the guys at Magi AstroConsulting ™ lived in a much cozier universe, and predicting accurately what stuff in the sky came into view, when, and in what order made all the difference (not to mention keeping their heads connected to their necks).  Therefore, prior to the Copernican Revolution, the most important direction was EAST.  Besides with artificial lighting to accompany us at all times, we in modern culture rarely look up anyway.  What’s the point?  I’LL TELL YOU WHAT THE POINT IS…oh, sorry, I don’t want to cry and get my computer keyboard wet.

So the Magi see this star rise in the east and watch its track to where it sets in the west.  Although they couldn’t compute longitude (the vertical grid circling the globe), they could compute latitude (the horizontal lines), and throwing in a little astrology to plot which constellation signifies an auspicious event in the land of the Jews, they packed up their dromedarian SUVs and headed west.  ROAD TRIP!  The Route 66 of the Ancient World!  Destination Jerusalem!  On the way back, they’d hit Caesarea Phillipi, hang out on the beach, catch a few shows.  Some things never change.

The plot thickens, of course, because in present day, every off the shelf astronomy computer software program can calculate the night sky between 10,000 B.C. and A.D. 10,000 (10,000 C.E if you want to archeologically correct), and there were some very interesting things happening in the sky between 6 B.C. and A.D. 6., but we’ll deal with that story nearer Christmas.

And as for the star guiding the Magi caravan to the house in Bethlehem?  Well, there’s west (recall they were going west) and then there’s west.  Remember, the sun sets truly in the west only twice a year: at the Spring and Fall Equinoxes.  As soon as one deviates from true south or north in a westward direction, then one is “going” west.  That’s about a 180-degree variation of “westerly.”  So, despite the fact Bethlehem is slightly southwest of Jerusalem, it’s no big stretch to get everything to line up.  Of course, the Matthew narrative is much more satisfying, so since they found the right place, don’t knock it.

Double fast-forward to modern day.  I’m standing in my driveway looking west for the newest star in the heavens to appear.  Yes, west.  Didn’t seem right, with all I have just written, but west it was.  And it wasn’t really a star.  It was the International Space Station.  The fourth brightest object in the sky, and as well, only the fourth object in the sky to be visible in daylight (not counting the rare supernova or bollide meteorite).  Why west to east?  That’s the direction of the rotation of the earth.  It’s the rotation of the Jet Stream.  Spacecraft generally are launched with the earth’s spin.  Takes less fuel.  Launch to orbit in eight minutes.

So, there I was.  8:23 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.  Out of the glow of the setting sun a golden star, the brightest object in the sky, soars overhead.  Fast!  Very fast!  About two and a half minutes from horizon to horizon.  I was stunned!  About it’s size.  Of it’s brilliance.  And of the implication that every few nights, when the clouds of the great Cascade rain forest part for even a few moments that I will be able to step outside and watch this golden orb slide overhead.

A naked eye object.  A real spaceship. A human presence in space.  Not science fiction.  Real.  Just step out of your home every few nights and look up.  You can check the schedule for your Zip Code by going to http://www.spaceweather.com and clicking on the “Satellite Flybys.”

And I imagined what the Magi might have thought if such a thing, this golden star had soared over their heads, west to east.  Going the wrong direction.  To follow that star, they’d need rocket-powered camels!

ISS Glides Over Butser, England.  3 Mar 09.  Credit: Martin Saban-Smith, http://www.m109.co.uk

ISS Glides Over Butser, England. 3 Mar 09. Credit: Martin Saban-Smith, http://www.m109.co.uk

My Take: Why Rick Warren is Praying at Obama’s Presidential Inauguration

Back before the election, I wrote that Americans were going to have to get used to having a smart president, a man who thinks out of a complex frame of reference. He is unlike the current Occupant of the White House, whose thinking is at the best of times unidimensional. The past eight years clearly illustrate him at the worst of times.

Don’t expect President Barack Obama to think or make decisions like George W. Bush. The Neo-con Republicans are already gnashing their teeth over having to deal with a president who can out-think them on just about any topic. But those of us who supported Obama must also change our perspective about what to expect from this president, the president. He will think and do things that surprise us. It will take a while to adjust, but soon, I hope our unease will return to the confidence and enthusiasm we felt so strongly when we elected him to the highest office in the land.

When I heard that president-elect Obama had chosen the well-known evangelical pastor, Rick Warren, to pray the invocation at the inauguration, I was, for a moment, stunned. During the campaign Republicans had a field-day with Obama’s answers at the Saddleback Forum. No one will doubt that Warren and Obama are ideologically distant in a multitude of ways. It’s a safe bet that Warren didn’t vote for Obama.

But in one extremely important respect they are alike: they are both Christians. Why is this important? It’s the whole Barack HUSSEIN Obama issue. The Far Right fabricated accusations that Obama is an undercover jihadist Muslim, ready to lead the country down the road into the arms of al Qaeda. Through the course of the campaign they hammered on this falsehood ad nauseum, and still do, for that matter. Reality is not the issue here. Their paranoid delusion is based on the same kind of fallacious reasoning that kept the world “flat” for several millennia. Millions of Americans still believe Obama is a follower of Mohammad (with my apologies to all Muslims of good faith), even though Obama has repeatedly denied it and stated unequivocally that he is a practicing Christian .

Enter Rick Warren. First of all, Obama has said repeatedly–REPEATEDLY–he would work to bring all Americans back together, that includes those who opposed him politically–and theologically. Warren is the face of a huge body of evangelical Christians, and though he has his critics from the Far Right (and the Left, of course), none of them can legitimately dispute that he is a born-again Christian by their own definition. By itself, that could be Obama’s reason to invite Warren, and it would be consistent with what he promised to do. And it is not intended to be a slap in any of his supportive constituents’ faces.

But Warren’s presence on the inaugural platform is also a repudiation of the Far-Right’s unfounded lies. The man who will be praying for the new president of the United States is a clear signal to them: Christian Rick Warren praying for Christian Barack Obama.

Jesus said, “To him who has ears, let him hear.” Actually he said it a whole bunch of times. It is sad how many in the Far Right, who profess to believe in that Jesus, have plugged their ears so their world will stay flat.

For the rest of us: Obama promised us change. This is one of them. Get used to it.

ADDENDUM: My colleague, M.S., over at Greeningwood correctly points out that although Rick Warren is giving the invocation at Obama’s and Biden’s inauguration, the benediction will be pronounced by the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery (b 1921), who along with MLK founded the SCLC. He is a beloved and much-honored leader of the American Civil Rights Movement.