Beep, beep, beep. It was October 4, 1957, the birth of the Space Age, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I.
It was the world's first artificial satellite.
About basketball size and weighing just 83 kilograms, it orbited the earth in 98 minutes.
For thousands of years, humankind has observed the sun, moon and planets, but not until the middle of the 20th century did it become possible to investigate any of them “on-site.” Science-fiction magazines and movies made it possible to take imaginary trips to these places, but Sputnik made actual travel into space outside of earth's atmosphere a real possibility. After Sputnik, the next question was who would be first to set foot on the moon.
The Cold War launched the United States and the Soviet Union into a struggle to win the space race. During the early years, the Soviets scored a number of firsts. After Sputnik, the Soviet Air Force officer Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit earth, on April 12, 1961. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel in space, and on March 18, 1965, Alexei Leonov performed the first space walk.
Americans followed, always a step behind, it seemed, with Marine John Glenn orbiting the earth three times on February 20, 1962, while it was not until 1983 that Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.
But the US won the race to put humans on the moon. Apollo 11 landed on July 20, 1969, and Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr stepped out of their frail craft onto the lunar surface. During the next three years, 10 other US astronauts walked and drove across the lunar landscape. Mechanical and electronic spacecraft without a human crew have also given scientists great insight about the planets in our solar system. In 1977, the US launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, each equipped with powerful cameras.
Their flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune sent back valuable photos. In 2006, Voyager 1 became the first human-made object to reach outer space beyond the solar system.
It entered the final frontier, where the sun's influence ends. If Voyager 1 were travelling in the direction of our closest neighbouring star, it would take 75,000 years to get there! In 1981, the US launched Columbia, the first of several space shuttles. These vehicles take off like a rocket and land like an plane. During the following 25 years, we've followed both the triumphs and the tragedies of these shuttles.
The Soviet Union achieved another first in 1986 when it put into orbit the Mir space station. The Cold War ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union, and now the US, Russia and other nations have combined their efforts to assemble an International Space Station.
Another step forward has been spacebased astronomical observatories, which permit astronomers to see distant stars and galaxies from above the distorting effects of the earth's atmosphere.
The Hubble Space Telescope was put into orbit on April 24, 1990, by the US space shuttle Discovery. The photos it has sent back have vastly increased our knowledge of the deep universe.
Over the past 20 years, a series of sophisticated US probes were sent to various planets: Magellan went to Venus in 1991, Galileo to Jupiter in 1993 and Cassini to Saturn in 1997.
Scientists in Europe, Japan and China all seek to make contributions to space exploration. But none have been able to answer the question of whether intelligent beings—or life in any form—exist beyond our solar system.
More than 50 years have passed since Sputnik catapulted humanity into the Space Age. But much is still unknown about the vast universe beyond. Recently, some scientists began using the term fourth dimension, a term popularised in the classic novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A Abbott. In plane and solid geometry, we learn about width, length and depth, but the fourth dimension leads us into the incomprehensible. Biblebelieving Christians call it the supernatural.
To the humanist, the origin of the earth and of life on it are mysteries.
For Christians, our Creator-God spoke everything into existence, though it is only through faith that something so “incomprehensible” becomes believable.
So does Scripture tell us anything about a fourth dimension, the supernatural? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
1 According to the apostle Paul, there are three heavens (see 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4). The first is earth's atmosphere where the birds fly (see Genesis 1:20). The second is outer space, where the planets and stars reside (see Genesis 1:14–16). The third is Paradise, the dwelling place of God (see Revelation 2:7; Luke 23:43).
2 The wise man King Solomon dedicated his temple in Jerusalem with these words: “Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth below... . Hear from heaven, your dwelling place” (1 Kings 8:23, 30).
3 Moses, the first Bible writer, made it clear that God created planet Earth and everything in it, including intelligent human beings. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and when everything else had been created, He said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:1, 26).
4 This Creator-God communicated with Adam, telling him what to eat and not to eat (see Genesis 1:29; 2:16, 17) and rebuking him when he disobeyed (verses 9–13). Through the centuries, God spoke to Adam's descendents through prophets (see Amos 3:7).
5 God descended on Mount Sinai and with a loud voice spoke the Ten Commandments—the rules of conduct for His people (Exodus 20:2–17).
6 Both Old and New Testament writers inform us of the ministry of angels, supernatural created beings who act as representatives or messengers of God. An incident in the life of the patriarch Jacob links heaven to planet Earth. “He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).
7 The prophet Daniel tells us about a remarkable space flight of the angel Gabriel. When Daniel started to pray, God commissioned the angel to give the prophet “insight and understanding” (Daniel 9:22). In just a couple of minutes, he flew the vast distance from heaven, God's dwelling place, to the prophet's side.
8 The greatest wonder of contact between heaven and earth is the miracle of Christ's incarnation. “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Galatians 4:4, 5).
9 Jesus' sinless life, marvellous teachings, sacrificial death and triumphal resurrection made that salvation available to you and me.
10 Before returning to His Father, Jesus promised to come again. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” He said. “I am going ... to prepare a place for you... . I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1–3). Now that's the space flight I want to take! And I'm preparing for it now.