Awe and wonder


A direct and initial feeling when faced with something incomprehensible or sublime.


A more reflective feeling one has when unable to put things back into a familiar conceptual framework.

Comprehension. It’s where the feelings of awe and wonder begin. It’s what it comes down to. You are either able to comprehend the distance, the numbers, the size, the effort, the workload, the accomplishment, or you can’t. The notion of whether something is incomprehensible or not is as old as, well, us.

There have been significant discoveries, such as the ‘Warren Field Calendar’ and the ‘Nebra Disk,’ that shows that early cultures identified celestial objects and documented the tracking of lunar phases, and that they used that knowledge in their agricultural societies; in which the harvest depended on planting at the correct time of year, and for which the full moon was the only lighting for night-time travel into city markets. But only with Galileo, who was the first to use a telescope to observe the sky, and after constructing a 20x refractor telescope discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter in 1610, have our ancestors observed the planets in the night sky and wondered if they might be worlds like our very own. Today we know otherwise, but what we do have in common, as it was then and as it is today, gazing at the heavens elicits feelings of awe and wonder. After all, we are voyagers, we are pioneers. There wasn’t a pivotal moment when the first member of the Homo erectus family decided to pack their bag, carry the fire and leave the cave to see what was over the next valley; we were already on our way and needed to use the cave for shelter against the rain. That was it. One night’s shelter from the storm, we didn’t even unpack.

Around 140,000 years later, the very first inroad into scientific and philosophical thinking put the night sky at the center of curiousity. Thales of Miletus (624 – 546 BC), whom to many, most notably Aristotle, regarded him as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition, and is recognized as the first individual in Western civilization known to have entertained and engaged in scientific philosophy, was an accomplished astronomer who successfully predicted the solar eclipse of May 28th, 585 BC. Thales also described the position of Ursa Minor, and thought the constellation might be useful as a guide for navigation at sea. He calculated the duration of the year and the timings of the equinoxes and solstices, and he is credited with the first observation of the Hyades and with calculating the position of the Pleiades.

Of course, you do not need be a philosopher to be awestruck by astronomical beauty.

For the past few years (at the time of writing); Shaun Gallagher, a Professor who held the Lillian and Morrie Moss Chair of Excellence at the University of Memphis, has headed a research team of philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, engineers, and art historians in a project to study a special case of awe and wonder. He was interested in specific experiences reported by Astronauts and Cosmonauts during space travel, who described deeply aesthetic, spiritual, and sometimes religious experiences generated in almost all cases by visual stimuli—views of deep space or of earth as seen from the windows of the space shuttle or the International Space Station (ISS).

In a complex analysis of the Astronauts’ journals and interviews, Professor Gallagher found explicit descriptions of 34 different categories of experience related to these definitions. They included:

“…for example, experiences of being captured by or drawn to the view of the earth from the ISS; a feeling of connectedness with what they were seeing; a feeling of contentment (tranquility); a dream-like feeling (a feeling of unreality); a feeling of elation; a feeling of being overwhelmed; an experience of a perspective shift (a change of moral attitude); an experience of scale effects (feelings of the vastness of the universe or one’s own smallness or insignificance); and so on. It was important to have good descriptions and categories of the astronauts’ experiences for our attempt to replicate them.”

Professor Gallagher then went on to say;

“We were interested in answering a variety of questions. What are experiences of awe and wonder during space travel really like? What is the actual phenomenology? What aspects of the environment motivate such experiences?

First, you suddenly get the feeling that, hey, this is just one small planet which is lost in the middle of space… A very important feeling about the fact that we’re just drifting through an immense universe. . . You become a little more conscious about the fact that we shouldn’t be doing silly things on Earth like fighting and killing each other.

So, it’s a different view on Earth… I think it just really makes you feel less important when you look at everything in such a view like that. You’re just a speck on the Earth that’s in a universe of many different planets. You’re small compared to everything else, and I didn’t feel too bad, but it kinda makes me feel like my problems now are not really as big as I think they are compared to everything else in the world.

Second, views of earth in near-earth orbit elicited higher responses of awe and wonder than did views of deep space.

Third, we were able to track definite changes in EEG data (i.e., greater alpha suppression in both the frontal and the occipital/parietal areas, in both left and right hemispheres) correlated to experiences of awe and wonder.

Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, those subjects who indicated higher measures of religiosity (specifically those who expressed a more intense connection with a higher power and those who engage more in religious practices) experienced less awe and wonder than those who indicated lower measures on this scale. One possible way to explain this result is that those with higher religiosity scores may better be able to incorporate the space-related experiences into their expectations or conceptual schemas, thereby undermining conditions for experiencing awe and wonder.”

Reading Professor Gallagher’s “A neurophenomenology of awe and wonder: Towards a non-reductionist cognitive science,” I got to thinking; Why do we feel awe? What sparked MY feelings of awe and wonder, my passion for space, specifically space exploration and astronomy? After all, as one does not need be a philosopher to be awestruck by astronomical beauty, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that one does not need to be an Astronaut either. So where did it come from?

I was 10 years of age when I first holidayed in Florida, travelling from London UK, and visited the John F. Kennedy Space Center. It left an indelible mark. I felt at home (and still do when I visit as often as I can). Within day’s of my return I had penned a letter to NASA firstly; asking ‘How do I become an Astronaut?’, and secondly; simply thanking them for everything they had ever done, ever. They replied with a pack of information that went far beyond anything I had ever expected to have received (and in a untearable ‘tyvek’ envelope which I remember greatly impressed me also). The pack contained information for study seminars and groups local to me and internationally, career advice, history books, material samples from space suits, NASA center pamphlets, facility badges and stickers, as well as posters and booklets from each. I was hooked.

I remember being in awe of NASA’s generousity, that this amount of information couldn’t possibly be sent to every child that had written to them asking how to become an Astronaut, but then, perhaps they did? This was only five years after the Space Shuttle Challenger, or STS-51-L, had exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing all 7 of its Astronauts onboard. The mission of Challenger was the spread of ‘Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics‘ (STEM) education, and that’s really the legacy of Challenger that continues today – that mission, that focus on outreach and education.

Having found my passion I needed a tangible connection, some accessibility to NASA, something that would trigger my awe and wonder in space exploration each and every time I saw it. Something to fuel my inspiration, to reconnect me to how I felt when I was there standing on that hallowed ground in Florida. And then I found it, my space oddity.

The Command Module of Apollo 10 basks under spotlights on the ground floor of London’s Science Museum. It was first loaned to the Science Museum in 1976 from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and has remained on an extended loan ever since, and it was a little under 9 miles from my front door.

image credit: Nasa History Office

The Apollo 10 spacecraft was launched from Cape Kennedy at 12:49 p.m., EDT, on May 18, 1969. This liftoff marked the fourth manned Apollo launch in the short space of seven months. After the spacecraft completed one and a half revolutions of the Earth, the S-IVB booster stage was reignited to increase the speed of the spacecraft to the velocity required to escape the gravitational attraction of the Earth. Three days later, the spacecraft was placed in a 60 by 170 nautical miles orbit around the Moon. After the spacecraft completed two revolutions of the Moon, orbit was circularized to 60 nautical miles by a second burn of the service propulsion system.

image credit: Nasa History Office

The Apollo 10 mission encompassed all aspects of an actual crewed lunar landing, except the landing. And was a complete staging of the Apollo 11 mission with Astronauts Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan descended inside the Lunar Module (LM) to within 14km of the lunar surface, achieving the closest approach to the Moon before Apollo 11 landed two months later. It was the first flight of a complete, crewed Apollo spacecraft to operate around the moon. Objectives included a scheduled eight-hour lunar orbit of the separated LM, and descended to altitude of less than 9 miles (47,000 feet/14,326 meters) above the Moon. At this altitude, two passes were made over the future Apollo 11 landing site before the LM ascending for rendezvous and docking with Astronaut John W. Young in the Command and Service Module, or CSM, in a 70-mile circular lunar orbit. Pertinent data to be gathered in this landing rehearsal dealt with the lunar potential, or gravitational effect, to refine the Earth-based crewed spaceflight network tracking techniques, and to check out LM programmed trajectories and radar, and lunar flight control systems. Twelve television transmissions to Earth were planned, and all mission objectives were achieved.

On May 24, the service propulsion system was reignited, and the astronauts began the return journey to Earth. Splashdown occurred at 12:52 p.m. on May 26, 1969, less than 4 miles (6.4 km) from the target point and the recovery ship. From the Moon to South Kensington.

While Apollo 10’s Command Module would seem to have little connection to London, other than its longterm residence, the relationship runs deeper. The SaturnV rockets were developed directly from Nazi V2 rocket technology after the Americans took many surplus V2s back with them across the Atlantic at the end of the war, along with the rocket programme’s technical director Wernher von Braun. These rockets rained down on London between the 8th September, 1944 and the 27th March, 1945, only two and a half decades before Apollo 10 flew to the Moon, (one of these V-weapons stands just metres away from the Apollo 10 capsule itself in the Science Museum, aptly titled “V2: The rocket that launched the space age.”)

image credit: apollocomic

The Apollo 10 Command Module had been displayed across Europe before coming to London. However, touring an artifact that weighs nearly seven tons, and described as in a state of ‘considerable disrepair’, it quickly became a logistical nightmare and required much funding and planning, but once the Command Module came to London, efforts to move it anywhere else seemed too costly and difficult. So the Command Module settled in.

Today, I look upon the Apollo 10 Command Module as though I were seeing it either for the first or last time. I have the overwhelming feelings of awe and wonder that were first elicited by my visit to the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida return, and it was found on my door step in 1991. There is an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, and even fear for the risks that were involved in the pursuit to the Moon (after all, the SaturnV had 6 million components. Even if NASA achieved it’s target 99.9% success rate, that would mean 6,000 components failed on a good launch.) It is a feeling produced by that which is grand, yet sublime, and without doubt; extremely powerful.

I visit the London Science Museum at almost every opportunity, and I’ve visited the John F. Kennedy Space Center at least once every two years for as long as I can remember; and I am yet to lose the feeling of wonder, and of delight, that this notion of awe should reside in all the things around me when I walk through the entrance gates.

With that rationale, if you need me, you know where to find me.


title image credit: Nasa History Office

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