The first astronaut to ever be launched into space was Phileas Fogg. He was sent there by Jules Verne, famed author of 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. The launching took place in the year 1873 and became known world wide through Verne’s masterpiece: Around the World in 80 Days.
At the time, few people believed that such a journey could actually ever be possible. Indeed even Verne was nervous as to whether his hero would indeed make it within the time limit he had set for him. It was Fogg’s money, courage and English phlegm as well as the 24 hours time difference between both hemispheres that made it possible for him to make it. However the last detail would not have made any difference since Phileas forgot to add the 24 hours when he crossed the time zone for the second time. And so he just made it, although he cut it fine.
Anyone who read this story at the beginning of the 20th century and possessed some imagination wondered if it was possible to do this in perhaps 40 or 20 days. Others dared to think of even 5 days but they were considered wild dreamers who had lost all touch with reality.
Space travel today does not think any more in days, hours or minutes, not even in seconds. Time as a measuring staff is far behind us. Ilan Ramon z.l. and his fellow astronauts journeyed more than six million miles (1) during 16 days and he was only 16 minutes away from his earthly and final destination before he tragically departed from space.
Space travel has introduced us into completely different dimensions of our existence. It is not the result of a slow and steady development, or some kind of a break-through, which had to come about. It is the start of something radically different which nobody dared to think of only a few years ago. We realize that we stand at the door of a new epoch before we have even rung the bell to enter. “Proportionally” and in accordance with normal scientific development it would have been impossible for hundreds of years for people to fly a distance of several millions of miles in 16 days. Alvin Toffler in his remarkable book Future Shock tells us that there is indeed a widespread agreement between historians, archeologists and others across the spectrum to scientists, sociologists, economists and psychologists that all sorts of social and scientific processes are speeding up – far beyond our understanding or wildest dreams. (2)
The Kabbala alludes to the fact that an immense increase in speed will take place in the days prior to the messianic age. Just like the Jewish home starts hurrying to ensure it’s ready for Shabbath so the world starts to rush when the messianic age, the ultimate Shabbath comes closer: This is based on the verse: “I, God will accelerate “it” in its time” in which the “it” is understood to be an allusion to the messianic time. (Isaiah 60:22, Zohar 1:116b-117a). In times of great unprecedented instability the taste of the ultimate Shabbath becomes so overwhelming and appealing that it starts forcing its way forward. But speed also results in accidents. Trying to do too much in too little time, while perhaps necessary, runs high risks. There is a lack of proper preparation and contemplation. Just like we decide to skate over thin ice at great speed and realize that our safety is in our speed, mankind runs to its ultimate destination with unparalleled speed, not always aware that it is taking considerable risks.
The greatest problem however, is that this kind of overwhelming speed is the result of using a highly sophisticated form of full automation which leaves very little for man himself to do. Most of the flight in space is pre-determined and beyond human intervention. Man, while being the original architect of the space shuttle and its journey, slowly but surely becomes subordinate to his own inventions and loses his identity as man. He himself becomes an instrument.
When Major Gagarin, the first Russian astronaut, was asked what the most important event in his life had been, he promptly answered: The twelfth of April when I became a member of the communist party. This also was an automatic answer. He had become part of a system in which he was stripped of his humanity. When a famous Dutch author was introduced to a man who spoke 12 languages, he paused for a moment and asked: But do you also have something to say in these languages? This is right on track. After all what is the purpose of knowing many languages when one has nothing to say? Just knowing a language but being incapable of saying something original in that language is also a form of automation.
Sending people into space to consequently turn them into an instrument themselves is an embarrassment for all of mankind. The paradox between the most sophisticated space shuttle and the simplicity of such a man is too much to bear. When somebody like Gagarin saw the climax of his life as the moment when he became part of millions of “yes men” we experience a most dangerous automatization. He may have traveled through space but he never left his little home.
It was the great merit of Ilan Ramon z.l. that he lifted himself and all of us with him beyond the slightest possibility of becoming automatized. Not only did he stay human in space, but he surpassed his humanity. He taught the Jewish people that one should not become a number among the many. He refused to go along with those Israeli “yes men”, obsessed with the gentile world, who call for the secularization of Israel and undo it from its Jewishness.
While in space, Ilan emphasized the uniqueness of being Jewish. His view was broader then many of his assimilated fellow Jews and, as such he left space for an even higher destination.
May his memory be blessed.
(1) Speech by President George Bush, Jerusalem Post, February 5,2002.
(2) Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, Bodily Head, London, 1970.