At the end of the last year of the first decade of the revolutionary 17th century, Galileo looked up to the heavens and made a simple, yet stunning observation: the Moon is not, as believed, to be a perfectly smooth sphere. Indeed, he noticed, based on his new powerful toy, the telescope, how the moon appeared to have light and dark areas, signifying rough and mountainous, and smooth plains, respectively. The implications were great. One, this means the Moon did not emit its own light. Many of the day believed the Moon was like the Sun and had its own glow, not, as we know now, the reflection of the Sun’s light as the Moon revolves around the Earth. Two, the infallible Aristotle was wrong (he claimed the Moon was perfectly smooth). Three, and maybe most importantly for science, this was another mark in the win column for Copernicus’s radical heliocentric theory.
Around 1514, Copernicus first put together his “Commentariolus,” outlining seven assumptions about his heliocentric hypothesis, which essentially stated the Sun is the center of the universe, and that all spheres revolve around it. This, naturally, upset the Church, as they believed they were the true center of the Universe.
Galileo, with his notes on the Moon, while not confirming Copernicus’s heliocentric thoughts, at least got people thinking. (Which in the 17th century was amazing by itself.) Why? Well, if Galileo and not Aristotle (and the Church) were correct, how can the Moon, an object of the heavens (and thus of God, as that’s where the Big Man resides) not be perfect nor spherical? And if one of the heavenly bodies is not perfect (thus in the image of God), does this mean the Earth is not perfect? And if the Earth is not perfect, does this mean there are other imperfect heavenly bodies out there? And why would God make an imperfect body? When the Church was the center of the universe, isn’t easy to see the slippery slope?
We look back, from out 21st century vantage point and can be amazed at such thoughts, but five hundred years ago, this was Earth shattering. Shortly after Galileo presented these astonishing findings, along with his reports of some of Jupiter’s moons, he was rewarded with condemnation by the Catholic Church and denounced by philosophers and clerics. He was tried by the Roman Inquisition for being “vehemently suspect of heresy” after he published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and while he recanted, still had to wear an ankle bracelet during his house arrest. I wonder how he would view today’s world and our approach to space exploration.
Today, as we watch the final launch of the space shuttle program, we reflect on America’s space program and what it meant for a nation who, just like Galileo, looked up to the skies and wondered what it would be like to explore the heavens. Where Galileo fought the hand of the Church, our space program fights the principles of economics. Hopefully, our desire beats our need to further explore space and that we can continue this book of exploration which began centuries ago.