Wonders of the universe are close to home

The anniversaries of the first men sent into space is a time to reflect on our place in the universe and our connection to each other.

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Last week was the 50th anniversary of the first American in space, Alan Shepard. The year 1961 was a pivotal time in the relationship between human beings and the universe. Just three weeks earlier, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had been the first human sent into space.

Fifty years on there is talk of affordable commercial trips into space. The price of a suborbital flight of two and a half hours could fall as low as Dh359,000 in the next six years.

At least that was the prediction of Will Whitehorn, former president of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. That's a snip compared with the US$450 million (Dh1.7 billion) Nasa says it costs to launch each space shuttle mission. (The last one is next month.)

Virgin Galactic says it aims to carry 50,000 people during the six-year period. Book now and you could be joining John Travolta, Sigourney Weaver and Paris Hilton.

And why not? Space travel has long been the dream of human beings. From Socrates, who said: "Man must rise above the earth … for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives"; to Stephen Hawking, who said: "To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit," our obsession with exploring what is "out there" runs across time and geography.

I, too, have wondered what's out there as I've travelled around the world. The question is fresh wherever you are because the night skies vary a surprising amount - from the gleam that hovers over cities like London to the star-sprinkled canvas stretched close over open desert expanses.

On one clear summer night with an abundance of stars, a young gentleman suitor on whom I'd nursed a crush for quite some time finally revealed that he wanted to think about marriage. As I looked up, I couldn't help but tell him how I saw us as a part of a big, wondrous universe, and how I longed to discover the mystical secrets that lay hidden in the starry night.

"What do you think when you see the stars?" I asked breathlessly, hoping he would join me in my awe.

"I think," he said flatly, "about joining the dots."

"Dots? You look at the wonders of the universe and all you see is dots?" I was gobsmacked by the poverty of his expression. And with his nonchalant words, he shattered my romantic dreams.

Hadn't he heard the words of Vincent Van Gogh, who painted Starry Night and said: "For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream"?

That was all several moons ago. I did get married (though not to the guy with misaligned stars). I also had a baby and her birth has made me think of the dots analogy in a different way. When once I was just one individual, I now see how I am also joined in a chain of relationships.

We all want to find our place, to make sense of who we are. Sometimes, we think that the wonders of the universe are "out there" somewhere.

But the wonders of the universe are closer to home: in the people we are connected to, and the web of wonderful relationships that support and surround us. We just need to learn to join the dots.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk