I promised in a previous post that I would write about my reservations regarded manned space travel. Well, here it is. I’m not certain that I will be able to organize my thoughts, so this will belong in Confused Rants.
The question is not “Should we go to the stars?” but “Does our destiny lie in the stars?” If that seems a little melodramatic, reflect that the question is quite frequently worded in those terms. For example, in a 1989 speech, President George Bush said the following: “Why the Moon? Why Mars? Because it is humanity’s destiny to strive, to seek, to find.” Other such statements are not hard to find.
To understand my reservations, reflect on this: would President Bush’s statement have seemed out of place in Europe, during Columbus’s times? “Why the New World? Because it is humanity’s destiny to strive, to seek, to find.” Columbus strove, through a months-long voyage across uncertain waters, with a crew half-expecting to drop off the edge of the world. He sought something whose existence no European had imagined: a shorter route around the backside of the world to the East Indies. And he found a land uncut, unspoilt, and unpeopled (the natives seemingly didn’t count.) What followed was war, genocide, and untold ecological destruction. This bothered very few of the settlers to come, because it was our “destiny” to do so.
Of course I’m not comparing space travel to genocide. What I am saying is that the way of thinking that holds that it is our destiny to go to the stars is the same way of thinking that told Columbus that it was our destiny to people the New World; regardless of the fate of the people who were already here. This idea stems perhaps from an unspoken belief that runs in the undercurrent of modern thought: The universe exists for the use of humans, and it is right and good to turn as much of the universe as possible over to the business of making more humans. It is this belief that fuels the destruction of rain forests in favor of farming. It is this belief that favors the ever-increasing exploitation of catastrophically decreasing fish stocks. It is disbelief that has people doing whatever they can do extend their lives as long as possible, sometimes beyond any memory of dignity. And it is this belief that pushes us into the planets beyond Earth, and beyond.
Again, I’m a bit confused. Despite all the above, I’m not trying to demonize space travel. I am trying to point out the irony of a people waxing lovingly of a destiny in the stars, when so many fatal problems face us on the planet upon which all known life relies. I am trying to point out that if we go into space with the same ideology in place that drove my ancestors to the New World, sooner or later we will be guilty of the same atrocities, on one planet or another. I am trying to say that the space travel spirit is the same as the imperial spirit, and it’s important to recognize this.
Unspeakable wonders surely await in space, unbelievable discoveries that will rattle our understanding of our place in the universe. Let’s go and meet them, and remember who we are in the process.