With the space shuttle now returning from its final mission, and the Hubble Space Telescope breaking one million observations, my thoughts have been turning once again toward that infinite frontier. This end of an era highlights a necessary coming of age in the way we perceive the exploration of our universe.
The first book I remember becoming completely absorbed in at a very early age was the aptly named My First Book of Space. Since then, learning about the cosmos has been one of my most enduring interests.
Investing in the space program has resulted in marvelous gifts raining down from the heavens upon mankind. Pens that write upside down, memory foam, weather satellites, GPS, and ICBMs. Yet, the most important bounty to be harvested from all this hard earned knowledge is perspective.
Those without perspective still point at the Apollo missions blindly and say “We could put a man on the moon, but we can’t [insert any random complaint here]!”. You might also be treated to a rant about how killing the shuttle program is demoting the country to being a follower in that ever vaguer concept of a space race. The disappointment is almost palpable from those who grew up with the fantasies of Star Trek too close to their heart.
Most significant space missions in the coming years will be performed by robots, not humans. They will also be commercial affairs, driven by profit more than science. Commercial interests will continue to make spaceflight more accessible, and science will be able to piggyback when needed. It’s also possible that lower earth orbit will be slowly militarized, but what form this will take is still unknown. We are confined to a very small celestial neighborhood when it comes to the physical exploration of any new frontiers and the technological leaps required to go beyond them will happen here, on our blue home.
For all the flash and drama emanating from the tail end of that rocket booster, getting into space and back is a relatively simple endeavor. The greatest leap was imagining that it could be done. After that we have a long but distinguished string of trial, failure, experimentation, and optimization. The resulting advancements are non-trivial, and it would be foolish to ignore their contribution to humanity, but incremental improvements in the various related technologies are only small parts of a greater puzzle.
A Valuable Perspective
In the popular Q&A site, Quora, somebody asked “What’s the most epic photo ever taken?“. The image that came to my mind right away is one I had seen a long time ago, one that was not particularly notable for its visual qualities.
Pale Blue Dot is a photograph of planet Earth taken from a record distance of 3.7 billion miles, at the edge of our solar system. It was shot and transmitted by the Voyager 1 spacecraft almost 13 years after its launch. What’s most remarkable here is not the image itself, but the story behind it, and the famous reflection it inspired by the very man who requested that it be taken, Carl Sagan.
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
This message resounded with enough people that the answer is one of the most highly upvoted on Quora.
Pushing the boundaries of knowledge through science is the noblest expression of our natural curiosity. A society that has no place for real learning and discovery is dead or dying. But any society must remind itself that there is no point at which technology will advance enough save us from self destruction. As long as people are people, even a society with unlimited resources would face its own perils. This is where perspective is most valuable.
We desire to travel to the stars, but cannot yet feed ourselves reliably, or prevent a nuclear catastrophe resulting from a hiccup in the tectonic plates. We cannot yet predict the weather or create a new state where there is no social order. We still are mostly ignorant about many diseases of civilization, and are happy to fight the easier battles against old foes like malaria in the developing world.
Only standing naked in front of the vast cosmos might we again find the humility to accept that we know so very little about the world around us and our place within it. It is my hope that this subtle influence gives enough of us the impetus to collaborate and together find solutions to the most complex and pressing problems of our age.