October 5, 2020

Points of light with black between
Hang like a painted scene
Motionless, no nearer there
Than on Earth, everywhere
Equidistant from our ship.
Heaven has given us the slip.

 

Hush, be still. Outer space
Is a concept, not a place.
Try no more. Where we are
Never can be sky or star.
From prison, in a prison, we fly;
There’s no way into the sky.

– C. S. Lewis, “Science-fiction Cradlesong”

Whether to travel to other worlds is among the most vexing questions about technology of our day. There are so many more pressing problems at home — and by the same token so much reason to need an inspiring project for our world to take up.

The question is no longer, as it was for all but our very recent ancestors, whether it might be good in the abstract to go to space. Rather, it is a live choice, a choice of whether to seize or reject a specific opportunity before us. It is also, unavoidably, a choice of what kind of civilization we are to be, and of what we understand our purpose and our nature to be.

Though this choice does not go away because we duck it, ducking it is precisely what we have done since approximately 1972. The United States spends the same amount of real dollars on NASA every decade as it did during the Apollo era, but with vastly less to show for it in human exploration. Tinkering in low-Earth orbit for half a century, we seem unable to choose — to commit to truly exploring space in a purposeful way, or to reaping the savings in money and focus of purposefully relinquishing it.

Like much else in our world today, our halfway presence in space seems like the situation of a middle-aged man of great potential who whiles away his days in an unfulfilling job and his evenings playing video games. The first choice we face is whether to recognize that we are being invited to get off the couch and do something else. The second is whether to interpret the invitation as one to take up an uncertain but noble new challenge or as the equivalent of buying a Porsche.

All New Atlantis essays on space travel recognize this invitation as one we must finally answer, not continue to avoid. Some of our authors have answered no, seeing space travel — that is, the voyaging not of robotic probes but of people — as an indulgence in the dangerous Promethean impulse, or a spiritually disordered substitute for the search for God. Indeed, a central purpose of The New Atlantis is to recognize that the call to discover is not an obligation or an imperative, and that there may be hubris and peril in treating it as such. Perhaps the exploration of space will prove to be another splitting of the atom, another conquest of the New World, another recombinant DNA.

C. S. Lewis is surely right to see in the dream of traveling to space the fantasy of escaping the human condition. Much sci-fi sees space travel as synonymous with the end of war and suffering on Earth, or as a way of forever inhabiting the sublime. Our tech titans dream of trillions of people in space and utopian colonies with no government. Our astronomers ask us to gaze at pictures of Earth taken from deep space and feel the dreariness of everyday human existence swept away.

But there is another way to think about traveling to space: not as an escape from the human condition, but as its extension into yet another new stage — admittedly, an unusually enticing one.

On the far side of our moon there is a crater that may be of great interest to, rather surprisingly, earthbound paleontologists. The existence of the Schrödinger crater on the Moon was not known until a Soviet probe first beamed images of the far side back to Earth in 1959. Scientists now believe it to be a possible useful analogue to Mexico’s Chicxulub crater. Though the asteroid that formed Chicxulub is popularly believed to be the culprit in the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs — a crucial precursor to the rise of mammals — the theory remains contested among scientists. But whereas Chicxulub has largely been lost to 66 million years of weather, tides, and geological churn, Schrödinger remains preserved much as it was when it formed four billion years ago.

What awaits us on the Moon, in other words, may be knowledge not just of the history of heavenly bodies but of our own origin, not to mention our possible end. We can learn only so much about the crater through robotic probes; the human explorer is simply more dexterous and versatile.

To biologists of the past, the newly invented lab dish presented a way to expand the scope of their discipline: to open up spaces once closed off, create conditions once impossible, test questions once untestable, raise questions and even create disciplines anew. There is on the other hand no laboratory of the past; there is only its residue. To the geologist and the paleontologist, what may lie in the Schrödinger crater is not, say, the metaphysical revelations of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the opening of another path now closed.

Perhaps then it is not going but declining to go that singles out space as different from every other frontier we have explored, that mistakenly views the voyage to the stars as an attempt to depart from the human condition. The discoveries we might make at Schrödinger crater are not ones that would unveil the Truth about Everything or allow us finally to escape ourselves. Rather, they present space as the latest among many new frontiers we have embarked upon to continue living out our story. Worlds beyond Earth beckon. With all the promise and peril this entails, we must listen and answer.

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