Sunday Morning Meditation – Man said to the universe1910 photo. An image of Halley's Comet taken June 6, 1910. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Star Trek and Star Wars made space exploration look easy.
The concepts that daunt even the most brilliant scientists, like traveling faster than light speed or creating artificial gravity, were either solved or non-existent conflicts for these fictional travelers.
Nothing is easy. Life is the triumph of dumb luck over failure.
People that are smart enough to recognize how lucky they are to be alive, cling to life, sometimes beyond the point of reason. People who are even smarter than those people see our future in the stars above us.
They know our planet is doomed. In about a billion years, the sun will become so hot it will burn off all the water on the surface of the earth. The sun will eventually die, but we won’t be around to see it.
There are many reasons we pursue space exploration. It brings new technologies into our lives. It gives us a sense of nationalistic pride. It shores up our ability to defend ourselves from threats cosmic and terrestrial.
But the most important reason is escape. If we cannot visit new worlds, we will eventually be unable to survive on our own planet.
That, of course, assumes humans don’t do something stupid and write themselves out of existence beforehand. Or get whacked by a big-ass asteroid that wipes out most of the life on earth. Or fall ill to some predatory virus that has no cure and cannot be stopped.
Life on earth has survived all of those things throughout earth’s history. Dumb luck carried life through failure time and time again until one extraordinary creature evolved: us.
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
– Stephen Crane
We are in a special place as a species. We are intelligent enough to study our past and bet on the future. We’ve survived because, Congress notwithstanding, we’ve outsmarted every problem that’s confronted us.
Polio? Vaccine. Flooding? Built a dam. Another country has nukes? Made more nukes and turned the earth into an international Mexican standoff.
We don’t need luck any more. But we do need to get off this planet. We’ve got a billion-year head start. Presumably, we should be able to figure this thing out in time.
Some of us are trying. There was much hand wringing after the recent disaster involving the Virgin Galactic spaceship. The commercially-funded venture aims to make space the playground of the super wealthy. In the short term, most of us will not be leaving our atmosphere. But hopefully someday they’ll offer up a coach option for ma and pa middle class.
Cheaper space travel hastens our exploration of the world beyond our solar system. But are we willing to put enough skin in the game? Loss of life in this endeavor will be inevitable. In. Ev. It. Able. Are we willing to accept that? We better be.
Even our non-human adventures in the firmament are accident prone. You may have heard recently that Philae, the Little Probe That Could, met up with an elusive comet. Philae didn’t just meet up with it. It landed on the freakin’ thing. I mean, how cool is that? Humans sitting behind a computer screen here on earth designed and launched something into space 10 years ago in the hopes of finding a piece of star dust. And they found it.
Despite the brilliant engineering, Philae had a bumbling landing. It dropped into a shadowy spot on the surface, obstructing the solar panel that powers the probe’s battery. It actually bounced off the comet a couple of times before touching down. The harpoons that were supposed to anchor the thing into the surface didn’t fire.
The probe has been processing samples and sending the data home before its battery runs out. As of Saturday afternoon, Philae has shut down and may not start up again.
Philae could use a little luck, actually.
No, it will not be easy. No force will guide us. A captain who hails from France and speaks with a British accent will not make it so. We will struggle up from our primordial muck on our own.
The possibility of an infinite universe suggests we are not alone, that life is abundant, but we’ve never come into contact with another form of it, much less an intelligent form. Scientists call this the Fermi Paradox. There are many possible explanations. One suggests that life-annihilating cataclysms, like a gamma ray burst from a nearby dying star, happen at fairly regular intervals. Deciphering the mysteries of space travel takes considerably longer than these clockwork calamities allow.
Another more general theory about creation says the universe will eventually collapse back in on itself, condensing down to the singularity that was before pushing the reset button. There will be a new “big bang” and a rebirth of a new universe from the one that collapsed. It could come back as a universe capable of sustaining life. It could come back as a malformed void. It’s all dumb luck really.
But if it does all start over again, and I like to think it will, it will be populated by the matter that moves inside all of us, inside everything. Maybe someday the people of a world similar to our own will look up at the night sky and see fire streak across it, a comet composed of the dust of us.
They’ll look up and they will wonder.