Going Interstellar, Leaving Gravity

I think that critics of manned* space exploration do not quite “get” what space exploration is and could be, and advocates of manned space exploration simply don’t know how to talk to them. So let me try (again).

There are several objections to manned space exploration, and all of them are wrong. The most moderate objection is that the knowledge acquired through manned space exploration is more cheaply available through unmanned space exploration. What’s the suppressed premise? That the only value space exploration has lies in knowledge acquisition. Imagine this argument being offered for closing national parks (we have lots of scientific knowledge about trees already). The “unmanned is cheaper” argument cuts little ice because the purpose of manned space exploration is not to acquire knowledge about nature (yes, places off the earth are also “nature,” nature-lovers) by the least expensive means necessary. This applies to the related objection that knowledge has no value unless it has “practical” value, and so even unmanned probes shouldn’t exist. What is “practical” is left uncharacterized, of course, but even if we set aside the complaint that this generally means “practical in the short-term, presupposing existing conditions” (which makes almost everything we benefit from formerly impractical) there is still a Maslovian point: “practical” here tends to mean “satisfying the most basic needs as much as possible, while ignoring all the higher needs indefinitely.” This could be argued for, but it seldom is, and I think most people would reject it, if it meant that no more complaints about sexism in video games  should be uttered until everyone on earth has their minimum daily nutritional requirements.

Of course this is my segue into your real objection: “what higher needs?” Well, I have already told you, haven’t I? Nature is not the same thing as the recent ecological condition of the planet we happen to have evolved on. Nature is everything. And if you want to qualify that by saying that your concern is not with everything regardless of its condition, but with what we would call wilderness, well, the wilderness on this planet is but a near infinitesimal fraction of all the wilderness that there is. 

Space advocates often talk of the need for a frontier. I’m not going to touch that one, because space opponents, many of them, are likely to think that space being a new frontier is the best reason for us not to go. So let’s set that topic aside for a moment and return to parks, and, if I may, the sacred. Most people who approve of parks do not think that human beings should be prevented from experiencing them or being aware of their existence, even if most people who approve of parks would not say that our human experience of them is their only justification. It would be a very strange discussion indeed if a debate over national parks were couched in terms of an either/or: either we level them, develop them, consume them, or we make a special point of having nothing whatsoever to do with them, to the point of everyone being unaware of their existence. Talk about a false alternative!

(You may not like this comparison because parks, a kind of not-doing, is free, whereas space, a kind of doing, is not. This is to overlook opportunity costs. Parks are not free, since they represent everything we must give up, to keep them.)

Here’s another false alternative: either we focus all our sense of the sacred (which is, I hope you already know, something independent of religious belief, and thus separate from the question of the rationality of our beliefs) on the Earth Mother, or we have no sense of the sacred at all. No ancient, self-respecting pagan would’ve recognized such a view. There are many gods, and many of them are… sky gods. Perhaps it is our modern ecological pagans’ suspicion of at least their local varieties of monotheism that makes them deeply suspicious of sky gods, but one can take this too  far. Wonderment at the depth and vastness of the sky, and bewildered awe at the thought of the extravagant profusion of whole worlds, a diversity of wildernesses we can scarcely imagine, and, presumably, a diversity of ways of being conscious and self-aware… this is not sacred? This has no place in a sense of the sacred?

I understand the fear: you think that there is nothing to this except twisting nature to our ends and dominating it for our own purposes. Except that it isn’t. That’s just a stereotype (and, I suspect, a gendered one). And of course, you don’t want to have no technology and no purposes whatsoever. I know you don’t. You want appropriate technology, appropriate purposes. What you don’t realize is that taming fire to open the sky is both of those things. We who do know this have not done much to communicate this fact to you with our talk of frontiers and spin-offs, but it’s still true.

The film Gravity begins with a title card that reads “in space, life is impossible.” This is, I’m sorry to say, one of the most egregious and seductive lies of the many lies that film has promulgated. Because, first, obviously, life in space is possible. Almost the whole film takes place in space and is about someone who is alive. But more subtly, the sense in which it is true that in space, life is impossible, is the following: in space, if you do not understand and respect the wilderness that surrounds you, and adapt yourself to it wisely, your life becomes impossible. Now explain to me where that isn’t true! Yes, everywhere, life for us is impossible… unless we are wise. (The second most egregious lie is that the most important thing a woman can do with herself is get in touch with her emotions and stay close to home. Seriously? And you didn’t even notice that it was saying that? Contrast that with Interstellar and its two female leads, the explorer who ends the film, not on earth but in the interstellar wilderness, and the physicist unriddling rather than succumbing to the nature of gravity.)

It would take me a whole ‘nuther post to explain why it is that I think Interstellar calls us to receive the sky because the sacred is there too, and not a sacredness that issues belittling orders, tells fanciful stories, and lies to us about death, but a sacred which is content to simply be, and which gives us a possibility of awe if we only see fit to receive it. A thinker said this better than I can, so I will end with his words: Mortals dwell in that they receive the sky as sky. 


* The term is traditional; I await its replacement.



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