Spaceflight setbacks and Earthly hubris

Embryonic baby floating in space

It’s been a couple of weeks since the explosion of the Antares rocket on a cargo delivery run to the International Space Station, and nearly that long since SpaceShipTwo broke apart in the skies over Mojave. I’ve had some time to reflect and read some of the reactions.

I found a piece by Gwyneth Shoecraft in the USD vista that prompted me to comment because I disagree with her characterization of commercial spaceflight as ‘Earthly hubris’ that somehow sullies her experience of space.

In writing a comment in reply, I ended up articulating some things I believe about humanity and spaceflight, and why we do it, and how we should respond to setbacks.

I think it’s worth a read, so here it is:

Gwyneth, thanks for your thoughtful piece.

I also look up at the stars and wonder at the sheer insignificance of humanity on an astronomical scale. But I don’t believe it is hubris for us to want to go up there.

When a baby sees something beyond its reach, yet still stretches out its arm to touch it, that’s not hubris. When a toddler learning to walk stumbles, but keeps on trying, that’s not hubris. Earth is humanity’s cradle. It’s our starting place. It is the most precious real estate in the universe, and we must take much better care of it.

But we also must not be limited by it.

The universe is incomprehensibly vast and, on that scale, the Earth is the mere-est electron in a single metal atom sitting atop a pin-tip. Yet, as far as we know, it’s the only place in the universe that can naturally support our life.

The only sane response to knowing that, the only response with a long-term future, is to take that fact as a challenge, and a goal, and reach out into the universe – or at least our solar system for now – and learn to take our Earthly ecosystems and make our own habitable spaces up there, so that the things we hold precious about the Earth can thrive out there, as well as down here.

Our solar system is full of abundant energy in the form of sunlight, and raw materials in the form of asteroids and comets. Everything we need is out there, except for the living ecosystem that we can bring. We can make places where humanity can thrive, and do it without depleting the resources of our cradle planet.

Imagine if humanity, instead of being responsible for depleting Earth’s ecological diversity, was responsible for bringing it to dead worlds and letting them live. There is unimaginable potential up there, not just for humanity but, through us, for all of life.

Humanity may become the Earth’s dandelion seeds, floating out through space and bringing life to the places where we drift. Maybe that’s been our purpose – or a part of it – all along.

But we can’t do this without technology, and that technology is fledgling and – like humans – fallible. We are the baby taking her first steps. We will inevitably stumble as we learn to walk.

Rockets will blow up, brave people will die. These are not reasons to stop.

We are defined by how we confront our setbacks. It is human to be discouraged, but also to be persistent. It is a paradoxical truth that more learning happens through failure than through success. We must learn the lessons of our mistakes, deal with our grief and our discouragement, and, like the toddler, take that faltering step again.

I believe the future of life in our corner of the universe depends on it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *