issue 226 - December 1991
The imperial ethic knows no bounds. Jeremiah Creedon wonders what
motivates the restless quest for new frontiers in outer space.
The world's largest radio telescope rests in the lush, green hills of Puerto Rico, a 20-acre dish opening skyward like a giant birdbath. This past October scientists began using the Arecibo Observatory to scan the Milky Way for evidence of other civilizations. Scientists with the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) call their study the best hope yet for finding a cosmic message in a bottle. By century's end, the 'search for extra-terrestrial intelligence' (known by the acronym SETI) could be over.
Last year, astronomers reported an earlier discovery at Arecibo: an asteroid somewhere between Earth and Jupiter they named 1986 DA. This wasn't news until researchers realized the hunk of rock was loaded with gold and platinum: the media was suddenly all ears. According to NASA, 1986 DA could some day become 'a valuable mineral resource for eventual space colonists'. The Washington Post assigned the 'astronomical El Dorado' a 'commodity value' well over a trillion dollars - not bad for a chunk of metal somewhat more than a mile wide and 'shaped roughly like a canned ham'.
Ham, gold and SETI: of all the tributes to Columbus, planned or otherwise, the activities at Arecibo may be the most telling in their contradictions. Five hundred years after Columbus reached the Caribbean, the society that lionized him has chosen a place very near his landfall to resume his voyage. But where the new explorers may be heading, or whether they agree on what they hope to find, seems very much up in the air.
For those drawn by the promise of golden hams, Arecibo is but another port city to the newest New World, a gateway to the economic exploitation of space. This tendency to view space as the next land of milk and honey is quite common today, especially among those on the radical fringe of capitalism. These would-be pioneers have their own rhetoric, much of it harking back to the war cries of 'Progress' and 'Manifest Destiny' that rallied the European advance across the North American continent. They also have their heroes - and the mythic figure of Columbus is certainly one of them.
NASA / CAMERA PRESS
But that's only half the picture. Arecibo is also a temple of Science, a religion whose most brilliant believers - say, the minds behind SETI - are on the edge of transcending the ethos that formed them. Science and the ideology of the West personified by Columbus are, of course, fellow-travellers. Both began their journeys from the same point; both are products of the same universe. But Arecibo could mark a place where their paths diverge, where the scientific mind refuses any longer to be a tool, or a weapon, for realizing the Columbian will. Indeed, the potential for space science to undermine the long cultural project it epitomizes could be the last great irony of the Columbian age.
It's common enough these days to speak of modern physicists and astronomers as astronauts rediscovering the lost wisdom of the ancients. Probing ever deeper into the riddles of the cosmos these theoreticians suddenly realize that the Western model of the universe is far from perfect. Transported from the planet on the only vehicle that can travel faster than the speed of light - the human imagination - they reach a distant point where the long conflict between nature and the Western mind is at last reconciled. After bending metal and fire for a millennium, they have finally learned what others knew by simply observing the world around them.
However belated, this insight has found its way into Western popular culture, thanks in part to some unlikely bodhisatvas - the American astronauts who went to the moon. Many astronauts said the voyage deeply affected them, altering the way they viewed the home planet and its place in the universe. Most were pilots with military training - highly disciplined people not prone by nature to romantic reverie. That's a hint at how profoundly jarring it must have been to look back from another world at the frail, lonely beauty of the biosphere.
The earthbound masses shared the experience through a series of remarkable photographs, including the famous 'Whole Earth' shot taken from Apollo 17, the last lunar mission, in 1972. It may be the most influential photo ever taken, and many have noted its impact on popular consciousness. The author Frank White calls it 'the Overview Effect', a perceptual shift that may well rival the Copemican revolution in reshaping general attitudes.
STEVE SMIYTH / CAMERA PRESS
But the photo's true meaning may be more complicated. Like the astronauts who took such pictures, the public has been enlightened by a technological accident - one that rivals Chernobyl in its profound effect on world opinion. In other words, even the awareness that the world must be saved from the effects of technology - from nuclear meltdown, global warming, threadbare forests, depleted seas - is yet another technological by-product. How does one deal with this paradox? Can technology provide its own homeopathic cure?
Twenty years after the last lunar mission, with the Earth growing ever more ill, the most ardent ecologist may have to consider the ironic possibility that going back to the moon, or to Mars, may be the only hope. Perhaps another generation must be forced to reflect on the biosphere's fragility - a fact that becomes obvious from the cosmic vantage. And if the Apollo experience is any indicator, nothing contradicts the bombastic rhetoric about space exploration better than the act itself. Like everything else thrown up there, comparisons with the voyages of Columbus or wagon treks across the American West suddenly become quite weightless.
On Earth it's a different story. The Columbus analogy is very popular with the aerospace crowd and their political allies. This trend is not new. The Apollo command module that orbited the moon while the first two men descended to its surface was called Columbia; so is one of the space shuttles flying today. Last summer, proponents of a new space station tried to shame a skeptical Congress into turning over the $40 billion needed to build it. The example of Columbus and the country's need for a new frontier were often cited in the debate, which station supporters eventually won. The big losers were public-housing advocates and the majority of space scientists, who argued by the dozen that the station will do nothing to advance their research.
Most observers agree that space exploration has come to a standstill. Those who consider it a waste of money should take no comfort from this fact; the billions are spent anyway, siphoned off by the giant aerospace corporations regardless of whether anything flies or not. The Americans and Soviets spend the most, but France, Germany, UK, Japan and even China are also eager to become 'spacefaring' nations.
In the US, diehard capitalists blame the delay in opening space on the government - on NASA - and say the whole project should be turned over to the private sector. Free enterprise and greed are often cited as the best fuels for extra-terrestrial travel. Without the potential for individual gain, the new cosmic pioneers will never summon the money needed to carry on the Columbian adventure. Or so they say.
Plans for settling space on this model seem ludicrous: a triumph of ideology over common sense. One idea is to refit the space shuttle's external fuel tank into an orbiting dormitory, filled with eager space settlers. Once aloft, they'd presumably find ways to make their fortunes, perhaps by fixing satellites or inventing new drugs in micro-gravity. According to one enthusiast: 'Progress that would require decades of NASA study contracts and pilot projects will be collapsed into a few years of Darwinian struggle.'
But perhaps the real problem lies below the level of economic ideology. The issue can be simply stated: can Columbus and Gaia coexist? Obviously, they cannot. Without a new vision incorporating the very knowledge that space flight has given the world, further exploration may not be possible.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of Russian cosmonautics, believed that space was the next step in human evolution. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks turned the obscure theorist into a cultural hero, seeing that his own vision was a fantastic extension of their own. In Britain, HG Wells wrote that: 'Life, forever dying to be born afresh, forever young and eager, will presently stand upon this earth as upon a footstool, and stretch out its realm amidst the stars.' The science fiction author Ray Bradbury gives the idea a familiar American spin: 'We cannot stay at home now,' he writes, 'even as we did not sit on the front porches of 1492 Spain.
This is the old myth, in its many guises. The new paradigm begins with the realization that, for all practical purposes, 'we' are going nowhere. Our minds can visit distant stars and ponder the riddles of time and space. And we may find that other beings are sharing this meditation with us, from a great distance. But we will never touch them. Our bodies must remain here, surrounded by beauty or filth, whichever we prefer.
The SETI project at Arecibo is only one of many space-related tributes to Columbus in 1992, which also happens to be the International Space Year. That's no coincidence, of course: space enthusiasts in the US Congress saw a chance to link the Columbus jubilee with the 35th anniversary of the International Geophysics Year, when scientists first used orbiting surveyors to study the Earth's environment. Two US presidents, NASA, the departments of State, Energy, Defence and Education, the aerospace industries, numerous scientific groups, several major museums and many others endorsed the effort. Celebrating space exploration's tie to both environmental science and Columbus seemed like a great idea - innocuous enough for almost everyone to support.
Which makes this the perfect chance to expose these visions as incompatible. The time is right to make a choice: let's leave the Columbus paradigm behind and face up to what space has really taught us. The overcrowded, anxious, dirty industrial world must realize that if Eden is anywhere, it lies beneath our feet.
Jeremiah Creedon lives in Minneapolis and is the former editor of Final Frontier, a magazine about space exploration.