The twenty-fifth anniversary of the Challenger disaster recalled for me a couple of questions that haven’t gotten a lot of attention over the past quarter of a century. The first was occasioned by some of the reactions to that tragedy: Why should we expect human exploration of space to be safe? The second is more far reaching: Are the dangers and expenses of such exploration indications that we shouldn’t be doing it at all?
I begin by confessing that, growing up in the 1950s, I read a huge amount of science fiction. Not all of it was about space travel but there was a common assumption in that literature that we would explore and colonize bodies in our solar system, and perhaps beyond it. There was also recognition that this would be dangerous. People would get killed. The history of the development of aviation made that seem quite plausible.
There had been deaths in the U.S. and Soviet space programs before January 1986, and while those individual events were unexpected, people weren’t totally surprised that there were such accidents. But some people reacted to the Challenger explosion with the idea that if space travel couldn’t be safe, it wasn’t worth doing. This always seemed strange to me. Certainly we shouldn’t be casual about the lives of astronauts or careless in our preparations. Later investigation showed that the accident could and should have been avoided. But the earlier near-disaster of Apollo 13 showed that the old saying about the plans of rodents and hominids holds in space as well as on earth.
That just introduces the larger issue. Not only the possibility of unforeseen accidents but the quite foreseeable dangers of cosmic rays and zero gravity on extended missions and the expense of trips to the moon or Mars cause some to question the wisdom of space travel. In addition, some scientists argue that sending men and women to explore the solar system is unnecessary because our machines can gather the data we want and send it back to us.
Should we be travelling the planets and satellites in our system and perhaps colonizing some of them? Christians might pose that as a theological question. Does God intend for us to be spacefaring creatures? Or are we, as ‘adham, the creature of earth, supposed to stay on the planet of our origin? Are the arguments that I noted against space travel to be seen as a way in which God imposes quarantine on us?
Blame it if you will on my juvenile expense of time spent on science fiction instead of Latin, but I don’t think so. There has been danger involved in exploration ever since our remote ancestors picked up camp and started looking for better lands for hunting or farming. If safety were the highest priority, God wouldn’t have called Abraham to leave his home and go to Canaan. Extended weightlessness and exposure to cosmic radiation are indeed problems but they are not insurmountable. Establishing a lunar base or going to Mars will cost a lot of money but we need to look at our priorities. What if we’d focused on those programs instead of spending a trillion dollars or more on an unnecessary war in Iraq?
Can our spacecrafts and robotic rovers do everything that needs to be done with humans themselves going into space? I don’t think so. Certainly we’ve gotten a lot of information with such technologies. But if we find evidence that in the past there was life on Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, will we really be content to examine it at a distance? That seems even more unlikely if we find that life still exists on some other body. And who said that gathering scientific data was the only purpose for space travel? Just the possibility, remote as it might be, of some disaster making the earth uninhabitable for us suggests that we ought to spread out a bit.
On the other hand, I certainly can’t claim that God has given us any explicit command to explore space. But the cosmic scope of the rule of our brother Jesus, emphasized especially in the Letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, would seem to be relevant here. It suggests that there is no place in the universe where we would be complete strangers.