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Notes on Part 1: Science Fiction vs. Real Life

The tone in this short story is reminiscent of a great deal of popular science fiction, i.e. euphoric utopianism. Unlike most science fiction, however, this story connects directly to policy decisions being made right now. The Obama White House has just received the “Review of US Human Spaceflight” report produced by the Augustine Commission. In it, they evaluate several options for NASA, including a trip to the moons of Mars. It remains to be seen if the report will lead to any bold plans. Given the current economic climate this seems highly unlikely without increased public support.

Who might possibly advocate for history-making space missions and an inspiring science-centered future like the one described in the story? I will make a prediction: it won’t be religious folk. As the saying goes, it’s always a mistake to generalize, but if religious people have something to say about science, technology and the future, it is more likely to be predicting doom and gloom at the hands of amoral scientists than pondering the wondrous discoveries they may soon unearth.

Should Christians be concerned that they are often perceived to be technophobic and lacking in enthusiasm for bold scientific research?

More specifically, should Christians support the space program, and missions to explore Mars looking for life? These are big questions, and I can only scratch the surface here, but some of the related issues are:

  • Can we afford it? Would the money be better spent elsewhere?
  • Are we ready to learn the answers to such questions as: is there life on Mars now? Has it gone extinct? Was there a second Genesis on Mars, or did early life travel from Earth to Mars which then evolved independently? Did early life travel from Mars to Earth (making us all Martians)?
  • While expensive, does the possibility of making headway on fundamental philosophical questions like the origin of life justify the cost?
  • Could we live on Mars one day?
  • Should we try to terraform Mars in the far future?
  • Do we have a responsibility to protect Mars as it is now?
  • What are the risks associated with returning Martian soil samples – or life – to Earth?

Two theological resources that would inform such a debate are the concept of stewardship, and the parable of the talents.

A great deal of good has come from connecting the mandate in Genesis 1:26 – to be stewards of this world – to climate-change and other environmental concerns. But stewardship in this context has thus far been applied only in negative terms: rescuing endangered species, reducing energy usage and emissions, slowing the loss of coastal lands and averting cataclysmic climate change. And that’s completely appropriate. To be good stewards of the Earth we need to stop the harm that uncontrolled technological-industrial advancement and rabid consumption will surely bring.

But I propose that good stewardship should lead to positive action as well as negative; being stewards of resources does not simply mean hording and coddling them. Meanwhile, the parable of the talents reminds us of the value of investing our resources wisely to build a more bountiful future, and that simply preserving the status quo is the less virtuous path.

Would anyone say the excitement Sasha felt seeing the sky filled with an alien world, and her hunger for new knowledge is at odds with Christian values? Surely not. But we won’t arrive at this kind of future by simply stopping, slowing, and reducing. We need to boldly go, expecting to succeed.

In short, the role that stewardship should play within any discussion is as a forward-looking and moderating force, not merely a backwards-looking, negating one.

Numerous topics would benefit from a moderating, forward-looking influence, perhaps most obviously biomedical ethical controversies, but the debate over space exploration is in particular need of this. Typically, two extreme positions dominate the conversation. Some argue any space programs are less than worthless because they siphon funds from more worthy causes here on Earth, while others are convinced our destiny lies in space, and the sooner we leave Earth behind the better. On to the stars!

Interestingly, the most passionate advocates of human spaceflight do so in almost eschatological terms. British physicist Stephen Hawking has famously said that he fears the future of humankind is at risk until we establish a permanent presence in space.Highfield, Roger. "Colonies in space may be only hope, says Hawking." telegraph.co.uk 21 Oct, 2001.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1359562/Colonies-in-space-may-be-only-hope-says-Hawking.html....

Certainly some space enthusiasts are simply caught up with the romance of the technology, but others see more practical economic, and societal justifications. The billions ploughed into the Apollo program undoubtedly led to new technologies, industries, and associated employment. It also placed the United States, in a positive light, at the center of the world stage. Determining the ultimate value of these effects is difficult, but it’s not inconsequential.

Meanwhile, the cost of a mission to establish a Mars base is truly staggering, and the technological hurdles are just as formidable.

Can we find a middle way? Can we build a space program that sets exciting but achievable goals within a constrained budget? In other words, a space program that draws resources from the public coffers to a degree that we can justify within the larger context of being good stewards of finite resources?

While the story so far smacks of utopian science fiction, as we return to Sasha and her father, we learn that NASA has followed what I believe to be one possible middle way, a moderately conservative, moderately bold approach to exploring the red planet...

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Notes on Part 1: Science Fiction vs. Real Life

Space Exploration, Positive Stewardship, and Christian Identity
Sasha’s Story. Part 1: Awesome
Sasha’s Story. Part 2: Disappointment
Sasha’s Story. Part 3: History
Notes on Parts 2 and 3: A New (Moderately) Bold Space Program?
Appendix: The Science Behind the Story
Suggested Links


Adrian Wyard

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