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
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
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 wont
be religious folk. As the saying goes, its 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
- 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 thats 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 wont 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.
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 its 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
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| Contributed by: Adrian Wyard