St. Thomas Aquinas and Space Exploration
We're sinking in record federal debt, mired in a war and wallowing in moral and social decay. What a great time for President Bush to announce “a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system.”
The “new” in the plan is the goal “to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds,” establishing the moon as a manned launching station by 2020. From there, NASA will aim to send astronauts to Mars. After Mars? “We do not know where this journey will end. Yet we know this: Human beings are headed into the cosmos.”
Heading into the cosmos ain't cheap. NASA's annual budget is already $86 billion — yes, billion. By clever reallocation of funds, $11 billion can be shifted around to help pay the new bills, but Bush is asking for an increase of $200 million per year for the next five years.
Having said all this, readers likely expect me to release a jeremiad about how we ought to be spending the money locally, shoring up our earthly abode rather than frivoling our way spaceward, strewing billions of indiscriminate dollars out the portal as we shuttle off into the unknown.
Sed contra, to quote my favorite advocate of space exploration, St. Thomas Aquinas. As the 13th century philosopher, the human mind is in potential to all being; that is, we naturally desire to know everything. Indeed, it is this natural desire that defines us as rational animals, the only earthly creatures made in the image of God.
Bush was at pains to try to sell space exploration in terms of merely utilitarian goals, noting that research related to such exploration resulted “in weather forecasting, in communications, in computing, search-and-rescue technology, robotics and electronics.” If that weren't enough to sell it to the skeptical, Bush pointed out that “medical technologies that help prolong life, such as the image processing used in CAT scanners and MRI machines, trace their origins to technology engineered for use in space.”
All true, all very true, but I suspect such technologies could have been produced in far less expensive and roundabout ways. The simple truth is the human mind desires to know what is out there, and whatever pretenses to practicality we might make, there is ultimately no other reason why we are driven by the utterly impractical and utterly human desire to explore the cosmos than the desire to know.
Bush seemed to understand this, however dimly. As he remarked, “We've undertaken space travel because the desire to explore and understand is part of our character.” Unfortunately, he presented this admirable trait as merely part of the American character, linking it to the Lewis and Clark expedition.
His rousing finale was thereby dampened by stooping to the merely political realm. “Mankind is drawn to the heavens for the same reason we were once drawn into unknown lands and across the open sea. We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives and lifts our national spirit.” Space exploration therefore appears to be only an extension of the restlessness that defines our national character.
What Bush should have said was this: “Mankind is drawn across unknown lands and across open seas because our human spirit is inevitably drawn to the heavens. If we seize upon the full ramifications of this desire, both our lives and our spirits would be considerably uplifted.”
If we would really dwell without prejudice upon the outrageous impracticality of space travel, we would discover two very important and uplifting truths. First of all, for too long science has been dominated by materialist reductionism, where human beings are merely a rather agitated complex of chemicals. According to this view, our every thought and action, no matter how elevated each might appear, can ultimately be reduced to some very mean and very practical sub-rational push — the desire to avoid death, the desire to procure sex, the desire to protect our rung on the social ladder. These ignoble desires are, in turn, merely echoes of some genetic or molecular gyrations hidden far beneath our senses.
But here before our very eyes we find human beings spending outrageous sums of money in clear defiance of the reductionist dictates of Freud, Marx, Darwin and the rest of the modern materialist pantheon. Here we find human beings showing themselves to be ultimately irreducible to merely practical, earthly and earthy creatures. Here we have spiritual creatures who want to know — independent of any practical benefit that might ever be reaped for their bodies — everything. We thereby prove ourselves not satisfied with the Earth because we are ultimately a fusion of dust and divine breath, and, like God, knowing for its own sake is an inextricable part of our nature.
There is a second, related truth we shall discover. For some centuries we have carried about a fiction that Earth is nothing special — one of a number of possible worlds dotting the cosmos. Thus human life is nothing special, for there must be countless worlds with myriad forms of intelligent life in nearly every corner of the universe.
That assessment, it turns out, was based on ignorance of the actual complexity of conditions that make life on Earth possible. As we learn more about the fragile design that allows for such biological opulence as we experience, we realize that fewer and fewer cosmic locations would prove hospitable.
Bush is planning to send manned missions to the moon, Mars and beyond. These are not to be quick rides through space and then back home for the crew. Rather he has in mind setting up long-term living quarters. In preparing for such missions, NASA will have to do an extraordinary amount of research into the very intricate and exacting conditions that make human life possible. As a result, we shall soon find out, in ever-greater detail, how extraordinary our humble planet really is.
How extraordinary? In a recent Register article, Father George Coyne of the Vatican Observatory estimated there are “at least 1,017 Earth-like planets … likely to exist in the universe.” Against this, I predict continued research into the cosmos, into the complex of conditions that make Earth-like planets possible and, finally, into the conditions that would allow for human beings to live for extended periods of time on the moon and Mars will reveal that the number of Earth-like planets that exist in the universe will approach ever nearer to one.
The one we happen to be standing on, staring into the heavens, animated by the desire to know all of creation.
Benjamin Wiker writes from Steubenville, Ohio.
- March 14-18, 2004