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Surprising Science

Fantasizing About Future Space Adventures

Does news of private entrepreneurs mobilizing missions into space cause you to feel excitement or anxiety? Does it make you feel nothing at all? Stop for a moment and imagine: how does it all unfold?

Will we eventually travel into the farthest reaches of the galaxy under the benign auspices of something like Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets? Will the universe, instead, be colonized with brutal and uncompromising imperialism by something like the Alliance in the short-lived Firefly television series? Maybe you imagine that corporations will dominate space, consuming it as a natural resource like the RDA Corporation in the film Avatar.

If you are anything like me, then you have absolutely no idea what is genuinely likely. I don’t know anything about space, space travel, or the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. I’m not even a particularly competent science fiction geek.

I grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars and I’ve watched the entire remake of Battlestar Galactica. When a promising new science fiction film or television show comes out I am always excited. But I can’t quote you chapter and verse from any of these, I’m not a member of any clubs, I don’t play video games, and I’ve never been to a science fiction convention. I’ve always imagined that I might enjoy these things, but been deterred by my eventual discomfort with the dynamics of subcultures.

My reluctance to don a pair of Spock ears and go to the convention center is exactly the same as my reluctance to don a kippah and go to the synagogue. [See my previous post: Books That Have Insiders And Outsiders].

Nevertheless, space exploration is well worth a spell of glassy-eyed fantasy no matter one’s degree of science or science fiction competence. No one really knows for sure what’s out there. And no one knows who we will be or become if or when we normalize our residence among the stars.

Maybe it is in space where humanity will truly thrive.

A very wise friend once noted to me the fact that dogs had to wait tens of thousands of years as a species before they could enjoy the pleasure of riding fast in a car with their heads out the window. This is a profound thought for a number of reasons. I want to highlight three: the temporality reason, the externality reason, and the potentiality reason.

The Temporality Reason. Let’s assume that dogs universally love to ride in cars with their heads out the window and that this is in fact one of the activities that dogs most love to do. It is almost impossible that a dog could ever have had such an experience until the invention of the automobile.

Sure, even thousands of years ago a dog could have been caught in a windstorm and enjoyed the breeze. But this is not really the same kind of experience.  

For all I know a dog may once have hitched a ride with a horse or a hippo. Anyway, such rare occurrences cannot compare to an activity that many contemporary dogs look forward to with some regularity and without any fear of danger.

Chewing on a bone and darting around in an open field may be venerable sources of happiness for dogs, but one major source of canine delight was not revealed until recently. Thus, time and venerability have proven unreliable as guides to what constitutes flourishing for dogs. And this should make us at least a little bit skeptical of arguments from longevity like: women have always been subordinate to men, homosexuality has always been forbidden, human beings have always lived in an implicit state of war of all against all, or the best environment for humanity is on Earth.

The Externality Reason. It was not in any dog’s power at any time in history to bring about the experience of safe, high velocity, leisurely travel. It was a chance invention achieved by an entirely different species that made the difference.

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This is an excellent reminder of our vulnerability to external forces of change. Factors well beyond our control, even beyond our understanding, can interrupt our plans in hugely consequential ways. If I am remembering the history of the future correctly, it is when human beings achieve warp drive that they inadvertently attract the attention of the Vulcans, who arrive on Earth the very next day. That’s in Star Trek: First Contact.

The Potentiality Reason. Dogs never even knew what they were missing! Something inside them, inchoate and never understood, yearned to have their drool wisped against their faces as they panted with glee at 35 mph.

Our ideas about human potential and human flourishing are limited by being ensconced in Earth’s environment. We have no idea what human possibilities may be unleashed once we transcend the far side of the moon.

We may find ourselves capable of unprecedented political unity in space. Or we may find that space unleashes as yet unseen capacities for conflict and violence. There may be benevolent beings waiting to arouse senses that we don’t even know that we have or monsters ready to torture us in ways more horrible than we can bear to imagine.

At this point it is all fantasy. We learn more about our current selves when we fantasize about space than what the future actually holds for us out there.

But our future in space is a genuine mystery, so if you have no thoughts or feelings about it at all you might ask yourself why: why not open the mind to the genuinely mysterious, to a true frontier of possibility?


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