Yesterday marked the 24th anniversary of the tragic Challenger disaster, bringing an end to starry-eyed dreams of cheap access to space. It is not the first, nor the last, tragedy in the history of the world’s several space programs, and we, rightly, salute the elite cadre who goes into space, fully aware of the risks involved.
In truth, the design of the space shuttle was a flawed compromise [astronautix.com] from the very beginning, a fact belatedly acknowledged by NASA, which is now retiring the remaining three orbiters. Still, we can thank this venerable design for launching the Hubble Space Telescope as well as the International Space Station, among others.
Inquisitiveness is not a trait unique to Homo sapiens. Other animals exhibit curiosity and ability to learn. Wild chimpanzees actually learn how to make tools — and pass the skill down as part of their culture. What is unique to us, at least among the extant species, is our language skill. Language, in turns, enable the construction of our modern society, with its advancements in culture, science and technology.
There is a legitimate concern that our scientific and technological prowess is increasing at a pace that outstrip the evolution of public morality and legal constraints; at the most extreme, this is expressed by denunciations of “godless science”. Yet the bible itself, while certainly not a science textbook, and not meant as such, is not anti-science either. As written in Genesis 2.19 (RSV, from Oremus):
So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.
This is long before Carolus Linnaeus’ foundation of modern taxonomy. Naturally, life is messier than this narrative portrayal, and it’s not as if our entire body of knowledge has been codified before our ancestors’ purported exile from a mythical Garden of Eden.
In the long entangled history of religion and science, two of the major conflicts occur in the fields of astronomy (Copernicus, Galileo et al.) and biology (Darwin et al.). In case of astronomy, we have a rather ironical situation in which the church set itself up as the defender of the outdated, overcomplicated geocentric model — developed by Greek philosophers and decidedly non-Christian — against the more accurate heliocentric model, developed by scientists who are at pains to reiterate their loyalty to the church’s religious teaching (as opposed to scientific meddling).
In truth, religion and cosmology has a lot in common. If we accept the distinction between religious and other emotions [Jacob Needleman, Religion Dispatches], then it’s hard to find, as a body, a group of people as suffused with religious awe, wonder, and humility at the Creation, as astronomers and cosmologists, regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof).
Whether we see ourselves as God’s agents on earth, or see our consciousness as an emergent behavior, and our purpose in spreading consciousness across the universe, a set of biblical passages seem to apply:
Genesis 9.7 — And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.
Genesis 11.1-9 (The Tower of Babel)
While the first reading might be construed to tie us down to this earth, it should be emphasized that biblical authors hardly know any other material place. The tower story could then be seen as an allegorical warning, against putting all our eggs in this one earthly basket. We have a responsibility to be stewards of the earth, but part of our responsibilities, both to ourselves and other earthly creatures, and mother earth itself, is surely to keep our ecological footprint at a sustainable level, and to exploit raw materials available in lifeless worlds. A well-funded space program is essential, regardless of past setbacks. And then it will be as said in Genesis 32.12:
Yet you have said, “I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.” ’