The team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has done it again. This time they have succeeded in landing a highly sophisticated, roving mobile science lab the size of a compact car on a planet located some 154 million miles away from home. And what a landing it was! Fraught with complication to a degree that even a tiny error could have put a killer kibosh on the entire multi-year effort, they were nonetheless successful down to the smallest detail. By chance, coming at a time when millions are simultaneously celebrating great athletic achievement in London right now, it could equally be said that this in its own right is part of the Olympics of American space discovery. It is a Gold Medal for science, engineering, and generally for intellectual – dare I even say, spiritual? – achievement.
Even so, the question remains, why (literally) in heaven’s name ought we even to want to send machines, let alone (at a later date) humans, to another planet? Isn’t it enough that we have messed things up royally here on Earth, and wouldn’t it be wiser if we were to put all our resources and efforts into making things better not just for the life forms residing here (ourselves included, surely), but for the magnificent planet as a whole that we call home? Indeed, I confess that I was exactly of this opinion in the past, and I will, with your patience, attempt to explain in brief how and why I changed my mind.
I still vividly recall July 20th, 1969. It was a warm summer evening on Earth when Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon. A Sunday, in fact, if memory serves me correctly. I was living and teaching high school in a rural part of upstate New York, not far from the Massachusetts border. Still drinking alcohol in those days (too much, to be sure), I happened to stop at a favorite watering hole of mine, as chance would have it, more or less as Commander Armstrong was stepping onto the surface of the moon. The first human ever to have done so. And what were my thoughts in that bar as he spoke his famous words high above? Was I proud of this great human achievement? Was I excited that people had used their great intelligence, not to create weapons of destruction designed to kill one another, but instead to invent a technology that channeled our energy and creativity into reaching out to the universe around us? I greatly regret to say that was not the case. My thoughts were entirely earth-bound on that day. I felt nothing but criticism that we had chosen to spend so much money sending men to another celestial body, when there was so much pain and suffering on the one we currently inhabited. I remember thinking: “We spend millions sending men to the Moon, and next to nothing on the homeless and the dispossessed, on education, or on trying to cure humans of the diseases that kill us in the hundreds of thousands.” None of which, of course, was any more true in those years than it is now.
If I look back even further into my own personal history, I recognize that I was equally critical of earlier human achievements, those great soaring cathedrals of Europe, for example. Were they not the Medieval equivalent, in terms of technology and the great expansion of human imagination, to a space flight of the 20th (or the 21st) century? Instead, all I could think when I first saw them was: how many people suffered and died, while these temples were being created? And wouldn’t it have been better to spend that money on food for the poor and the dispossessed, on education, or on attempts, however halting they may have been in those days, to cure humans of killer diseases?
The answer to these questions, I think, can be divided into at least two parts. First of all, neither can, nor should, humans ever do only one thing. As a race, we are big enough to attempt multiple creative feats, and we are more than capable of both working on those never-ending quotidian problems that plague us day to day, and have always plagued us, while at the same time setting our sights and our minds on the bigger, the higher, the grander. Even the Olympics, that great paean to the physicality of the body (and to the mind, as well, it has to be said), uses as its motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” Faster, Higher, Stronger. These words themselves point to the second part of the answer to our original question of why do any of this “other stuff, beyond our daily needs? The second part of that answer is, in fact, deceptively simple: it is because human beings not only can do it, but in fact we ought to do it. It is part of what it means for us to be human not only to take care of the business of everyday life, not only to help others in need, feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless, work for the cure to diseases and to eliminate poverty, all vital and unquestionably great and worthy goals, but it also to strive for what is, if I can call it so, “beyond the merely human.”
And what do I mean by the beyond merely human? I mean all those things that take us outside of ourselves, that show us that we are capable of dreaming, of imagining, of conjuring not just what has to do with our “daily bread,” the sustenance of our bodies and our immediate physical needs, but that which feeds the spirit as well. Every age, and every culture, has done this, so why not ours, as well? What else is art for, except in some way, however imperfectly, to actively participate in the Great Creativity of Life Itself, and in so doing to express in a highly individualized and personalized way what is beyond the life of any one human being? Science, too, at its best, does the same thing. Physicists look into the very Mystery of Being, they use their intelligence and their practical know-how to delve into questions such as where do we come from, what is the origin of life, and why is there something rather than nothing?
Whether I knew it at the time or not, Apollo 11 was following in the giant footsteps of such great thinkers, and so is the aptly named Curiosity, which landed last night (Earth time) on Mars. This latest attempt is designed to research the origins of life in the universe. It is an attempt to help us understand where and how life came about. It is taking us beyond the cares and the duties of our everyday lives, as important and as crucial as they may be, and it is literally lifting our spirits. We can look up at the sky and, in a sense, see that we, too, are there. Mystics have known this for millennia, that we are part of the Greater Universe. But for most of us, it may be enough to realize that some real part of our (intellectual) selves is actually roaming about on the Red Planet high above us. What better way than this to express our need to look higher, to see farther, to go beyond, to focus our attention on what is greater than any one of us, and to give voice to that curiosity by which we realize we are human, and at the same time, hope that we are also far, far more than that?