The Dark Side of Exploration and Discovery

Like any human enterprise, the investigation and exploration of the universe involves both sin and virtue. While it’s important to recognize and celebrate that which is noble about it, it’s equally important to identify and call attention to that which is evil and harmful. It’s important for people of faith to think and speak theologically about discovery and space exploration in precisely this way, so that these efforts might be directed toward the love of God and the benefit of humankind.

The darker aspects of space exploration are evident in the things that often make it possible. Several times in his book The Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier (W.W. Norton, 2012), Neil deGrasse Tyson identifies three key drivers of investment in scientific exploration and technological innovation: war, promise of economic return, and glorification of power. Pure desire for discovery can suffice for research and development below a certain threshold, which Tyson estimates at several billion dollars. Most science happens there. But to go beyond that, it takes one of these three things: war, wealth, or glorification of power. At least one of those goals is necessary to get large-scale commitment and funding, the kind required to push humankind’s frontier in the universe. Each of these is associated more with vice than with virtue.

Tyson lifts up the Apollo program that took humans to the moon as an example of what he’s talking about. The familiar, inspirational version of the story goes that we explored space because that is the next frontier. We sent people to the moon because our human nature is to venture out, to risk, to explore, to launch ourselves figuratively or literally into that which is unknown and unfamiliar. That’s true. But it’s also true that we went to the moon because we were in a space race with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 galvanized the US space program at least partly because we could see the military implications of something flying above our heads, out of reach, orbiting the earth every 90 minutes. The same technology that launched probes and humans into space could launch missiles to the other side of the world. The scientists, engineers, astronauts, and general public were devoted to the Apollo program because of our love for exploration, adventure, and discovery. But much of the money and commitment from our government came because we were in an international arms race.

I learned reading The Space Chronicles that the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo astronauts to the moon was developed under the leadership of a German engineer, Wernher von Braun. During World War II, von Braun developed the German V2 rocket, which was used to attack England toward the end of the war. It was the first ballistic missile, and the first man-made object to travel into space. Think about that. The first man-made object to travel into space was designed not to learn something, but to come back down to earth to kill and destroy.

War seems to be less of a motivation for space exploration today, but the possibility of wealth—Tyson’s second driver of funding and commitment—is becoming more prominent. In recent years, private companies have taken on some of the investment and technical challenges of exploring space. Now the opportunity for economic gain is fueling a new space race. There is money to be made in space, whether it’s in launching equipment and supplies into orbit (SpaceX’s current way of making money), establishing an industry of space tourism (Blue Origin’s goal), or mining asteroids (technologically distant, but potentially very lucrative for whoever can accomplish it). To be sure, this isn’t the reason the founders of these companies are getting into space exploration. SpaceX wants to make humankind a multi-planetary species. Blue Origin wants to make space travel a typical part of human life, as common as going on vacation. As with the Apollo program, the engineers and scientists are passionate not primarily because they see dollar signs, but because of the thrill of achieving something remarkable and charting a new course. I believe the founders of these companies genuinely want to use their considerable resources to benefit humankind. But. These companies had to raise large sums of money for research and development. They had to have investors who are in it for the long haul, and those investors want a return. Money is not the primary reason for the exploration these companies are undertaking. But money is a primary driver for the resources that have made their ongoing research and development possible.

Much more could be said, and surely has been said by those more knowledgeable than myself. I haven’t even touched upon the sins of colonialism and imperialism brought by the Western discovery of new lands and peoples in prior centuries, and how those realities ought to caution us about the potential evils of exploration in the present and future. And the fact is, even the science and learning are susceptible to failures of human integrity. As I continue to think about the theological implications of exploring the universe, I realize it does no good to shy away from this reality that exploration and human sinfulness are deeply intertwined. War and greed are important role players. The desire to explore comes both from our noble, adventurous, curious, heroic nature and from our violent, fearful, greedy, and power-hungry disposition. As with any human endeavor, the impulse to explore the universe contains both virtue and sin.

Given these realities, how can we ensure that humanity’s more noble characteristics play a greater role than our sinfulness in taking us to parts of the cosmos we’ve never been before? That’s a key question Christian theology faces as space exploration continues. Yet in the end, it’s not fundamentally different from other aspects of human life. Just as space exploration has not been immune to human sinfulness, neither is it beyond the reach of God’s ability to heal and restore. God has always been about the business of meeting human sinfulness with divine grace, enabling and empowering us to turn away from sin and grow into the likeness of Jesus Christ. The next frontier is no exception. We humans are bearers of sin into the world, indeed into the universe, wherever we go. But we are also those who have received God’s grace, and as such we bear hope, even if we do so imperfectly. It is my hope that Christian people will be imaginative and purposeful as we respond to the circumstances of the presence and the future. If we do so, and if we are grounded in our heritage and identity as followers of Christ, we may envision and perhaps actively shape a future among the stars that’s infused with God’s grace.

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