Let’s colonise space – but for what reason?

Review of Stephen Hawking’s “Brief Answers to the Big Questions” - Part 5

Hawking is a huge advocate of manned spaceflight. He sees it as our only chance to escape the “almost inevitable . . . nuclear confrontation or environmental catastrophe [that] will cripple the Earth at some point in the next 1,000 years”, although he hopes that “we can avoid dropping the basket [currently containing all our “eggs”] before we learn how to escape from Earth”. (150)

At no point does he explain how, by going into space, we escape “nuclear confrontation” in space. This is a real possibility in the future, as it’s improbable we will become sinless this side of eternity. Hawking obviously hopes that the exploration, use and colonisation of space and extra-terrestrial objects will be advantageous for human development and flourishing. And he is probably right. However, he is not helping this cause by saying we need to do this to “escape” something. The general advice for anyone moving places, jobs etc. is that they should make sure of what they are moving towards before they start moving away from.    

Considering that, let’s see how Hawking tries to convince us of space colonisation, in the chapter titled “Should we colonise space?”

Like many before him, he compares our situation regarding space colonisation with the situation in Europe before 1492: “People might well have argued that it was a waste of money to send Columbus on a wild goose chase. Yet the discovery of the New World made a profound difference to the Old.” (165) However, he isn’t quite sure that this kind of talk goes down well with certain influential people in media and education and deprecates his prior statement in an act of pre-emptive self-defence against the woke set: “Just think, we wouldn’t have had the Big Mac or KFC.” (165) He thereby destroys any credibility of his statements in this chapter. Statements such as that the first manned landing on the Moon “changed the future of the human race”.

Apart from having severely curtailed his credibility, one has to ask, when analysing Neil Armstrong’s above statement: Really? The astronaut made that famous claim about small steps and giant leaps. He misspoke (“one small step for man” instead of “a man”), which indicates that the sentence was pre-scripted, and not by him. Not only were his words not authentic. They also lacked the depth and truth they pretended to confer. For, consider this: Armstrong’s words can be turned around and still be true. Truer in fact, especially when seen in retrospect. Here’s what you get: That’s one small step for mankind, one giant leap for [a] man. Armstrong’s “small step” was “a giant leap for mankind” only conceptually, as an idea. It was no giant leap economically, politically, socially or culturally. No: Apollo 11 was a giant leap technically, but a very small step anthropologically.    

A much bigger impact culturally than Apollo 11 was arguably made by Apollo 8, the first manned flight “to” the Moon (without actually landing on it). Instead, that mission “only” orbited the Moon a few times and then flew back. During one of those orbits, on 24th December 1968, astronaut William Anders took the iconic, world-famous photo called “Earthrise”. It has been widely credited for raising awareness of the preciousness and smallness of our current only home and habitat of every (so far) known living being in the universe. It may well have triggered the environmental movement, although it would very likely have started anyway, albeit a few years later. Paul Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb” had already been published, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” had been published six years prior. They too played a huge role in starting the environmental movement. However, a picture is worth a thousand words.   

Incidentally, the significance of the first landing on the Moon was, I think, much better captured by the much less well-known first words of Armstrong’s companion, Buzz Aldrin. This is what he said when he stepped onto the surface and looked around: “A magnificent desolation.” (See his book “No Dream is Too High”, p. 61.) Aldrin also claims to be the first human who took a leak on the Moon, or, as he told a group of little kids in Australia many years later: “I peed my pants!” (ibid, p. 64) This makes him at once more relatable and human than Armstrong, without demeaning any of the heroism of either of them. But Aldrin’s words harbour much more authenticity and depth than Armstrong’s famous ones.

And, his words “magnificent desolation” point to something biblical. Some Christians say we should remain on planet Earth and not venture out to space, as God said we should rule over the Earth. He didn’t mention the Moon, the planets or the stars in this context (except that they too are part of His creation). However, the book of Genesis was written to make sense of the world as perceived by humans then. For example, on the second day of creation, God separates the “waters of the heavens and from the waters of the earth.” (Genesis 1, 6, NLT) For people in ancient times, this made sense: Water was either on (or under) the ground, or came from above – so there must be water “of the heavens”. So, “subdue the Earth” may very well mean: “subdue the Earth and its material surroundings”. We send satellites into orbit. This helps us immensely with regard to weather forecasts, mining, communication and such things. (It also improves the ability of the godless to play God and surveil us.) We send probes to the planets, moons, asteroids, comets and the sun to better understand them. Thereby improving our knowledge of nature as a whole, thereby improving our ability to “subdue” it.

Our eventual mining of other celestial bodies, should it ever happen, will increase our per capita wealth and therefore wellbeing. Our colonising them will eventually allow us to increase in number far beyond even 11 billion without endangering the basis of our livelihood. Thus we will be able to specialise and trade even more, improving our wealth and wellbeing even more.

It is in this context that we can better understand Aldrin’s words, obviously expressed with a sense of awe. The Moon as a “magnificent desolation” means: Untouched so far by human hand, it is full of potential. Touched by human hand, this God-given potential can become a magnificent living space. So can Mars, so can the Asteroids and the Moons of Jupiter and Saturn. So can the Comets and so on. If we allow our actions in space to be guided by God. Otherwise, these magnificent desolations could easily turn, touched by human hand without godly guidance, into despicable desolations.

Side note: In that context, it is noteworthy that the Apollo-8 crew, while they were orbiting the Moon around Christmas 1968, read out aloud to the listening world the first chapter of Genesis. Also, after the Apollo-11 lunar module had touched down on our natural satellite, Aldrin performed a Holy Communion. It was American tax money, technology and enterprise that got them there, but they were carried as well by a Christian spirit. Here’s the relevant Wikipedia entry on Aldrin and Apollo 11:

As a Presbyterian elder, Aldrin was the first and only person to hold a religious ceremony on the Moon. He radioed Earth: “I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.” Using a kit given to him by his pastor, he took communion and read Jesus’s words from the New Testament’s John 15:5, as Aldrin records it: “I am the vine. You are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” But he kept this ceremony secret because of a lawsuit over the reading of Genesis on Apollo 8. In 1970 he commented: “It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the Moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.”

On reflection in his 2009 book, Aldrin said, “Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion. Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind – be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.” Aldrin shortly hit upon a more universally human reference on the voyage back to Earth by publicly broadcasting his reading of the Old Testament’s Psalm 8:3–4, as Aldrin records: “When I considered the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained, what is man that Thou art mindful of him.” Photos of these liturgical documents reveal the conflict’s development as Aldrin expresses faith.)

Attempting to create magnificent living spaces beyond the Earth would give space travel a true sense of purpose. A sense of purpose is what we desperately need. It was missing in 1969, which is why, almost concomitantly with Apollo 11, we got Woodstock. Let me explain.  

The importance of purpose is noted even by Hawking at this point, who otherwise studiously avoids this word. “A goal of a base on the Moon by 2050, and of a manned landing on Mars by 2070, would reignite the space programme, and give it a sense of purpose, in the same way that President Kennedy’s Moon target did in the 1960s.”  (168, my emphasis.) However, Hawking ignores that the people didn’t buy the sense of purpose at the time. I can barely remember the first Moon landings, so I can’t speak from experience. However, looking at the history of that time, people were excited and awestruck by the whole project. But most saw no rhyme or reason in the Apollo project apart from, in the context of the Cold War, showing the Russians who’s boss.

The most powerful expression of this lack of purpose of modernity was the famous festival of Woodstock. It took place less than a month after Apollo 11. It was literally a return to the primordial mud and slime, an active, though not necessarily conscious, turning away from rationality and technology, and from a modern world without purpose. A purposeful act of regression in protest against a humanity that had lost its way while it was celebrating progress, but without purpose. In his book, Hawking has nothing to say about this parallel, and hardly coincidental, phenomenon. In that, he is typical of the modern atheists, who don’t seem to understand the West’s renunciation of rational thinking that started in the 1960s, and so ignore it. They’ve certainly done nothing to stop, let alone reverse it.  

Next (and last) part of the review: Prevent AI from outsmarting us – but will it?