Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off the launch pad for the final space shuttle mission. Image credit: NASA TV
Imagine you’re eight and you’re given a dog. The first thing your parents say is that you need to take care of him: feed him, play with him in the backyard, and train him so that he doesn’t do bad things in the house. You and the new dog quickly become “the dog and his master.” That well-worn phrase can tell us something about our human instincts. Once something is put under our care, often our kneejerk reaction to “taking care of it” is to rule it or conquer it.
It’s no different with space. And the event of the final shuttle launch of Atlantis is yet another example of our human enthusiasm for conquering what’s before us. This launch, bittersweet as it was, marks the end of one program of curiosity and adventure, as well as the beginning of a new era of space exploration. This new era could include the privatization of programs to continue doing what shuttles like Atlantis have been doing, like replenishing supplies on the International Space Station, as well as take on other new space ventures. There will be debate about the next steps, I’m sure, just as there has always been debate about the space programs themselves.
But between the arguments concerning the pros and cons of space exploration, I believe it’s safe to say that there is general agreement that space has always given us that sense of grandeur and awe which inspires us to explore and conquer. I think it’s also fair to say that our zeal for exploration of creation is an impulse given by God, and one that’s directly in line with being created in the image of the Divine. Joan Vernikos, a member of the Space Studies Board of the National Academy and former director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division, comes close to this truth in her answer to Stephen J. Dubner, author, journalist and blogger, about the worth of space exploration:
Why explore? Asked why he kept trying to climb Everest, English mountaineer George Mallory reputedly replied, “Because it was there.” Exploration is intrinsic to our nature. It is the contest between man and nature mixed with the primal desire to conquer. It fuels curiosity, inspiration and creativity.
This desire to conquer, like all of our tendencies, is tainted with sin, but it has its origins in the characteristics of God. We know historically that the urge to conquer has been coupled with other horrors which we hope we will not repeat as we venture into space. And we also know that God commanded his people to conquer other peoples and also to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen.1:28, NIV), which can perhaps be translated into “conquer it.”
Which side of this “primal desire” will lead us into space? We’ve made great strides in our ability to conquer; case in point, the space shuttle Atlantis. But like any great power, it comes with great responsibility, and for Christians, our responsibility is wrapped up in God’s creation, which extends all the way out to the infinity of the cosmos. What’s to be done with it? The coverage of Atlantis has brought lots of ideas concerning this back into the news. We already hear about space property law and space tourism offering “unbeatable views.” There may be interesting and important implications here for the possibility of entrepreneurial growth and encouragement through private companies picking up from where NASA is leaving its retired space shuttles, things that might be explored in another blog post.
In a piece a few years ago, Jordan Ballor mentioned the emerging ideas about property ownership in space and how private companies would like to offer space as a tourist attraction, and what the real purpose of space might be. Speaking of the views of the sixteenth-century reformer Philip Melanchthon, Ballor writes:
Even if Melanchthon’s views were founded on assumptions that subsequent advances in astronomy have disproved, his theological vision is a salient reminder that every part of the created cosmos fills a specific purpose within God’s created order. While we may be uncomfortable with Melanchthon’s belief that “the stars were created by God to tell men what God intended,” we should acknowledge that there are created purposes for the heavenly bodies and seek to understand them.
When we discuss “stewardship of the cosmos,” as Jordan Ballor called it, we must ask whether conquering and stewardship compatible. Valid questions like this arise when we are faced with questions concerning the private ownership of space and the possibility of colonizing other planets. I have no hard and fast answers, except that for Christians, perhaps “conquering” isn’t the best characterization of what we’re doing in space. Our God-given tendencies towards adventure and understanding are compatible with his love of beauty, creativity, and complexity. But where does conquest fit?
Another writer recently posted that maybe the best way to think about it to think of space exploration as worship. Josh Larson discusses how that sense of awe we share when we see shuttles launch into space and see photos from the International Space station of galaxies and stars can be akin to worship. Maybe we can think about coupling them all together: conquering, being a steward, and worshiping, in order to think about how best to approach the discovery and development of the final frontier.