What We Talk About When We Talk About Space
published during a new moon.
space rhetoric

Like the gaping mouth of a gigantic celestial creature, the cometary globule CG4 glows menacingly in this image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Although it looks huge and bright in this image it is actually a faint nebula and not easy to observe. The exact nature of CG4 remains a mystery. Credit: ESO

Space is awesome. Actually it’s the very definition of awesome—breathtaking, awe-inspiring, impressive to the extreme. To look up on a starry night is a contemplative experience, like meditating on the nature of existence.

Don’t just take my word for it. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has this to say about the practice of studying and exploring the cosmos: “The major contributions of astronomy are not just the technological and medical applications, but a unique perspective that extends our horizons and helps us discover the grandeur of the Universe and our place within it.”

In fact, read almost any extensive writing about astrophysics or human spaceflight and you’re almost sure to run into superlative descriptions about our basic essence. A traveling art exhibit put on by the organization behind the Hubble space telescope intends to prompt “the deep existential questions that we all share: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Are we alone?” When he became the seventh man to step out onto the lunar surface near an area called Hadley Rille, Apollo 15 commander David Scott said, “As I stand out here in the wonders of the unknown at Hadley, I sort of realize there’s a fundamental truth to our nature—Man must explore.”

What is it about the cosmos that leads us to adopt such weighty language?

What is it about the cosmos that leads us to adopt such weighty language? The grandeur of the universe is certainly part of it. But many areas of reality can be considered magnificent and yet people don’t generally talk about geology, chemistry, linguistics, or most other branches of science in the same way. Astronomy seems to hold a unique position in the reverence it invokes. Conversations about humans exploring space tend to go a step farther, becoming explicitly religious in their tone and fervor.

Perhaps a deeper reason can be found in our long acquaintance with the night sky. From humanity’s earliest days, the stars have been there to guide us and give meaning to our lives. In many ways, modern-day discussions about space continue this ancient tradition—projecting stories about ourselves onto a blank universe.

So, what exactly are people talking about when they talk about space? Writing in Sky and Telescope magazine in 1990, astronomer John Bahcall echoed the above IAU quote by putting forth that we “should do astronomy because it is beautiful and because it is fun. We should do it because people want to know. We want to know our place in the universe and how things happen.” [emphasis mine]

space rhetoric

Deep in the Chilean Desert, astronomers staying at ESO’s La Residencia, the VLT Observatory’s hotel, witness a skyscape like few others on Earth. Credit: ESO/Luis Calçada/Herbert Zodet

Our place in the universe. What is our place in the universe? There’s an obvious, logical answer to the question. You are currently located somewhere on the surface of a giant rotating sphere approximately 40,000 kilometers in circumference, at a distance of roughly 150 million kilometers from the sun, near the edge of a galaxy about 100,000 light-years across. Correct, sure; but this account doesn’t exactly stir the soul.

Astronomical language often plays with the overlap between the physical and the metaphorical. You are positioned somewhere in space. But the deeper, symbolic question asks where are you in your life, in your development, in your unfolding as a human being. This is similar to the existential contemplations that the Hubble exhibit addresses. It’s not ‘where do we come from?’—we came from the last place we were—it’s ‘what does our history say about our nature?’. And it’s not ‘are we alone?’—we are constantly surrounded by other creatures—it’s ‘why are we nevertheless lonely?’.

What is our place in the universe?

These deep, unanswerable speculations often lead to thoughts of the transcendent. In the introduction to his book Cosmos, Carl Sagan wrote that “the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, or falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.” Sagan’s successor, Neil deGrasse Tyson, adopts a similar tone when he quivers at the thought that “not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us. I don’t know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me.”

space rhetoric

Planetary Nebula MyCn18. Credit: Raghvendra Sahai and John Trauger (JPL), the WFPC2 science team, and NASA

These two science communicators have helped instill in the public a sense of reverence for the capital-C Cosmos. And they do so by explicitly focusing on its vast and powerful nature. The universe genuinely is most grand, most mighty; that which created us, and which can in a second destroy us; that which is infinite, sublime, ultimately beyond our full comprehension—all attributes that a Medieval European monk would have given to his Almighty God. Sagan and deGrasse Tyson are not alone. In many ways, the Space Age provided a shift or crossover from the decline of belief in Heaven to a worshipful examination of the heavens.

It is not gravity which oppresses us, but we ourselves.

“Astronomy is something like the ministry. No one should go into it without a call,” Edwin Hubble once said. Similarly, astronomer Robert Aitken, director of Lick Observatory, wrote in 1933 that the mission of astronomy is “to give man ever more knowledge of the universe and to help him to learn humility and to know exaltation.” Do a Google search for ‘humility and exaltation’ and the first dozen hits will be Christian websites discussing the divine example of Christ.

And if astronomy is the ponderous, mystical side of this new spirituality, then the manned exploration of space could be considered its zealous, missionary arm. We’re often told that sending people into the universe will fill our lives with the purpose they currently lack. “Beyond all rationales, space flight is a spiritual quest in the broadest sense, one promising a revitalization of humanity and a rebirth of hope no less profound than the great opening out of mind and spirit at the dawn of our modern age,” wrote Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin in his book, From the Moon to the Millennium.

space rhetoric

The magnificent starburst galaxy, Messier 82 (M82). Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Hope, rebirth, unbridled liberty; such themes come up over and over as soon as somebody brings up the motivations behind human exploration of the universe. The rocket “will free man from his remaining chains, the chains of gravity which still tie him to this planet,” wrote aerospace engineer and architect of the Apollo program, Wernher von Braun. Such ideals tap into the symbolic aspect of a rocket launch—breaking bonds, soaring upward forever. What they fail to mention is that the universe will always provide us with restrictions; that it is not gravity which oppresses us, but we ourselves.

For thousands of years, organized religions sought to remind everyone that they are brothers and sisters who can see past their petty divisions. Proselytizers of space similarly promise peace for mankind if we could all view the Earth from afar. “In space, race doesn’t matter, nationality doesn’t matter. In space, you see the world as a globe and you don’t see the boundaries,” said British space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock. Never mind that national boundaries are visible more on maps than anywhere on the ground. The more important point is a jaunt above the atmosphere will not miraculously dissolve entrenched conflicts. Once out in the cosmos, we will almost certainly find new things to disagree upon.

But spaceflight rhetoric doesn’t end with a simple plea for unity. Settling space is “an opportunity for a noble experiment in which humanity has another chance to shed old baggage and begin the world anew; carrying forward as much of the best of our heritage as possible and leaving the worst behind,” declares the Mars Society. Advocates identify parallels in their cause with the Age of Exploration, the conquering of the New World, and pioneers colonizing unknown lands. “Mars is the next frontier, what the Wild West was, what America was 500 years ago,” wrote science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke.

This version of history is curiously one-sided. It ignores the atrocities and destruction that also transpired during the last five centuries and the reasons for their occurrence. It also forgets that in moving from the Old World to the New, we were not actually made anew—that such a thing is impossible. We are not simple creatures. No matter where we go in the universe, we will remain complicated, conflicted; neither angels nor devils but humans.

space rhetoric

Hubble WFC3 image of a stellar jet in Carina, observed in ultraviolet/visible light. Credit: NASA

The cosmos is not a nurturing escape valve.

The zealous try to couch their visions in rational language. “Every surviving civilization is obliged to become spacefaring—not because of exploratory or romantic zeal, but for the most practical reason imaginable: staying alive,” wrote Sagan. This desire is inborn, natural, resonating from our very DNA. “Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole,” wrote Beat author William S. Burroughs.

Odd sentiments considering that man is specifically designed to live on Earth. But the underlying narrative is that our species’ immortality awaits us in the heavens (striking another religious chord). Yet Earth isn’t going anywhere soon. And the fossil record indicates that all organisms—one way or another—will face extinction. The cosmos is not a nurturing escape valve. If the universe truly is all-encompassing, then it will include both our continuation and our eventual demise.

“It is humanity’s destiny to explore the universe,” wrote retired NASA astronaut Story Musgrave. “When we start thinking and working on that cosmic level, we will transcend our parochial differences and tribal natures and become global creatures, solar system creatures. Then we will figure out where we fit in.”

There was once a time when such stories worked their magic on me. These days, I tend to focus on how mawkish, how designed to comfort they are. Why do otherwise rational people appeal to something as fantastical as human destiny? I tend to side more with psychologist Carl Jung, who maintained that “space flights are merely an escape, a fleeing away from oneself, because it is easier to go to Mars or to the moon that it is to penetrate one’s own being.”

Still… I can’t help but think of Apollo 14 commander Alan Shepard. Before his flight, he was sure that if someone asked if he was “going to get carried away looking at the Earth from the moon” his reply would have been, “No, no way.”

“But yet,” he continues, “When I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the moon, I cried.”

I would have too, Alan.