What are we humans doing in space? The anxious words of Pascal ring true: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” The seventeenth-century Pascal looked up at the night skies from earth; now we encounter these “infinite spaces” from the heavenly realm itself. Though liberated from the earth by our near-divine technological capabilities, before the fullness of an immense universe, we are still the feeble and tiny creatures we always were. The Hubble Telescope is a prophet of our insignificance. We might imagine space exploration to be a visual embodiment of the Copernican Revolution, a continuation of that great modern “displacement” of humanity, which has progressively eclipsed our sense of having a privileged place in the universe. Even more than before, we know the true depths of the universe’s frightening immensity, as well as the corresponding sense of our nothingness within it. Perhaps the most important thing space exploration has revealed to us is not the vast expanse of the universe “up there,” but something concerning us humans “down here.”
In an inversion of the ancient dictum, we might say: “As below, so above.” What we experience of space “out there” will reflect our inner spiritual state. Perhaps this is why, as glorious as the modern discoveries of the heavens are, they often leave us cold. This is not only because they’re mediated to us through images, or because we sense ourselves to be “of the earth.” It’s also because we children of modernity live in the shadow of the world’s disenchantment. The world is no longer “deep.” There is no inherent mystery in things. God’s absence from the world is echoed in the cosmos’s deafening silence. However wondrous the things we discover in space (which can awaken a reverent awe in even the most coldly scientific mind), they can never, in themselves, overcome this spiritual lack. For though we now have even more reasons for marveling at the cosmos than our ancestors, Peter Kreeft’s insightful observation remains true: People formerly looked upward and saw “the heavens”; today they simply call it “space.” Even the greatest exploratory adventures can never make up for this primary lack of spiritual vision.
This failure to see the world as it really is has infected even our notions of discovery. It is telling that the exploration of space is often characterized in terms of “conquest,” rather than “encounter.” The universe here is not fundamentally a mystery, whose depths must be humbly, gratefully received; it is a brute reality to be dominated. It doesn’t help that space exploration has often been placed within the grand narrative of history that defines humanity’s story solely in terms of “progress” (wherein “progress” is narrowly understood in terms of “mastery” over nature, with space exploration an extension of that dominating march). Likewise, this basic tendency towards “domination” may also be a symptom of that characteristically modern, Cartesian opposition between the subjective human being and his confrontation with a cold, objective, impersonal universe (an “it,” not a “you”). Or perhaps it is merely a continuation of that larger impulse to “conquer” which has been common throughout the history of Western exploration. Our modern ventures into space are not immune to these deep, fundamental errors. However new space may be to humanity, we have not changed.
We’ve already seen the truth of this idea borne out. We face a crisis of space debris in near-earth orbit, which shows that we have treated the extraterrestrial realm as we have treated our own planet. Historically, much of the governmental interest in space has been motivated by a continual pursuit of military advantage in this “new high ground,” and even the original moon landing was largely driven by the realpolitik concern of “national prestige.” In the near future, we may see the profit-driven commodification of space by private corporations. All of these facts testify to the larger truth: We can escape the earth, but we cannot escape ourselves.
Space exploration has borne witness to our modern sense of being “lost in the cosmos” (in Walker Percy’s phrasing). For while we have yet to discover an alien “other” in space, it seems we have in fact caught sight of how “alien” we humans are in the universe. The International Space Station maintains a human presence in space, there are rovers on Mars, and our spacecraft are spread throughout the solar system. But we might yet ask whether this place is truly for us. It’s hard not to feel that we’re less explorers discovering “our” universe, than invaders trekking into a foreign place we don’t really belong.
We are indeed doing something holy and magnificent by discovering space, extending Adam’s joy in creation to all the cosmos. Yet “from dust we came, and to dust we shall return.” Even in our most enlightened and rational exploits in space, we have not risen above what we are: creatures weak and fragile, small and helpless, finite and mortal. Space exploration reflects this truth; it does not transcend it. Far from being a testimony to man’s Promethean greatness, our entrance into space reflects how needy and dependent we still are, how alienated from both creation and Creator.
Even now, as we sail through the heavens, what we most desperately need must still come from beyond us: that gift neither controlled nor mastered; the grace that redeems creatures in their cosmic smallness.
Brandon Tucker will be a graduate student in history at Fordham University in the fall.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.