space travel mars
Philosophy

“We have built our tower to the Moon, and now we build it to Mars. What, then, is denied to us?”

This is a guest post by Carl Jacobs: a Christian by grace, a Calvinist by conviction, an American by birth. Husband of one, father of two, an engineer by profession, proudly possessed of a military mind. You never actually take off the uniform. Not really.

_______

The planet Mars is a popular destination these days, at least in theory. NASA (officially) wants to go to Mars. The Chinese government officially wants to go to Mars. Bas Lansdorp wants you to believe he wants to go to Mars, especially if you are willing to buy a shirt or a coffee cup. But perhaps the most serious proponent is Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, who is actively investing the profits of his own company in developing the capacity to get there. The man is dedicated and he is making good progress.

From a technology perspective, Mars is a difficult mission. The array of technical problems that need to be solved is vast. They include orbital resupply, radiation protection, engine technology, the ability of humans to function in close proximity for long periods of time, the impact on human physiology of prolonged exposure to gravity less than Earth’s gravity, return fuel, manufacturing in situ, habitats, food production, the incredibly difficult task of landing on the planet without crashing, and the harsh Martian environment (to name a few). The problem is fascinating to an engineer, but he (or she [ed.]) will quickly apprehend the complexity of a programme required to complete such a mission without undue risk of death to the crew. For example, it would require the construction of a spinning space station to investigate how the human body reacts to low gravity over (say) three years of exposure. Going to Mars is exponentially more difficult than going to the Moon, and will require a much longer and much more expensive effort.

So the question arises: why spend the resources? What is the return on investment? The Moon landings were after all sustained primarily by the dictates of the Cold War. They happened in order to demonstrate the superiority of the West over the Soviet Union. What would sustain a similar effort for Mars? The Engineer would say: “To build cool stuff!” But, alas, until justice is established and engineers rule the world, this will not be sufficient. The utilitarian answer is to focus on technology spin-offs. However, there is no sure way to evaluate this future expectation of benefit against the real costs that must be incurred in the present. New technology is a side-effect and not a purpose. There is also the appeal to the discovery of scientific knowledge. It is a fact that men can do what machines cannot. But we have here a trade between the marginal gain in scientific knowledge vs the marginal cost of achieving it. Is it sufficient to learn from unmanned probes that are much easier to build, cheaper to operate, and don’t involve the risk of killing people? The scientist finds himself in the same category as the engineer, except he is saying: “To learn cool stuff!” Both are parochial interests. These are really side issues though. There are two main reasons given, both of which have profound spiritual implications.

The first reason is to exercise dominion. Where man sets his foot, there he rules. The Moon landings fascinate because men walked upon a surface not found on the Earth. We as a race spanned the distance, survived the journey, planted our flag, and came back home having left behind indelible evidence that we had been there. This was the “giant leap for mankind” represented in one small step. The Moon was now part of our human kingdom. It was not forever locked away in the heavens, unreachable and remote. We had conquered a seemingly unconquerable boundary, and thus we could believe that other unconquerable boundaries would likewise fall. This is a powerful motivation – to go where no man has gone before. It’s why men climb Mt Everest and dive to the lowest depths of the ocean. We were given dominion and we seek to exercise it by nature.

There exists, however, a razor-thin boundary between the exercise of dominion and the sin of Babel. Men will say: “We have built our tower to the Moon, and now we build it to Mars. What, then, is denied to us?” This is not a reason not to go to Mars, but it is a recognition that man tends to seek glory for himself – to be like God. The divine is unlimited, and so man seeks to deify himself through the removal of limits by the shattering of boundaries. With each additional boundary crossed he sees more of unlimited God in himself, and so becomes more confident in saying: “Where is this God who presumes to sit over me?” This is especially true in terms of space, for man by nature anthropomorphises God. Space is so vast, man cannot imagine a being large enough to create it – because, of course, he analogises God to limited finite man. The expanse of space is made into his ultimate evidence for God’s non-existence.

There remains one boundary, however, that man cannot not shatter, despite his efforts. He must die. The divine is immortal, but man is mortal. And thus we encounter the second reason that men seek to go to Mars. It was explicitly expressed by Elon Musk, the most serious advocate of all:

I really think there are two fundamental paths: One path is we stay on Earth forever, and some eventual extinction event wipes us out. I don’t have a doomsday prophecy. But history suggests some doomsday event will happen. The alternative is, become a spacefaring and multi-planetary species.

We fear extinction. The spectre of death haunts man at every turn. Even so, he underestimates its scope. As it is written: ‘The soul that sins shall die.’ But it’s not just man who dies. Everything dies for the sake of our sin – including this planet, and this solar system, and this galaxy and everything else we can observe. It is all finite and limited and running down. So a perceptive man looks upon this world and he sees a planet that must of necessity die. He makes the obvious connection. We are attached to the planet and when it dies, we die as well. In fact, we don’t just die; we are erased. We might as well have never existed. Who will know we were even here? The scope of death is total, and its effect is to strip all meaning from everything we are and everything we do. So a perceptive man stares at that reality in fear and says: “We must get off this planet! We must continuously expand our dominion lest death catch up to us. Everything upon which we set foot must eventually die so we can never stay in one place.” Yet we have no reason to do this other than to continue our existence, to cheat death for a little while longer. Men flee from the bow of the sinking ship to the stern. They do not thereby save themselves. They simply prolong the inevitable. Here man’s imagined quest for divinity reaches its limit. He cannot overcome this last boundary.

The glory of man depends upon the continued existence of man, and how impoverished would be the universe without us, or so we think. But the universe is pitiless and cares not whether we exist at all. Man may go to Mars. He would expand his kingdom to glorify himself and avoid the fate reserved for the Earth. In doing so, he may think himself a little more divine than before. But then where does he go next? He must escape the solar system, for our sun will surely die. But how does he escape? If you think it difficult to go to Mars from Earth, imagine going from Earth out of the solar system. There is a void out there about which we know nothing. We have no means to learn about it. Plan, then, for the mission. We might as well be on the stern of the Titanic staring at the expanse of the ocean. And even if we did manage to cross the void, where could we run such that death could not find us? “Ah, but we have conquered other boundaries! We have faith in ourselves!” Exactly so. But just because a man can imagine something, that doesn’t imply he can realise it.

Man should go to Mars and there exercise dominion, but not in this spirit. He must first admit the journey is bounded by his limits. The Christian knows that death is the end of man, and that there will be a Last Day. He does not fear it. The Atheist knows that death is the end of man, and that there will be a last day. He dreads it with transcendent dread. So like his father before him, he covers himself in leaves and flees from the terror to come. And like his father before him, he will discover that his efforts are just as futile. If only he would seek the glory of God instead of the glory of man.