Tomorrow TB145 — the asteroid dubbed “The Great Pumpkin” — will pass just beyond our moon. It’s notable for at least two reasons: 300,000 miles is pretty damn close to Earth in astronomical terms and we only became aware of it a few weeks ago. This is, I suppose, a useful reminder of just how precarious our existence on this pale blue dot really is. Several times in our geological past similar heavenly bodies have wreaked havoc on the planet and even contributed to mass extinctions. We have every reason to expect that (pre)history will repeat itself eventually.
I’ve long been an admirer of NASA and our nation’s forays into the abyss of space. I remember sitting in hushed dismay in Mrs. Dawson’s classroom at Williamson Elementary School when the Challenger space shuttle broke apart just after takeoff, much the way my parents’ generation still remember where they were when JFK was assassinated. Today with a number of impressive space programs around the world – ESA, Russia, India, Japan, China – and thanks to the growing cooperation among them, space exploration has thankfully lost some of the Cold War partisanship. The moment I noticed the striking resemblance of my dog Dante to that most famous of Russian space dogs, Laika, I became like a little boy again, filled with wonder and joy. (I should note that Laika had somewhat more graceful proportions, unhindered as she was by the corgi gene that makes Dante so distinctive in his own right.)
Of course as a kid I was fed a diet of Star Wars and Star Trek, but there was also the world of Ray Bradbury and, later on in seminary, the epic television series Babylon 5. The journey into the outer space was almost as central to my idea of humanity as the spiritual journey itself. It was never a question in my mind that human beings should one day venture into the homelessness of space. We are, after all, inherently migrant creatures; we need to travel and journey and explore. We are, in the words of the Catholic liturgy, a “pilgrim people”.
But now, I no longer take for granted that we should venture forth. I think we have still to answer a prior existential question: Are we worth saving at all? And while I, as an individual, firmly hold an affirmative answer to that question, we – as the human race – haven’t yet answered it for our collective self. So long as we think in terms of “colonizing” space, rather than exploring or migrating, we show that we’re still trapped in the old ways of thinking that created the mess our world is in now. So long as technocrats, bankers, billionaires, and oligarchs control the venturing forth as a means to save themselves while the rest of humanity perishes, we show that we still haven’t learned even basic lessons of solidarity and brotherhood.
I’m not saying that technocrats and bankers aren’t worth saving, naturally. But until we understand that there’s something of value in the experience and lives of the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the weak, the forgotten and the unloved, then we haven’t really begun to evolve in a higher sense and we have no business spreading our nonsense beyond the confines of our home planet.
I happen to think that there’s still hope for our kind. But TB145 is a reminder that time may not necessarily be on our side.
October 30, 2016