It came pretty much as a surprise to me:
When SpaceX started their Dragon lately, I felt an excitement I didn’t expect to be there.
Sure I read a lot of Science Fiction in my life and sure I loved the earlier space flight like the next guy, but somehow something was different this time.
When talking first with a friend about it and later on chatting with another, I started to see what my excitement was all about.
So lets start with my fairytale:
Over the last decades, space and it’s exploration have become the “property” of institutions like NASA etc. Huge, government-owned, -financed and -driven bodies – basically massive bureaucracies.
As it usually goes with these entities, in their struggle for the next budget and this or that experiment or piece of equipment, something is getting lost. Not necessarily on the level of the individual person working there – I am sure a lot of very inspired, clever and visionary people can be found at NASA and it’s counterparts in other nations – but in the bigger sense, something is getting lost.
Let’s call it dreams.
You don’t dream big by committee.
I don’t know if you ever read Heinlein’s “The man who sold the moon”. It’s about a guy who has some clever ideas about how to get into possession of rights to sell land on the moon and other ways of marketing the hell out of earth’s little brother. His biggest dream in life is actually flying to the moon himself, but because of his importance for the company he’s never allowed to.
In another, later story, Heinlein is telling how this man – many years later – hires a broke space pilot and together they’re repairing an equally broken spacecraft to fly illegally to the moon.
The man has grown old over his success but still has this one craving desire.
His health is not the best, he hardly survives the take-off and flight, but succeeds to breathe his last breath in his space suit on the surface of the moon, looking back on earth.
What a lucky person.
This is what humanity is lacking:
A really big dream.
Jump back to SpaceX:
It’s pretty fascinating that a person, Elon Musk, who obviously got rich with PayPal is now investing this money into dreams that I would say are of that calibre. First Tesla Motors and now a much bolder step, space.
I personally wish him all the luck in the world, we need people like him much more than we know.
We are used to governments being responsible for things of that scale. Institutions like NASA are responsible for looking after the really huge and important things. Space, War, Law, Order, not necessarily in that order.
No problem with that.
Or maybe there is.
Like all administrative bodies are doomed to, the one thing a government lacks is vision and dreams – it’s by definition tied down to the so called realities (as we’ve seen plenty times).
Like I said about NASA before, the individuals involved may have vision and dreams to go around – some more, some less of course – but a government as an institution is hardly ever able to really project or realize those.
Now the thing that made me think:
Isn’t it fascinating that a person who earned more money than a single human can hope to usefully spend in his lifetime ten times over would chose to invest it into dreams and ideas big enough for humanity to dream?
That the money he earned not through taxes but through completely materialistic, capitalistic means are now used to hopefully give humanity the bigger perspective that it so direly needs?
Let me elaborate on the last point, since I find it more and more important:
Heard the news lately? Isn’t it horrible how humanity exploits, kills, destroys nature, earth, life and itself?
An oil platform blows up here, a whale dies there, poison is leaking out, a tsunami not only kills a lot of people and destroys a whole region in Japan, but also makes nuclear plants blow up for generations to decontaminate. The stream of human failure is endless.
The very hopeful times after the second world war when humanity felt that science and the future will take care of everything are definitely over. It actually turned into the opposite. More and more, people feel as if we are the scourge of nature, earth and everything, only able to destroy, kill, poison and rape.
Let’s jump again:
Somewhere in the universe at this very moment (as much as this concept may or may not make sense ;-) ) a star turns nova. Huge areas of surrounding space are destroyed. It may or may not have contained planets that fostered life.
Or things we never heard of.
Or nothing at all.
We don’t know about it, may possibly never learn about it and definitely had no say in the matter.
In the grand scheme of things, a completely unimaginable amount of destruction of “nature” is happening at all times all around us.
What are we?
No matter if you believe in a god or not, I hope we can agree that we didn’t make ourselves. Even your parents were not able to “make” you other than with what evolution – or god if you prefer – gave them. They wouldn’t be able to “create you from scratch” other than through those means, no matter how much work or capital they’d invest.
What are we?
No matter how I look at it, the only conclusion I can come to is, that we are part of nature, that we are nature.
If a lion is munching on the hind leg of a gazelle, is that nature? Natural?
If a shell is creating a pearl from a grain of sand, is that nature?
If an ape is using a stick to catch ants, natural?
If an Australian native is making a bow and hunts an animal to eat it, what would you say, natural or not?
If I dig a hole in the ground, find some black sticky fluid and use it to fuel my lamp?
Or to power my car?
Is the car part of nature?
If you think about it, nothing we can find on earth is not part of nature, one way or the other.
I’d say this is actually true for the whole universe.
I propose what’s actually bogus is our perception of what is “nature” or “natural”.
The only thing that is really man-made and unnatural is our definition of these concepts.
Our whole world view, as advanced as we sometimes think it is, is actually not.
We are so proud that we no longer believe in the sun circling the earth, that we no longer barbecue women with brains (we don’t, do we?)…
We are really clever and civilized these days, aren’t we?
But somehow I feel that in a way, we just turned the whole thing around:
Our collective feeling of how bad a pest we are to “nature” is just as geocentric, anthropocentric – or may I say egocentric – and limited as was the old view of the flat earth with everything revolving around us.
Instead of being gods buddies to crown and command his creation, now we are the evil slime to destroy it all.
This view is exactly as megalomaniac as the other, with maybe even worse results, especially on ourselves.
Warning: What I will say now may sound stupid, bad, horrible, megalomaniac or non acceptable to you, but give it a thought anyway – I’d appreciate the effort:
Imagine our sun would go nova tomorrow:
How much of the beautiful great barrier reef will be left.
How many elephants, whales, hummingbirds or cats.
Will anybody remember Goethe, Beethoven, van Gogh?
Will one child be unharmed?
I think not.
Will “nature” be harmed?
I think not.
Can “nature” be harmed?
I think not.
Scarry, isn’t it?
But what am I getting at with this?
Let’s get a bit schizophrenic together:
I believe that in the really really great scheme of things it doesn’t matter a bit if we ruin our planet, if we live or die, if we pay our rent or sing “Hallelujah”.
For all we know there are billions over billions of planets, asteroids, suns and what have you.
We and earth aren’t even a speck, we’re hardly an atom on a grain of sand in the biggest desert ever.
We pretend keeping sane by not noticing.
Our brains are not really up to thinking really really big – or at least not used to.
So back to our human scale of things:
To us, it matters a great deal how we manage with the earth, other beings and our own race.
Our existence depends on it.
Now what does all this have to do with SpaceX or the guys who say that in 20 years we may be able to mine the asteroids?
It is my opinion that we are in dire need of options, of challenges and of a bigger perspective all of which can only be found in space as far as I can see.
What are our options as things are today:
We are now what? 7 Billion humans on earth?
A lot of our problems simply have to do with those numbers. Food, space to live, air to breath, water to drink, work to do.
I can’t see half of the world population committing peaceful suicide in favour of the other half any time soon (and every 25 years from then on), so the only available ways to reduce the numbers are those that happened in history: War, plague, famine or natural disaster (which the others are as well in a way if you followed me so far, if we say that we are “nature” too ;-) ).
I lately feel a certain nihilistic undercurrent in our whole society that somehow seems to almost “hope” for something really bad to happen – if possible not to me or you, but to anybody else for sure, especially to “those bad persons” ;-)
Movies these days seem to have the destruction of earth as a favourite topic.
The whole Armageddon idea is a bit more popular at the moment than I think is healthy for everybody concerned.
People believing in the end of the world because a certain Mayan calendar ends sometime this year (where it is so much more likely that the stone it’s carved into simply wasn’t large enough to hold more – there are other calendars which go further).
If a rat population is growing too large for a certain place, the rat-mothers start eating their children…
‘We are so much more advanced.
Oh yes we are…
Evolution as far as we know worked in a way, that a certain organism came to life, found certain conditions and had to deal with them or die out. In my limited biased human view it is different for us, since we change our environmental conditions ourselves much more than most animals or plants, although you could argue that every evolutionary step changed the environment more than the previous one and faster.
When I said before that we can’t step out of nature, that in fact we are nature, I would go further and say that all we do and create is nature as well.
I simply can’t imagine where the border between nature and not-nature would be set.
If you still follow along, maybe go on a step further with me:
If I’m an algae in the prehistoric ocean, my being there, my producing oxygen which may be toxic to other beings changes things.
I being a fish transforming to crawl up the beach will bring about massive changes.
I being a tree and filling earth with more and more of my offspring will bring about unbelievable challenges to what lived on the plains before.
“But those forests are so beautiful and natural”.
Sure they are, but ask the lichen and moss how they feel about being driven away. ;-)
If I’m an early humanoid inventing the bow which allows me to hunt more effectively, I may reduce the available game in the area. I may then have to increase my hunting radius or at one point invent agriculture and grow the plants and animals I need.
What actually happens is that no matter what we do, it creates a feedback loop and furthers evolution, overall development, “nature”.
Everything I change or invent to make life better or easier for me (being an ant or a human or a banana tree) has a result which then feeds back on my living conditions and creates new challenges for my inventiveness, creativity and – in the end – always furthers evolution.
What if the steam engine, the automobile, the computer, the world wide web where you may be reading this, your favourite social network and your mobile phone are actually nature at work?
Isn’t it ridiculous that I can choose from hundreds if not thousands of flavours and brands of yoghurt, but do we “need” all those thousands of different ants, bugs and worms?
Isn’t it the same idea, the same principle at work? If there is space/food/light enough for another living thing to live, it will, if not, it will not.
If there is a market for another brand or flavour of table water, chewing gum or yoghurt, you will find it in your supermarket soon enough.
What I propose here is that the human mind and brain need challenges to evolve.
The human body and brain changed over the millennia and still do every day. Challenges make the brain grow and develop and it hardly matters what the challenges are as long as they can be solved, one way or the other.
And the solutions we come up with will create new challenges. There will never be a “final solution”.Our perceived speed-up in development is the direct result of that.
Nothing new here, other than that I propose that this is nature at work, 100% natural and like everything in nature can either succeed or fail. Dinosaurs “failed” the last time around (if you want to call it that at all). We don’t know about our own chances of success yet and maybe never will.
But like the dinosaur, we will have done our part in general development in the end, one way or the other.
But hey, what was that bit about how important SpaceX is?
Where did that get lost?
OK, back to the original topic, closing the circle:
Our options on earth are limited by very practical means.
Yes I know that it’s supposed to be “bad” to see our future in “exploiting” other worlds or space, maybe “raping” another planet, rip off it’s natural resources, but what if it isn’t?
What if expanding not only our hold on resources but also our perspective on ourself, the universe and everything is part of this general evolution?
No astronaut ever returned unchanged from space.
I can’t believe that working in space, travelling in space and exploring completely new horizons wouldn’t open our minds to a larger picture.
I also can’t believe that a basically bureaucratic entity like NASA has enough punch, spirit, movability, freedom of decision, guile, pressure to succeed and those before-mentioned visions and really big dreams to make it happen.
I find it fascinating that somebody earning his money with all the “bad” stuff a banker has to do then takes that money to follow such dreams and visions – it’s a funny kind of redistribution of wealth.
We get “robbed” by PayPal but now that money starts a flight to the space station.
And other than NASA, a commercial enterprise will never stop there.
And it will also not stop at driving some tourist around space.
Since it is natural, is “nature”, it needs to grow to survive, so it will need to find more forms of income.
And there is a lot of “Space” out there ;-)
I say here – and please excuse the language – what we really need are big dreams and challenges to finally get our heads out of our asses, get a bigger perspective and while dealing with the problems at hand, not stop there and get stuck in our limited view again.
When I read things like “Why should anybody go into space, it’s so expensive, we should rather feed the hungry, cure the sick, improve everybodys income with the money….”
Sorry, but that is bull.
You can prove scientifically that if you give people more money or food, you not necessarily make them more happy, healthy or have less children. It may work for a time, but then you simply will need more food.
Remember, we are nature.
We reproduce if conditions allow.
If food is falling out of the sky, we’ll sit there waiting for it instead to working on the fields.
WE ARE NATURE.
That is how nature works.
Its neither good nor bad, it just is.
So while I am as far as is humanly possible from saying that we shouldn’t help improving the human condition on earth, I’d also say, that our future can’t be found here on this planet alone.
Since in that case, that future would be very limited.
Even today, in the “rich” countries, people – while more or less healthy, fed and well off – aren’t all that happy. Violence, which historically was often the result of missing basic needs is now more and more the result of boredom.
Young people are so desperate they drink or drug themselves into a coma on a regular basis. They may run around demolishing public or private property or threaten, beat up or kill other people or even run amok.
Because they are bored.
Because they don’t have much to look forward to: If they manage to somehow keep sane while going through our horribly antiquated, inhuman school system, they can either be on the dole, work on more or less pointless jobs that make no real sense in the end, or they are one of the happy few who find something in life to really give them joy and fulfilment.
Most of them won’t.
And they know that very very well and deeply.
There is no America left to discover, no wilderness to tame. You either somehow fit into the stifling society of other mostly bored people, watch pointless movies to get your blood boiling – at least a tiny bit for a short time – or play computer games – just as pointless as the movies and most of the time pretending to be a hero of some sorts doing something important, which in the real world you most definitely are not.
What if we actually would assume for a moment that we can manage our problems as far as problems are manageable – not all of them are in a way that feels really good for everybody.
What if we recognize that there is enough energy, resources and space for billions of years to come, no matter how much humanity would grow?
There are people who say that in 20 years we could be able to harvest the asteroids. I think that would be a much more worthy goal than killing each other over some oil and make even more people unhappy. Imagine investing all the energy that went into the nutty “war against terror” into something like that.
I guess we would be there in 10.
The reign of fear that holds us down has to come to an end at one point, replaced by a fresh and healthy trust in ourselves and a positive spirit.
Young people should dream again about going to the stars instead of becoming a tax advisor.
I think this would be worth much more than the “cost” of some space missions.
I at least am very happy that somebody is trying.
So thank you SpaceX for the inspiration! :-)