To boldy go…

Space, the final frontier. To boldy go where no one has been before. Or something like that. The news media is slobbering all over itself this morning, doing its best to replay the absolute wonder and awe that humans experienced when John Glenn first orbited the Earth in 1962. It was, literally, a concept out of this world back then. Escaping the confines of the planet has been a dream of many humans since well before then, and well after.

It’s a fantastic concept, the promise of freedom in the physical sense, floating beyond every rule and limitation that binds us here. We cannot escape gravity, despite it being theoretic, and we cannot fly without tremendous artificial propulsion. In space, I would imagine we can forget our human-ness, and dream without constriction…even the sky is not a limit.

The desire to be unfettered looms large with us, and I understand the attraction. There are sensory deprivation chambers on terra firma, where one can purchase a finite time span in a closed capsule filled with water and blocking the intrusion of all sensory stimulus. Many describe the experience as mystical, their spirits free to transcend what tethers it to the body. Or something like that.

Today, another billionaire and a trio of intrepid explorers will be ejected from the Earth’s gravity and experience a very few minutes in the sub-orbital atmosphere. I can only imagine the excitement and thrill of them all as they are propelled into history, in more ways than one. It’s a big deal, but it has implications and this is literally not a one-shot deal.

The archetype of the explorer is that of a restless dreamer, one who is never satisfied with status quo on levels transcending social constructs. Some are berating this effort, and the previous billionaire space effort, as simply evidence of the widening class divide. Others are denigrating the audacity of people with that much money choosing to spend it on what amounts to a thrill ride, rather than poverty and hunger or issues focused on alleviating suffering or more lofty goals. That merely brings us back to pesky issues of choice and collective responsibility, but that’s for another discussion.

I am very interested in these private efforts to go, quite literally, above and beyond the usual boundaries of our existence. The coverage of this latest jaunt into weightlessness began to get a little uncomfortable, however, when the news anchors began relating some of the proposals and possibilities for building on the success of these virginal efforts. Words like “colonization” and “permanent bases” were bandied about, and then “transportation of payloads” crept in. This makes for a bit of anxiety, at least for me.

To what end are we in such a fervor to travel beyond the planet’s physical boundaries? If this was simply about the curiosity to explore what lies beyond, and how we fit into the fabric of all that is, I would be at peace with it. However, we’re humans, and in this case products of Western capitalism and hubris and the need to fashion the world around us. In so many ways, it is all about us and what can space do for us. This is The New World, v2.0, and that’s a little frightening.

One of the more interesting speculations this morning involved the concept of hollowing out an asteroid, spinning it, and establishing a base of operations inside. From a technological aspect, that’s a fascinating thought experiment, but to what ends? What might we gain from such an effort? How might that be strategic for our species, our goals, our future? What might such an endeavor do for anyone, or anything, else in the Universe?

It occurs to me that such questions have already been asked and answered on levels far above my pay grade, but it would seem to me those answers constitute our very future. If they are formed by a small group of monied individuals who are making decisions that affect us all, that’s not a good thing. We’ll simply be carrying on the established order, the problematic status quo of the present day, and that doesn’t do anything for anyone, including us. What good could possibly come from moving forward with this troubling state of affairs, ignoring the need for improvements and solutions and bringing a dumpster fire into space? Seriously.

We’ve already left orbiting trash in the wake of our previous explorations and journeys. That doesn’t seem to be a good sign. Privatizing space travel is an interesting proposition, but can we be trusted? I’ve said many times that I believe wealthy white people, oligarchs and such, are trying to escape from the planet. Again, to what end? Is there a profit-making opportunity? I would imagine so, because that’s how they roll. If this was simply about exploration, I would be all for it. Maintaining the same old-same old status quo? Not so much.

What are the dreams for space exploration? Are the simply to make money and perpetuate the classism and social strata that we’ve got here on Earth? When the “space race” was in full bloom, the goal seemed to be more about beating the Soviets than about finding out what was out there. There was tragedy, and drama, and space garbage and increasing fodder for conspiracy theories (what WAS on the dark side of the moon, and is the moon really the Death Star from Star Wars?). I would imagine there’s been more than passing conversation and speculation about the militaristic possibilities of establishing a base on the moon, or Mars, or beyond.

Looking ahead to what space tourism and private space travel might yield for us is a great unknown, but perhaps not. If our first concepts of going beyond the Earth’s atmosphere are full of the colonial mindset, I find that absolutely horrifying. Our first official acts on the moon were to plant our flag, just like in the old days when we hit the shores of “The New World” and claimed land that was already occupied for God and the Queen. Is this the best we can do? It may be, since we’ve not seen any reason to come up with anything different.

In my lifetime, Europeans have continued to colonize Africa and other regions in the Southern Hemisphere, often with disastrous results. They utilized the same playbook as their colonization of America, occupying lands that were already occupied, disturbing existing cultures with their own intrusive conventions, and plundering the native geology for profit. This brought us the Rwandan massacre, apartheid, East Indian impoverishment and caste, and other atrocities on a hit parade of inhumanity. Will we never learn?

I suppose I believe we can’t be trusted to plow into the great beyond without having demonstrated substantial change in our mindset and orientation. For the most part, our human orientation is entirely pointed at ourselves – what can the planet do for us, rather than how can we live in harmony with the planet and the other beings that are here? We spend very little time contemplating how we might fit into the existing fabric of the planet, but inordinate amounts of time planning our optimization. I’ve always felt that we’re short timers here on Earth, plotting our departure once we’ve exhausted all benefit of our occupancy.

Perhaps I am too hard on us, but again, I just don’t know that we’ve provided a trustworthy track record. Our vision is small, and we haven’t reconsidered our goals for quite a while. Our goals are centuries old – expand, find stuff to use and sell in other places, quell any resistance, then on to the next one. We’re still fiddling with who gets the first ride on the space ship rather than how to behave responsibly once we get into space. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Lest I become so inordinately pessimistic about space exploration, or the general state of the human species, I must say that I believe we can do this responsibly, accountably, beneficently. I am thinking we need to be asking more questions like “What can this do for all of us? How might this move us into a better way, and not just a bigger way? What positive things cam we bring to the rest of the Universe? Having the first widening of possibilities be consumed with profit seems only limiting, so let’s really dream, and dream BIG. I have no doubt that we can do that – we always have. We just can’t stop at planting our flag and winning the race.

I wonder if I would be one of the new explorers. I wonder if I could bring my dog with me to the moon, or play my guitar in a weightless environment. I wonder if I would still be making observations about the greater scheme of my species once I found out we’re not the only species out there. I wonder if seeing the planet in its natural state, without battle lines and boundaries drawn would change my perspective about who I am and how I fit into the fabric of the Universe. I wonder if I would believe differently about how I got to be here, about life after death, about life after life, about living. I wonder. And wonder is the entire reason to do any of this exploration.

We have to wonder, we have to ask what might it be like if it wasn’t like this. We can’t continue doing the same thing over and over again. It’s boring and it doesn’t get us anywhere. We have to keep asking questions about what if, how if, what could it belike if…we have to imagine. There’s an old saying that tells us if we keep doing what we always did, we’re going to keep getting what we always got. That’s not good enough any longer. We’re ready to fledge, ready to fly from the nest, because we’ve seen that big wide open sky that makes us feel as though we have no limits. Being concerned with pieces of paper that are assigned arbitrary values in green ink doesn’t really get us anywhere. Dreaming of a better way gets us the stars and the space in between. Let’s not blow it.

Third star on the left, straight on ’til morning.

Published by annzimmerman

I am Louisiana born and bred, now living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Fortunately for me, I was already living in NC before Hurricane Katrina decimated my beloved New Orleans. An only child, I now feel that I have no personal history since the hurricane destroyed the relics and artifacts of my childhood. As I have always heard, c'est la vie. My Louisiana roots show in my love of good coffee, good food, and good music. My soggy native soil has also shown me that resilience is hard-wired in my consciousness; when the chips are down (or drowned)...bring it on.

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