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It’s not about YOU, it’s about THEM (whoever or whatever they are.)

December 7, 2010

To many, the thought of space exploration is a joke.  It is an out-dated and unrealistic dream that offers no rewards other than to inspire school children to study hard in science class.  To many, it is a wasteful and altogether pointless endeavor.  To them, tax dollars should be spent at home, not thrown away into space.  And I understand exactly where these viewpoints come from and it’s hard to argue against them.  Never-the-less, to see our once mighty space program dwindle down to a shell of it’s former self; to see the program’s budget cut again and again and again, I can’t help but be upset.  Mankind was meant for greater things… right?

It’s moments like this, when I’m truly upset and utterly frustrated with mankind’s absolute reluctance to reach for the stars, that I find refuge in the optimistic and inspiring words of the late, great Carl Sagan.  And, on most occasions, the work I turn to is Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. Written as a follow up to his critically acclaimed novel and television series Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot picks up right where its predecessor left off: with Mankind’s first few steps into space.  And it’s the last chapter in particular, “Tiptoeing Through the Milky Way,” that I often flip to and read.  It’s in this chapter that Sagan, always reluctant to speculate too far into the future for fear of being ridiculed, does just that.  And it’s within those pages that I find comfort and reassurance.  It’s in those pages that I’m reminded of something so simple and basic that I feel silly for ever being upset in the first place:  It’s not about me, it’s about them (whoever or whatever they are.)

To paraphrase Dr. Sagan, it’s naive and foolish to think mankind would be capable of leaping off its home world in a single bound.  It takes trial and error… and time, most likely centuries.  And, in the present day, it’s only natural for there to be doubters and pessimists. But to those who think the idea of space travel is a pointless and wasteful endeavor, Sagan offers this thought: billions of years ago, the majority of fish in the sea probably thought the idea of crawling out of the safety and comfort of their dark and murky waters  and on to dry land was also foolish and wasteful.  And yet, billions of years later, here we are.  Millions years ago, Sagan also points out,  the majority of monkeys probably thought it was a pointless and wasteful endeavor to leave the safety and protection of their tall trees and walk upright on solid ground.  And yet, millions of years later, here we are.

Sagan’s solace to me, and other hopeful optimists, is this: evolutionary advances don’t happen in an individual lifetime.  They take place on unimaginable timescales spanning thousands of generations.  And that’s exactly what space exploration is: an evolutionary advance.  So for all of us that stress and worry over the NASA budget in 2010, in a million years, something (and if history and evolution has taught us anything, it probably won’t be “human” by our definition) will look back at these past few centuries, and the handful of centuries to come, as fondly and matter-of-factly as we look back at the first fish to crawl on to dry land and the first monkey to climb down out of the trees.  And, undoubtedly, they will be just as thankful as we are of our ancestors for taking their risks and facing those dangers.  We wouldn’t be here without them.

So, my point is this: don’t be upset that Obama has cut the space program down to a joke…  because this isn’t about him.  And don’t be upset that your grandchild probably won’t be born on Mars… because it’s not about her.  It’s about them, whoever and whatever they are, a thousand, a million, a billion years from now.

Note: You can read Pale Blue Dot online here, along with many of Sagan’s other books, courtesy Google Books (something Sagan would undoubtedly approve of.)  And you can read my favorite chapter here!

Pale Blue Dot: An old favorite.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2010 3:46 am

    I was thinking about William S. Burroughs’ thoughts on space travel as I read your blog entry. His view was that we are obsessed with our bodies and their needs and that neither has any place in planetary travel. It’s the equivalent to a fish taking to land in a fish bowl. It had to evolve to the environment, not take its environment with it. I see some wisdom in this and hope that our view of travel beyond our planet will evolve as our culture grows and matures… whenever that is!

    • December 7, 2010 4:11 am

      Sagan often points out that, more than likely, mankind won’t be pulled toward the stars by curiosity… but it will be pushed off Earth in order to survive. His greatest fear*: an extinction-level asteroid. That’ll make us mature in one hell of a hurry.

      (*I should really say his “second greatest fear” — his first being nuclear war, that we’d blow ourselves up way before ever truly stepping away from Mother Earth.)

  2. ZennReiki permalink
    December 7, 2010 3:42 pm

    Hi Cklockwork, I just entered in my blog the flowing from Fahrenheit 451 the following,

    “She didn’t want to know how a thing was done, but why. That can be embarrassing. You ask why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it. The poor girl’s better off dead.”

    “Yes, dead.”

    “Luckily, queer ones like her don’t happen often. We know how to nip most of them in the bud, early. You can’t build a house without nails and wood. If you don’t want a house built, hide the nails and wood.

    As I reread the passage from the book I came to the following half a page down that I wanted to share and add to your post.

    Any man can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won’t be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely.

    Love, Peace and Happiness

  3. December 8, 2010 4:30 pm

    Hey klockwork, interesting post.
    I really don’t know much about Carl Sagan, but it seems like he has some big ideas. Is Pale Blue Dot worth the read?

    • December 8, 2010 7:41 pm

      Sagan was full of big ideas… and he brought them down to Earth so wonderfully. I’d totally recommend Pale Blue Dot if you’re into astronomy and science… or science fiction… or the future of humanity. It doesn’t get bogged down with modern physics… so there’s no string theory stuff or any of that, which is kind of nice. Another book of his I’d recommend, if Pale Blue Dot doesn’t sound like your thing, is Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium (also available online.) It’s a collection of essays he had written on a broad range of topics. Sometimes I like to just go back and read an essay or two… then I’m good for a few months.

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