Spaceflight and Man

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Spaceflight and Man

There is no point in exploring——still less colonizing—a hostile and dangerous environment unless it opens up new opportunities for experience and spiritual enrichment. Mere survival is not sufficient; there are already enough examples on this planet of societies that have been beaten down to subsistence level by the forces of nature. The questions that all protagonists of spaceflight have to ask themselves, and answer to their own satisfaction, are these: What can the other planets offer that we cannot find here on Earth? Can we do better on Mars or Venus than the Eskimos have done in the Arctic? And the Eskimos, it is worth reminding ourselves, have done very well indeed; a dispassionate observer might reasonably decide that they are the only truly civilized people on this planet.

The possible advantages of space can best be appreciated if we turn our backs upon it and return, in imagination, to the sea. Here is the perfect environment for life—the place where it originally evolved. In the sea, an all-pervading fluid medium carries oxygen and food to every organism; it need never hunt for either. The same medium neutralizes gravity, insures against temperature extremes, and prevents damage by too intense solar radiation—which must have been lethal at the Earth’s surface before the ozone layer was formed.

When we consider these facts, it seems incredible that life ever left the sea, for in some ways the dry land is almost as dangerous as space. Because we are accustomed to it, we forget the price we have had to pay in our daily battle against gravity. We seldom stop to think that we are still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because, from birth to death, we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.

Yet until life had invaded and conquered the land, it was trapped in an evolutionary cul-de-sac—for intelligence cannot arise in the sea. The relative opacity of water, and its resistance to movement, were perhaps the chief factors limiting the mental progress of marine creatures. They had little incentive to develop keen vision (the most subtle of the senses. and the only long-range one) or manual dexterity. It will be most interesting to see if there are any exceptions to this, elsewhere in the universe.

Even if these obstacles do not prevent a low order of intelligence from arising in the sea, the road to further development is blocked by an impossible barrier. The difference between man and animals lies not in the possession of tools, but in the possession of fire. A marine culture could not escape from the Stone Age and discover the use of metals; indeed, almost all branches of science and technology would be forever barred to it.

Perhaps we would have been happier had we remained in the sea (the porpoises seem glad enough to have returned, after sampling the delights of the dry land for a few million years), but I do not think that even the most cynical philosopher has ever suggested we took the wrong road. The world beneath the waves is beautiful, but it is hopelessly limited, and the creatures who live there are crippled irremediably in mind and spirit. No fish can see the stars; but we will never be content until we have reached them.

There is one point, and a very important one, at which the evolutionary parallel breaks down. Life adapted itself to the land by unconscious, biological means, whereas the adaptation to space is conscious and deliberate, made not through biological but through engineering techniques of infinitely greater flexibility and power. At least, we think it is conscious and deliberate, but it is often hard to avoid the feeling that we are in the grip of some mysterious force or zeitgeist that is driving us out to the planets, Whether we wish to go or not.

Though the analogy is obvious, it cannot be proved, at this moment of time, that expansion into space will produce a quantum jump in our development as great as that which took place when our ancestors left the sea. From the nature of things, we cannot predict the new forces, powers, and discoveries that will be disclosed to us when we reach the other planets or can set up new laboratories in space. They are as much beyond our vision today as fire or electricity would be beyond the imagination of a fish.

Yet no one can doubt that the increasing flow of knowledge and sense impressions, and the wholly new types of experience and emotion, that will result from space travel will have a profoundly stimulating effect upon the human psyche. I have already referred to our age as a neurotic one; the “sick” jokes, the decadence of art forms, the flood of anxious self-improvement books, the etiolated cadavers posing in the fashion magazines—these are minor symptoms of a malaise that has gripped at least the Western world, where it sometimes seems that we have reached fin de siècle way ahead of the calendar.

The opening of the space frontier will change all that, as the opening of any frontier must do. It has saved us, perhaps in the nick of time, by providing an outlet for dangerously stifled energies. In William James’s famous phrase, it is the perfect “moral equivalent of war.”

From time to time, alarm has been expressed at the danger of a “sensory deprivation” in space. Astronauts on long journeys, it has been suggested, will suffer the symptoms that afflict men who are cut off from their environment by being shut up in darkened, soundproofed rooms.

I would reverse this argument; our culture will suffer from sensory deprivation if it does not go out into space. There is striking evidence of this in what has already happened to the astronomers and physicists. As soon as they were able to rise above the atmosphere, a new and often surprising universe was opened up to them, far richer and more complex than had ever been suspected from ground observations. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of space research never imagined just how valuable satellites would actually turn out to be, and there is a profound symbolism in this.

But the facts and statistics of science, priceless as they are, tell only a part of the story. Across the seas of space lie the new raw materials of the imagination, without which all forms of art must eventually sicken and die. Strangeness, wonder, mystery, and magic—these things, which not long ago seemed lost forever, will soon return to the World. And with them, perhaps will come again an age of sagas and epics such as Homer never knew.

Though we may welcome this, we may not enjoy it, for it is never easy to live in an age of transition—indeed, of revolution. As the old Chinese curse has it: “May you live in interesting times,” and the twentieth century is probably the most “interesting” period mankind has ever known. The psychological stresses and strains produced by astronautics—upon the travelers and those who stay at home—will often be unpleasant, even though the ultimate outcome will be beneficial to the race as a whole…

…We now take it for granted that our planet is a tiny world in a remote corner of an infinite universe and have forgotten how this discovery shattered the calm certainties of medieval faith. Even the echoes of the second great scientific revolution are swiftly fading; today, except in a few backward regions, the theory of evolution arouses as little controversy as the statement that the Earth revolves around the Sun (ed note: Clarke wrote that in 1961. Unfortunately currently in 2016 there are still far too many backwards regions where the theory of evolution is controversial. And there are too many who believe Earth is the center of the universe). Yet it is only one hundred years since the best minds of the Victorian age tore themselves asunder because they could not face the facts of biology…

…Perhaps if we knew all that lay ahead of us on the road to space—a hundred or a thousand or a million years in the future—no man alive would have the courage to make the first step. But that first step—and the second—has already been taken; to turn back now would be treason to the human spirit, even though our feet must someday carry us into realms no longer human.

The eyes of all ages are upon us now, as we create the myths of the future at Cape Canaveral in Florida and Baikonur in Kazakhstan. No other generation has been given such powers, and such responsibilities. The impartial agents of our destiny stand on their launching pads, awaiting our commands. They can take us to that greater renaissance whose signs and portents We can already see, or they can make us one with the dinosaurs.

The choice is ours, it must be made soon, and it is irrevocable. If our wisdom fails to match our science, we will have no second chance. For there will be no one to carry our dreams across another Dark Age, when the dust of all our cities incarnadines the sunsets of the world.

Thanks to Eric Shear, for sharing this. See you on ISS.

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