Op-ed | The need to dream in darkness
Spaceship Earth has a deadly infection, and it has already spread to all decks and levels.
Not to be overly dramatic, as only a small percentage of people will lose their lives in this pandemic, but the specter is there, and may come as close as a colleague, neighbor, family member or even our own home. We are all at risk. Rich or poor, famous or humble, East or West — it does not matter. Just as we have seen from space, there are no borders when one goes big and looks back. Nor are there any borders when one goes small, as this tiny little virus is teaching us. They simply melt away, revealed as the figments of political imagination they have always been.
Yet, at such times as these, philosophical exercises may mean little. So, too, our greater aspiration to expand the life of this little world out into the cosmos may seem misplaced. Our aspirations shrink from grand to small. How do I keep myself and my family safe? How can I pay the bills? How long will it last? After all, if I am worried about daily essentials and future economic prospects, how can I possibly worry about building cities in space?
Such a moment as this is the direct, in-our-face illustration of a phrase we have all heard so often: “Why are we going out there when we have so many problems down here?”
My first answer, as it always has been, remains the same: “Exactly.” We go out there exactly because we do have so many problems down here. Not to escape them. Not to run away from them. But to help solve them. To learn and grow, as one only can by shifting one’s perspective, expanding one’s field of view and trying something new.
And although there are a thousand ways we can use space to help transform life on Earth, I am not just speaking about technology spinoffs and applied science. Sure, most SpaceNews readers can rattle them off easily. Our list is impressive and convincing. We can wave our hands and point at a thousand things that came from space exploration, from your phone, your TV, the satellites feeding your binge cravings, or more immediately, even the equipment and systems used to manage massive viral testing, or the ability to isolate victims and produce massive amounts of vaccines. Yes, you can legitimately argue that at the heart of much of these technologies lies an application created in the name of exploring space.
But there is more. So much more. And in the end these reasons dwarf those physical products and technologies to which we geeks are so attached.
This is why my second answer is: “Because we can, because we must, because it is what makes us human.”
In other words, forget the rationalizations and left brain arguments. Step back and go higher. Drop the checklist, step away from the spreadsheet and release your mind and imagination. Let the part of you that knows speak. In so doing you will be able to point at what really matters — your heart, your mind, your humanity itself, and yes, even some things you have in common with that tiny virus which is ruining your life — even as all it wants to do is live.
Our rationales for going to space in the past were for science, for military and political power, for prestige, and for glory. Nowadays, we add profits and products to the list. While all of these are true, we go out there for so much more, and our need to explain using these goals is like the first human to paint on the wall of a cave and justifying their passion to paint in terms of increasing the quality of the hunt. Relevant, perhaps, but not core. And, again, in the end it was about so much more.
We have this dream because to be human is to have this dream. And the ability to dream, even as we struggle to feed and defend our bodies, is the reason we bother to try and stay alive. Similarly, we go to space because that is where hope lives, and where the possibility exists for us to become more than we are down here — no matter what happens to us, no matter who we have been or who we are — because that place out there is about what we can become. It is a blank canvas on which we can create the future, it is the cave wall on which we can express things far beyond and above the mean realities of our day to day survival. And the fact we even try to make something beautiful out of that nothing is exactly why we exist; it’s a drive wired deeply within us.
Tonight, go out and look at the stars. You’ve been sheltering in place too long. You need to let your soul out. Just look. Escape the now for a moment and be what is possible. It will strengthen you in that now.
As you look out at the stars, and feel that wonder and connection, you may also notice that tiny light crossing your field of view from southwest to northeast every 90 minutes.
As a member of the space tribe you know what that speck is. You know it is a space station, and you know that in that place, there are a few men and women from different nations and cultures living and working together in the name of all of the good things we are and can become.
Then let yourself know that they are you, and you are them. Know that by them being there, you are asserting yourself as one who will not be cowed by fear. And know that by its very existence, beyond the politics and games, beyond our arguments and debates about how it got there, what it should do, what should be done with it, and what comes next, know that it is there. And we put it there. You put it there.
Our job in human society is important. Each day, with each breakthrough, each flight, each failure, each time we get back up, put the pieces together and try again, each time we of different languages and beliefs speak to one another in the common tongue of our shared dream and build this new stairway to heaven with all of our hands, we answer the question “Why space?”
Looking up at that tiny sparkling bubble flying overhead destroys the lines of borders, just as much as it does for those members of our family up there looking down at us. In times of selfishness, we can know that people who care about each other are locked in that tiny tin can who are thriving, defiantly and boldly asserting that we will triumph together. In times of fear, you can see that tiny light in the sky and know we can take on anything, including the deepest darkness at the edge of the world, and that we will survive and thrive by working together.
Today we must survive. And just like that tiny virus that has spread around the world, it is our paramount job to live. We have this in common. We need and are driven to go to new places, find new homes and to seed ourselves so that our genes will continue to exist. But as humans, we transcend the simple need to reproduce. To live alone is not enough for us. We need meaning. We need context. We need love and life and laughter and hope and happiness and joy and significance. We need each other. Just as all of those in that little bubble up there depend on one another, so too do we. And just as the reason they are there is as the result of our highest dreams, so too can we apply those dreams down here. And also, just as they work together in the seamless unity of assuring each other’s life and safety, so too must we down here on this slightly larger bubble do the same. They are in it together out in space. We are in it together down here — and also in space.
While we must focus tightly on the needs of today, never let us drop our vision of tomorrow, for it is the call of those stars that gives the battle of life today its meaning, and offers us the true reward of our triumph. Along the way our quest will teach us how to work and live together as never before. Just as those few out there — no matter the flags on their shoulders — must live and work as one family, we will learn that even as we treasure our differences, to take on the challenge of anything larger than we are, we must become one united human family. And when you and your family are locked in a battle with the forces of death you cannot be alone, and must work as one — the same as down here.
As pioneers, you know that we cannot be cowed by the immediate challenge of today, that the test of disaster is how we pick up the pieces, how we learn, and how we work together to make sure it does not happen again — even as we reach higher than before. Today’s crisis may reveal failures of leadership, and how a lack of unity in our response to the challenge can allow the darkness to win far more than it should have. But it can also teach us a well-needed lesson on working together to prepare for and achieve things that might not seem so immediate as today’s needs, as it forces us to rise up above the borders of our differences and the smallness of our everyday lives and see beyond our current horizons, and to plan for what we cannot yet see. By rising above the Mother World, we have learned what new challenges lay ahead for us — and created the context for us to begin now to work together so that we might survive the next threats to our survival.
At a time of fear, anyone on this tiny planet can look up right now and be inspired by the universe that calls us to our higher being and, as the space station flies by, be touched by the fact that we in this human family can do great things. This is what you in this field do. You are engaged in creating the future of hope. You help draw the possible on the wall of disbelief. Thanks to you, everyone on this planet can know that whatever the threat of today is, be it a tiny virus, or not knowing where our next meal will come from, or if we will have a home tomorrow, for a moment, even in the middle of the fight for survival, even in the middle of the darkness, we can look up at the stars and have hope. Thanks to you, we have permission to dream.
Rick Tumlinson is a founding board member of the X Prize who led the commercial takeover of the Russian MIR space station. He has testified before the U.S. Congress six times, and won the World Technology Award in 2015. His company Spacefund is a VC firm investing in space startups. Follow him on Twitter: @rocketrick