Escaping Earth: To Love It, or Leave It?
What are recent efforts of space exploration suggesting to us as society and what our options are for caring for the creation we’ve been given?
“There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty!”
That’s Bill Anders, formerly a nuclear engineer and Air Force pilot, now an astronaut aboard Apollo 8 in lunar orbit along with crewmates Jim Lovell and Frank Borman. The crew just reoriented the ship for a navigational correction, with the happy accident that their new view out the window is spectacular: the first astonishing glimpse earthlings have ever had of their home planet rising into the Sun’s light above the lunar surface.
“Hey don’t take that—it’s not scheduled!” says Borman. Maybe he’s joking, but it’s true that NASA didn’t send the camera up for snapshots of the scenery. NASA needs shots of potential landing sites for the first moonwalk in a couple years. Every photographic exposure was already planned. But who could resist sacrificing one of those frames for a sight like this? “You got a color film, Jim? Hand me a roll of color, quick.”
“Aww, that’s a beautiful shot!” And just like that, Anders captured Earthrise, one of the most iconic photographs in history.
The night sky has long ignited our imaginations, from the founding of modern science and the imagination of H.G. Wells, to contemporary films like Interstellar and wealth-fueled aspirations of the ultra-rich. But our actual and fictional explorations have also revealed much about how we see our own world beneath our feet. And with the 50-year anniversaries of the moon landing in 2019, and of the first Earth Day this month, it’s worth reflecting on how the two have intertwined over the years.
Space travel has changed a lot since the iconic Earthrise photo in 1968. 12 people have walked on the moon. The International Space Station was created and has since hosted over 200 visitors. And unmanned probes and rovers have researched and photographed new details of our solar system and nearby planets. With the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, we now seem on the brink of even more changes. NASA is leaning into uncrewed exploration, which promises to dramatically expand our knowledge of our solar system. Meanwhile, crewed space travel is pursued most vigorously by tenacious billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk and their space travel companies, Blue Origin and SpaceX.
For private space magnates like Musk and Bezos, talk of space exploration gains an almost religious, do-or-die fervor. “Either we spread Earth to other planets, or we risk going extinct,” Musk says. “An extinction event is inevitable and we’re increasingly doing ourselves in.” Musk is determined for humans to become a “multiplanet species,” including—just to get us started—“a thriving city and eventually a self-sustaining civilization on Mars.” Bezos imagines potentially a trillion people living and working in space, mining asteroids and harnessing extraterrestrial resources so we might preserve Earth as a sort of planetary national park. “To preserve Earth,” the Blue Origin company mission says, “we must go to space to tap its unlimited resources and energy…[O]ur road to space opens the door to the infinite and yet unimaginable future…”
Our modern oligarchs are eager to show their social responsibility and their sober-minded recognition of the problems facing humanity here on Earth; but as our modern gods, they’re also eager to sell us a blissfully optimistic view of our own salvation in the technological future they have for sale.
You can hear the hope, too…If only we had a fresh start, a new world, then with science and technology at hand we could finally get it right this time. If only we could harness the new heavens, we could have a new Earth too.
The extraordinary 2014 film Interstellar gives perhaps the most confident portrayal of this vision and its relationship to our terrestrial environment. In an environmentally-ravaged world, a man is called to be part of a NASA mission that will evacuate humanity to a new planetary home. In some ways it’s a distinctly religious story: a world marred by the effects of human failing, a quasi-mystical calling and revelation of key information for escape, and finally a rescued and restored humanity living in a pristine new creation. Only in this telling, as it turns out, the “revelation” comes from our own future selves (thanks, relativity!), and our “redemption” through the bootstrapping power of our own science and technology.
Let’s explore space, but why not also rededicate ourselves to the calling God gave Adam and Eve in Genesis, to caring for the creation, in anticipation of the redemption of all things that God promises?
Environmental concern is treated with odd dismissiveness in the movie. When a schoolteacher early on tells the main character that “if we don’t want to repeat the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it,” she’s depicted as narrow minded and shortsighted. “We’re not meant to save the world,” as one character puts it, distilling the movie’s earnest convictions. “We’re meant to leave it.”
But is all this really the redemption we should hope for? Decades after evangelical Christians first garnered secular scorn for their “rapture theology” as ecologically and socially irresponsible, it seems odd to see such gleeful secular rapture theology presented as a solution to environmental destruction.
Down to Earth Redemption
The pioneering naturalist and ecologist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), himself skeptical of organized religion, was nonetheless as wise as he was prescient when he wrote that “I fear that one day man will travel to distant planets. And then he’ll take his lethal mixture of vice, greed, violence and ignorance to those planets too—turning them barren and ravaged, as we are already doing with Earth.” Centuries before space travel became a reality, Humboldt knew that such powers could not save us from ourselves. (Though surprisingly little-known today, Humboldt was in some ways the father of ecology and environmentalism. While earlier scientists tended to divide and categorize the world like a well-stocked pantry awaiting our use, Humboldt was one of the first to see the world in a truly ecological interconnected way. He recognized that human overuse could destabilize the world, causing catastrophic destruction.)
If you want a movie counterargument to the philosophy of Interstellar, you could hardly do better than Pixar’s marvelous Wall-E. Written and directed by a committed Christian, Andrew Stanton, Wall-E likewise begins in a world of environmental destruction, with humanity evacuating to space. But unlike with Interstellar, humans in Wall-E clearly take their vices with them—as Humboldt knew they would. The movie becomes a Noah’s Ark tale, as the “dove” (the robot character Eve) sent out from the Ark/spaceship discovers new plant growth that signals that it’s time to return to Earth and begin again. And the intriguing question the movie asks within its final act is, But what if we’d prefer the automated amusements of our orbital cruise ship more than the hard work of being truly human on our actual home?
Wall-E certainly recognizes the value of technology (its main characters are hardworking robots, after all!), but in stark contrast to Interstellar it gives us instead a return to Earth, a beginning of new creation, and a hope for redemption. The charming end credits show the community of humanity starting afresh, planting a garden Eden-like, their fresh start beautifully depicted through the major styles of art history to the accompaniment of Peter Gabriel’s song Down to Earth (“Did you feel you were tricked / By the future you picked?…Did you think you’d escaped from routine / By changing the script and the scene?…Redefine your priorities…We’re coming down to the ground…And the land will be looked after / We’ll send the seeds out in the breeze”).
The true Christian story, after all, is not about the saved evacuating Earth to live forever in an ethereal heaven. (And the “rapture” itself is a remarkably recent idea in Christian thought, hinging on what most scholars recognize as a misinterpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). The Christian story reaches its conclusion in a new heavens and a new Earth, brought together as one (Revelation 21). The resurrected body of Christ is the firstfruit of that new creation, which redeemed humanity anticipates and works toward in the power of the Spirit as we anticipate God’s ultimate transformation of all things. And that’s something worth celebrating and motivating us this month as we celebrate both Easter and the anniversary of Earth Day.
From Earthrise to Earth Day
The famous Earthrise photo wasn’t just an extraordinary piece of NASA history. It’s also been called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Taken from the hostile void of space, hovering above the barren moonscape, Earth appears stunningly beautiful. Unique. And fragile. The image has the power to reorient our perspective, and reorder our priorities. Reflecting on the photo 50 years later, Anders captured the irony: “We set out to explore the moon and instead discovered the Earth.” From that cosmic perspective, “We are all linked in a joined human enterprise; we are bound to a planet we all must share. We are all, together, stewards of this fragile treasure.” The feelings the photo elicits as we reflect on creation care are not fear or worry, but awe, wonder, and a sense of responsibility. The influential photo is credited with kickstarting the modern environmental movement and the founding of Earth Day on April 22, 1970. In a few short years, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed, and the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act became law.
Anders was not the only one whose time in space reshaped his earthly priorities. Writing in National Geographic last summer, Sam Howe Verhovek described how “the cosmonauts I met in Russia seemed to share two perspectives with their American counterparts. First, their time in space made them profoundly more interested in protecting the Earth. (Indeed, two cosmonauts gave me books they had written—not on space, but on protecting our environment.) Second, even while strongly favoring human space exploration, they think the idea of permanent, widespread human colonization of space is bonkers.” In contrast to the excitement and optimism of Bezos, Musk, and Interstellar, the conclusion of one cosmonaut on life in space comes as an almost amusing downer. “It’s not…pleasant, actually. You get disoriented so easily, you can’t remember things up there…It’s hard to describe.” Even with sophisticated life support, the alien environment of spaces taxes the human body in ways it wasn’t made to handle. And as environmental writer Bill McKibben reminds us, “the most forbidding spot on Earth…is a thousand times more hospitable than anyplace else in this solar system.” And yet “We dig robotically through the sands of Mars in hopes we might find some faint sign of microbial life, even as we—in the 50 years since Apollo 8—wipe out 60 percent of the animals on Earth.” Let’s explore space, for sure, but why not also rededicate ourselves to the calling God gave Adam and Eve in Genesis, to caring for the creation, in anticipation of the redemption of all things that God promises?
Space exploration still has enormous potential for innovation and discovery. I’m eager to see how far we’ll go and how much we’ll learn, whether through the collectively-supported efforts of NASA, the economic models pioneered by entrepreneurs like Bezos and Musk, or (more likely) a mix of both. (And even from an environmental perspective, space satellites are how we discovered the growing ozone hole decades ago, and accurately track Arctic ice melt today.) As I cheer them on and await their discoveries, I’ll also pray that they bring back a renewed appreciation of what the crew of Apollo 8 discovered a half century ago: That there’s something unique and special about our own home planet. Something worth exploring, celebrating, valuing, and preserving.
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