Lack of Vision: What the Leaders, Intellectuals, and Environmentalists of our Society Don’t Understand about Space.

“The Universe is not chaos. It is connection. Life reaches out for life. That’s what we were born for, isn’t it? To stand on a new world and look beyond it to the next one. It’s who we are.” Mission to Mars (movie), 2000

It is dinner time. The snow is falling outside. An unusual scene at this time of the year for this region, but no one is complaining. Somehow everyone seems to love a white holiday season. I am sitting at a table surrounded by friends and family. Around, everyone is sharing their perspective on the events that shaped 2021. Covid obviously reigns once again. That is until one person breaks the momentum and takes the conversation into a whole new direction (meaning before this year, it had literally never been a topic nor an issue): ”How about those billionaires going to space! I mean really? We have so much to take care of on this planet and they, with those corporations, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars sending rockets with privileged people onboard to a place you can’t even breathe. A fortune that could feed a country but instead is spent on one person flying up so they can float for like 3 minutes. I read about this guy who paid 28 million! That is 10 million for every minute floating! If that wasn’t stupid enough, we are now planning on going to other worlds so we can mess them up. And apparently, we are polluting the space around the Earth in the same way we are polluting the ocean!” The sentiment expressed rises high and manages to grab the attention. Heads are nodding and others are chiming in. It seems many have something to add and within a minute, the table is dominated by arguments supporting the pointlessness of going to space and the pompous waste of money. Sigh!

It is hard nowadays to talk about our groundbreaking expansion into space without getting the usual pushback. Besides the argument, it usually comes accompanied by a look of annoyance with borderline anger. Like how could someone be so careless and disrespectful of society and the planet by spending so much effort and money on something so trivial while the world is breaking apart.” As Prince Williams conveyed so eloquently: “… we should focus on saving Earth rather than engaging in space tourism… the great brains and minds should be “trying to repair this planet, not trying to find the next place to go and live..”

While the anxiety of the moment is granted and the urgency to address the problems we have is justified, it is troubling to see the lack of vision and understanding amongst the leaders, intellectuals, and environmentalists of our society. What is also worrying is their belief that one problem should consume all the attention and energy the world has. According to them, nothing else matters other than fighting climate change. Their failure, other than failing to comprehend one is not at the expense of the other but rather in support of it, is that solving life’s challenges and building the future is not a single-issue strategy, but a complicated web of measures built on the known and unknown.

At the start of the Age of Discovery in the 15th century, when Europeans set to explore the oceans, Europe was in total shambles. The continent was ravaged by war and diseases and few forests remained. Agriculture, the need for firewood and charcoal, and the endless demand for timber to build the wooden vessels used to explore the world and rage wars had decimated the woodlands.

If we extrapolate in the realm of philosophy and evolutionary biology and take the Earth’s point of view, Life was never meant to stay on the planet. From the very beginning, millions of years ago, it has been pushing forward and expanding, evolving and adapting, continuously reaching out and breaking boundaries. Going to space is nothing different than when fish came out of the ocean to walk on land. Or when our early ancestors came down from the trees. Can you imagine back then when a few adventurous ones decided to venture down from the canopy and started exploring a world to which they were not made for and filled with predators they were not ready for? I can assure you that the others who felt left behind (actually above) weren’t too thrilled about the idea of losing precious members of the community to a perceived death wish, a reckless endeavor with a total disregard for the interest of the group. But if nature was satisfied in staying put, it would have stopped a long time ago and none of us would be here having this debate. In reality, Life is complicated. Evolution is messy. In fact, nature is messy – very messy! Pushing boundaries and disrupting environments are built within it. Why? Because when on the brink of breaking apart, two important dynamics necessary for life to evolve are created: the first one is forcing an organism to learn and adapt, and the second is giving the incentive to risk everything and go beyond.

I am reminded of the Bees VS Flies experiment. Michael Michalko, author of the best-seller book on creative-thinking THINKERTOYS wrote:

If you place in a bottle half a dozen bees and the same number of flies, and lay the bottle down horizontally, with its base to the window, you will find that the bees will persist, until they die of exhaustion or hunger, in their endeavor to discover an issue through the glass; while the flies, in less than two minutes, will all have sallied forth through the neck on the opposite side.

Scientists believe that it is the bees’ knowledge of light; it is their very intelligence that is their undoing in this experiment. They evidently imagine that the escape from every prison must be there when the light shines clearest; and they act in accordance, and persist in what seems to be a logical action. To them glass is a supernatural mystery they never have met in nature; they have had no experience of this suddenly impenetrable atmosphere; and the greater their intelligence, the more inadmissible, more incomprehensible, will the strange obstacle appear and the greater will be their persistence to penetrate the bottom of the bottle.

Whereas the feather-brained flies, careless of logic, disregarding the call of the light, flutter wildly, hither and thither, hitting the bottom and walls of the glass through trial and error until they find the opening to freedom. It is by pursuing every imaginable alternative that the flies escape while the bees perish because they believe the light is the only way out because, after all, generations of bees were successful following the light. Here, the good fortune that often waits on the simple, who find salvation where the wiser will perish because they feel there is only the one way they know.

Going to space is not a substitution for living on the planet, nor is an excuse to dismiss the problems we have. Absolutely not. It is, though, the next evolution of Life that will trigger a new expansion of the mind along with discovering technologies that will help solve current challenges. In the 1800s, when the average U.S. newborn was expected to live to about 40 years of age, the 5 main causes of death were: tuberculosis, gastrointestinal infections, cholera, malaria, typhoid fever, and pneumonia. Surprisingly, during the same period, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison were busy trying to power the world while the Wright Brothers were risking everything to prove we could fly. What would our world be like today if these 4 geniuses had forgone their vision and focused on being doctors? The irony is that since 1900, the global average life expectancy has more than doubled, the population has increased eightfold, and from the previous top causes of death, only pneumonia remains at number three, grouped along with other lower respiratory infections.

In 1847, when Dr. Hartwell Carver, submitted to the U.S. Congress a “Proposal for a Charter to Build a Railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean”, seeking a congressional charter to support the idea, the world was in full influenza epidemic. Over the course of the next 22 years, when the 1,911-mile Transcontinental railroad line was completed in 1869, cholera, yellow fever, and the plague killed millions all over the planet.

We take our lives for granted and forget how we got here. We are here not only because our species has managed to deal with past existential threats, but also because we dream of the impossible. We are ambassadors for Life. We are constantly moving forward, looking for new places. And when those places are not reached, it is not because we don’t want to, but because we can’t. These mountains locked us in until we found a way over or around it. These oceans kept us from going further until we learned how to navigate them. The sky was in the realm of dreams until we discovered how to build wings. Propelled by this relentless and eternal inner force, we fulfill Life’s mission with undeniable creativity and resourcefulness. Space is only the next chapter. One day, when we live on other planets, we will look back at our evolutionary journey from Earth with the same disconnect as we have today looking at our journey on this planet.

As for billionaires, while there is no need to glamorize or demonize them, they have always been part of the equation. We might think of them as super-rich individuals (which they are), but they actually take many forms. Sometimes, they are the governments and churches from rich nations that can afford to invest in the impossible. They were the Queens and Kings, or the tribes with the most resources. They have always existed and have always been involved in the technologies, discoveries, and social movements we today take for granted. Not to say that they are solely responsible for all that is good in the world, absolutely not. But they have always played a role that can’t be dismissed. The Italian Renaissance for instance, which radically changed the worlds of painting, architecture, sculpture, literature, music, philosophy, science, technology, and exploration was made possible mainly because the Florentine Republic rose to economic and political power by providing credit for European monarchs and by laying down the groundwork and foundation in capitalism and in banking. Hadn’t been for the Medici, there would probably be no Leonardo da Vinci nor Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Machiavelli, and Galileo.

Finally, beyond the evolution of Life, beyond the big future returns on investment, beyond the potential for breakthrough technologies and exciting discoveries, and beyond all other obvious reasons one could think for going to space, the most important reason why we should do it is because of what it will do to our mind. In 1987, Frank White wrote in his book The Overview Effect about the cognitive shift astronauts experience when they see the earth against the darkness of the universe. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, astronauts Michael Collins, Rusty Schweikart, Edgar Mitchell, James Irwin, Tom Jones, Ron Garan, Nicole Stott, Scott Kelly, Mike Massimino, André Kuipers, Chris Hadfield, Sally Ride, Anne McClain, and space tourist William Shatner are all reported to have experienced the effect.

“The thing that really surprised me was that it [Earth] projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.” Michael Collins, Apollo 11

Similar to other kinds of cognitive shift, like a religious experience or psychedelics, the Overview Effect is a profound shift in consciousness and awareness rooted in the preciousness of life, its fragility, and the sense of transcendence and connection with humanity as a whole, from which there are no national borders. For that reason alone, YES we should all go to space and billionaires will fund the development until it becomes as customary as getting on an airplane. Until that day arrives, I will cheer and support anyone and everyone who manages, whether through the purchase of an expensive ticket or by being sponsored by someone or something that can pay for the ride, to find their way up to space so that they too get to experience the overview effect.

“Everybody in the world needs to do this. Everybody in the world needs to see. It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. I mean, the little things, the weightlessness. But to see the blue color go whip by, and now you’re staring into the blackness. That’s the thing. The covering of blue is this sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue that we have around. We think, “Oh, that’s just blue sky.” And there’s something you shoot through, and all of a sudden, as though you whip a sheet off you when you’re asleep, and you’re looking into blackness, into black ugliness. And you look down. There’s the blue down there and the black up there. And there is Mother Earth and comfort. And up there… Is that death? I don’t know.”William Shatner, New Shepard