Reaching for the Stars

Amidst the depressing diet of international and domestic demagoguery and power, my increasingly jaded worldview was given a surge of hope this week: the launch of science entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket. This event takes us a further step towards fulfilling Musk’s (and many others’) dream: a human base on Mars.

But even as nerds and anyone with nerdish tendencies celebrate, honesty demands that we ask ourselves some serious questions.

A science journalist friend of mine pointed out that the broader vision of the project is imperial: colonisation by great powers – whether national, international or corporate – of territory, albeit unoccupied (so far as we know) by ‘higher’ sentient life. Who will go, she added, is also a problem: will it just be scientists, military types, technocrats and entrepreneurs looking to expand wealth? To her objections one can add a further set of questions. Can such great expense be justified in a world of massive inequality and poverty? And will we, in the process, mess up another ecosystem? After all, let’s face it, humanity has wrecked the Earth’s environment.

These are valid questions. They raise for me the important and often-overlooked connection between progress and morality, science and human responsibility. On a second look, they mirror rather than distract us from the global ethics deficit that we see among political, business and scholarly elites here on Earth that has fuelled inequality, corruption and tyranny throughout human history.

Human progress, not least the conquest of space in the 20th and 21st centuries, has been a two-edged sword. So much technological progress of benefit to ordinary people, as my friend pointed out, has been a by-product of the space race. But as another friend, a scientist-ethicist in Britain, has reminded me so much technology can have a dual use: technological and even medical breakthroughs can be – and often have been – weaponised.

Despite such a situation, and despite the temptation that Falcon Heavy has, of distracting us from the many pressing environmental, political and economic justice issues that should concern us all, I must on balance confess that this week’s launch excites and inspires me. It is also a moral challenge.

The latter is the challenge to bring scientific progress in line with moral responsibility. I take it as given that simplistic rejection of scientific progress is self-defeating: history shows that those who denounce progress get ignored, left behind. Put bluntly, resistance is futile. The Churches’ rather belated and, in many places, still half-hearted engagement with environmental ethics also illustrates that such action is also dangerous.

Religious and secular ethicists need to start reflecting on all the moral implications of human expansion beyond the Earth now. We need to help frame the questions, engage with new developments, develop and perhaps invent new terms of moral relevance. Above all, while looking at its moral challenges, we must see it in theological terms: humanity’s striving for greater knowledge of the universe but to a destiny only fulfilled in our union with God.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ
B.A. (Hons), M.A. (UCT), B.A. (Hons) (London), M.Div., S.T.L. (Weston), Ph.D. (Wits)

Fr Anthony Egan SJ has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand, where he currently teaches at the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for Spotlight. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.
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