If you are a space enthusiast, or have been following the goings and comings of billionaire venture capitalists over the past several years, then you are most likely aware of the Mars One project. Mars One is one of several private endeavors that aim to initiate human contact on the Red Planet in the near future. Founded in 2011, Mars One is a privately funded venture that seeks to establish a human colony of twenty-four carefully selected candidates on Mars. Once selected, these candidates will spend their time on Earth in training pods, and will launch in waves, with each subsequent crew bringing new supplies to the explorers already on the planet. According to the current timeline, the first crew of human will launch in 2026 from Earth, never more to return.
And there’s the rub: each of the twenty-four astronauts selected sign up for a one-way trip. There are no return flights from Mars.
Mars One has made splashy headlines with the concept of a reality-show competition to provide candidates for space exploration, the online application open to anyone in the world, and the tantalizing, horrifying, can-you-just-imagine-it dare of a one-way ticket ensuring you fame, fortune and certain death on the Red Planet. But throughout the past decade, both various private entities and governments have been working towards setting up camp on Mars.
Although the drive to explore and understand the solar system and the universe is a noble endeavor, the drive to colonize space—sending humans into space not for the purpose of scientific understanding, but to populate other planets—brings with it a host of troubling motivations and connotations.
In his book How We’ll Live on Mars, science and technology writer Stephen Petranek predicted that human beings would be on the Red Planet within the next century. Not only that, it would be absolutely imperative for the survival of the species that humans arrive on Mars within the century.
Like Petranek, there are many advocates of Mars programs that view colonizing Mars as a necessary step in preserving the human race. Now that humans wield the power to annihilate our own species through nuclear weaponry, it is vital, they argue, that we evolve beyond the reach of our own destruction. We have turned Earth into an inhospitable habitat, thus it is necessary for us to find a back-up planet, in order for the species to endure. As we grow distressed over the many ills that plague the human race, it seems tempting to turn our sights towards another planet, in hope of creating an interplanetary sanctuary where humans can continue to thrive.
In her essay “Project Exodus” in the June 1, 2015 issue of the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert examines the ideologies that fuel the projects to colonize Mars.
“One of these days, we may well do ourselves in; certainly we’re already killing off a whole lot of other species. But the problem with thinking of Mars as a fallback planet (besides the lack of oxygen and air pressure and food and liquid water) is that it overlooks the obvious. Wherever we go, we’ll take ourselves with us.”
If we were to go to the farthest ends of the universe, we would still take with us our broken human natures. No matter where we go, we will still be human beings touched by an original sin that causes us to hurt others for our own profit, and to seek our own good above the good of our neighbor (or country, or species, for that matter).
In his new encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis writes with sharp insight into the moral malady that fuels the current modern crisis in technology and the environment. And perhaps this moral decay also fuels the fear of planet-wide annihilation. For instead of understanding our role as that of appointed stewards of the Earth, creatures who have been charged to care for the Earth for the Creator, humans have “come to see ourselves as [the Earth’s] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will (2)”.
Perhaps we can apply this misunderstanding of our role on Earth to our role in the universe at large. Stephan Petranek, as quoted in an interview claims: “We need to focus our limited resources on Mars. It is the only place in our solar system where humans are likely to thrive other than Earth. We will need to move on from Mars, too, when our Sun begins dying.”
The image presented here is not an image of beloved children, living in a providentially designed home, but a besieged species, desperately planet-hopping across the solar system, in a manic struggle for survival.
Our stance towards the universe ought to, Pope Francis writes, be one of awe and wonder. For “the entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us.” (85) The heavens still are telling the glory of God, as the psalmist so sweetly insists. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters.(11)
The universe, viewed without the care and providence of a creator, is no longer a place of beauty, where we thrive under His care. Rather, the universe is seen as a dangerous and inhospitable landscape, with doom around every corner. Survival is a losing game, won by the strongest and the smartest, with no rules save the limits of human ability.
And after two centuries full of mind-bogglingly rapid advances in technology, human ability certainly seems limitless.
But while technology has been developing exponentially, moral wisdom, self-control, and virtue, however, have not experienced similar advances. Pope Francis writes, “The fact is that “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well”, because our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience. […] In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it.” (105)
It would seem that we are in a pretty bleak state. We have gained power at such speed that we have out-stripped our ability use it wisely. Perhaps we ought to give up the project of trying to redeem this little blue planet, and just ship on out to Mars. Stephen Peternek and company would have us think so. “Mars, Peternek writes, “will become the new frontier, the new hope, and the new destiny for millions of Earthlings who will do almost anything to seize the opportunities waiting on the Red Planet.”
But to put our hope in fleeing to another planet is not only rather depressing, but ultimately futile. Because, unfortunately, the fatal flaw that could be humanity’s undoing lies inside of us. Our selfishness and greed, our own lack of goodness has plunged the world into chaos.
But the laws of grace, which govern the world more surely than even our laws of physics, declare that there can arise wholeness out of brokenness. Grace can work through even us, poor damaged humans who excel at making a mess of things.
Salvation and restoration came to the human race not out of the sky, in a SpaceX rocket or an asteroid shield; not from the brightest and the smartest or the most well-funded, but from a broken and despised man nailed to a tree.
“The ultimate destiny of the universe,” writes Pope Francis, “is in the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things (83).”
The gospel this law of grace preaches is one of freedom, and ultimately one of hope. For our hope is not in ourselves—in a broken, and weak race—nor is it found on Mars, our hope is in the Author of Creation who did not leave his people orphaned. But rather, saved His broken people by emptying Himself, entering into their great mess, and ushering us into glorious new life. Pope Francis continues: “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things” (83)
While all around us, men may scramble in fear to preserve the human race, while the Peternek’s of the world fret over the ten different ways the world will end, and the inevitable asteroid that will annihilate life as we know it, those who subscribe to this gospel of hope can rejoice that we are not in ultimate control of our fate. We are not the masters of the universe, no, not even of our own destiny. The survival of the human race is not the greatest good we can seek.
For our vocation, as described in Laudato Si’ is such: “Human beings, endowed with intelligence and love, and drawn by the fullness of Christ, are called to lead all creatures back to their Creator.”(83) The greatest good we seek is the transformation of all creation from a broken universe, groaning under the burden of sin, into a glorious new creation.