I am often left feeling dispirited about the ugliness that permeates the times in which we live. Much of my recent writing has been directed towards (or I should say against) that ugliness; the barbarity of religious fanaticism, the death of free speech and enlightenment values on University campuses and the increasing apathy and abjection in political culture. But, recently, I was reminded that here at Imagine Athena, we should remember what we are defending against these retrograde forces.
The reason I write about these things is not because I believe in the inherent ugliness of the human race, but because I believe its inherent beauty, virtue and nobility are worth defending. Our future can be a bright one if we are determined enough. As I discussed in a previous piece on the necessity of investing in space travel, we are the only species that we know of in the universe capable of art, science and philosophy. There may be others out there, but until we see the evidence of them we have to work on the assumption that we are the only ones and that we have an obligation to survive, progress and thrive. The universe, as Alan Watts once said, dreams through our dreams.
I think in the midst of personal and political preoccupations this sense of purpose had momentarily slipped from my mind. So it was a breath of fresh air when I stumbled across Visions of the Future, an art series commissioned by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, depicting imaginary travel posters of exotic destinations throughout our solar systems and beyond. Aside from the beauty of the designs, they stirred something in me. I was touched that the world’s foremost space travel body was taking the time to nurture our dreams and imaginations, alongside the technical and financial hurdles of their hectic day-to-day existence. Not only that, these posters have been made available to the public for free as high quality downloads, which can be professionally printed to adorn the walls of your home (I am still deciding which one to print first). They remind us that the future they depict is our common birthright and a potentially unifying trajectory for the human species.
There is too, a tinge of melancholy that runs through the work. The elegant retro-futuristic style of these images reminded me of how we have not lived up to the ambitions of our forebears who thought we would be walking on Mars by the end of the twentieth century. Some time ago I recall speaking to a friend of mine who was re-reading Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 and lamenting that we had let down the generations before us in this way and, worse still, their ambitions were not that unrealistic from a technical perspective, only the political will to make it happen.
There are some reassuring signs, however. Improved technology is making private investment in space more viable all the time (Elon Musk’s SpaceX being the quintessential example) and this can potentially take some of the burden off governments and parastatals. These ambitions also seem to be regaining a degree of traction in popular culture, with films such as Interstellar and The Martian capturing the public imagination. This may just be part of a cultural ebb and flow, but I sense it is something more. It is easy (and ultimately seems to become fashionable) to be cynical about your species when surrounded by so much ugliness but it is not sustainable in the long term. Our species has always craved a frontier. In fact, it may well be necessary for our very survival.
We don’t push the boundaries of what is possible because it serves some other purpose. As an intelligent species that is our purpose.
One of my greatest heroes, Carl Sagan (who I’m quite sure would have loved to have one of these images on his wall), once remarked that,
“Projects that are future oriented, that despite their political difficulties can be completed only in some distant decade, are continuing reminders that there will be a future – every time humanity stretches itself, it receives a jolt of productive vitality that can carry it for centuries.”
It is for this reason that I have no patience for arguments about space exploration being “useless”, or, remarking upon a ground-breaking new scientific discovery, like our recent confirmation of Einstein’s prediction of the existence of gravitational waves, by questioning its “practical application”. We don’t push the boundaries of what is possible because it serves some other purpose. As an intelligent species that is our purpose. If we allow ourselves to forget that, we will lose sight of the horizon.
The open road still softly calls.