An article about the Earth, the stars, and what we make of the empty space in between.
When did we first look up into the night sky and wonder what, exactly, was out there?
When did we decide that knowing the Earth was not enough, and sought what lay beyond?
The first time humankind managed to launch something high enough into the air to say it reached ‘space’, it wasn’t actually for the purpose of exploring space. It was a missile, a Nazi German V-2 rocket launched in 1944. It wasn’t until the space race of the 50s and 60s that people began to look at space as the new frontier for exploration. Just like the oceans, when people saw such a vast expanse of the unknown, their first instinct was to make it known. That said, even then, space exploration was only funded because it was a means to a political end. Just like the oceans, its explorers are not always motivated by the pursuit of knowledge so much as the pursuit of another land to colonize and militarize.
First went the USSR’s Sputnik-1, the very first man-made satellite. That was 1957. Then, USA’s Explorer-1 satellite, the year after.
Then went the fruit flies, the dogs, the monkeys, and the mice.
Then went Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. That was 1961. Eight years later – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched the moon. The world felt bigger than it ever had before.
But our fascination with space dates back to the days before we had days on calendars, to a time before we invented instruments to measure time. Throughout history, countless religions have associated celestial bodies with gods. In some cultures, the sun and the moon are gods. To understand the stars was to touch the face of the gods that live among them. Galileo must have dreamed of what Gagarin achieved. Poets and scientists alike have long admired the stars, not simply for their beauty but for the infinite unknown they represent. Since our first days on Earth, we have been looking out into space.
Is it because we could not explain it?
Is it because we could not touch it?
Now that we have begun to do both of those things, I have to conclude that there is a variable missing from that equation. My hypothesis is that our continued fascination with space falls under a trend underpinning most scientific research.
The common thread that weaves space exploration into the fabric of all other natural sciences is simple: the urge to go further.
When we answer one question, we ask another three. It is not in our nature to be satisfied, so we dig. Ever deeper, ever upwards.
I have always lived in a big city. Stars and streetlights were indistinguishable to me throughout my childhood years. And yet, the stars capture my gaze and my curiosity like nothing on Earth. It isn’t so much the innumerable pinpricks of light, scattered like spilled marbles across a black canvas. It isn’t the occasional satellite or airplane mistaken for a shooting star. It’s the vastness those infinite depths represent, the feeling I get even thinking about space. There is something more powerful than the aesthetic beauty of the cosmos, something with more gravity than a black hole. It is the unscratchable itch that leads us around the planet, even off of it, looking for answers.
Curiosity. The urge to go beyond.
To ask humankind to be satisfied with its current knowledge is to ask a painter to become an astrophysicist. It is to ask a fish not to swim, to ask the Earth not to orbit the sun. Science should always be held in high regard. We’ve seen what happens when society devalues the concerns of the scientific community: an unprecedented global climate crisis. And yes, that’s a problem that we need to prioritize above exploring the stars, but there are better pools to draw those resources from than scientific research. We have a responsibility to our planet, to each other, but we also have an incurable condition called curiosity.
The permanence of the stars draws us, like moths to a flame. When so many of our seconds on Earth are a reminder of how few seconds we have left, that shouldn’t be surprising. Stars can live for millions, billions, even trillions of years. Those numbers are incomprehensible to our brains – can you visualize how much bigger a billion is than a million? One million seconds is around eleven and a half days. One billion seconds is around thirty one and a half years.
Is that why space is so compelling?
Is it because we cannot outlast it?
We explore space to understand our place in a universe that is too big for anything to have a meaning. We explore the stars to prove that we can, to scratch the itch that spans millennia. We explore the universe to explore ourselves.
Here is my evidence.
In 2003, NASA sent a pair of rovers to look for evidence of water on Mars. The longer lasting of the two was called Opportunity, whose mission was declared over in February of 2019. Opportunity’s last transmission was a series of data that amounted to two key points. One: its power was running out. Two: the dust storm was so extreme that all sunlight was being blocked out, in the middle of the Martian day. A science reporter named Jacob Margolis tweeted in his goodbye message to Opportunity: The last message they received was basically, “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.”
The internet became fixated by those words – everything from t-shirts, to memes, to one man’s shoulder tattoo emerged in the aftermath of that tweet. Certain news outlets even reported the words as the literal message sent by Opportunity, rather than a poetic translation of its final transmission.
People around the world were brought together by something that went beyond science.
My battery is low and it’s getting dark.
To me, Opportunity proves that exploring space is about more than data. The fact that we humanized a robot that we sent out to collect facts and figures tells me that we have an investment in that process beyond the purely scientific. In its final moments, Opportunity was us. We made it into us. It was curious about exploring Mars, because we were. Our desire to know the universe breathed life into a hunk of metal. Searching these new horizons, reaching out to touch the face of the unknown. Opportunity was a symbol of what we see in the stars.
The truth is, we fill up the entire universe with what is in our little human heads and our little human hearts. Astronomy is like love, like pain, like death – it is a symptom of being human. One planet alone isn’t enough to contain the depth of emotion and imagination of a single person, much less seven billion of them. We have always looked upward, because only outer space is big enough for the awe of a human being. When an infant feels pain for the first time, it is the greatest pain it has ever experienced, unparalleled. When someone falls in love for the first, second, third time, there is no ocean deeper than that happiness. When we look to the night sky, whether child or astronomer, we know for a fact that there is more out there.
But most of ‘out there’ is actually empty, an infinite vacuum in between statistically improbable coincidences we like to refer to as stars and planets. So what do we do with all that space?
We fill it up with what we know best: ourselves.
To me, every spacecraft we send into the great unknown to make it just a little bit more known, is an extension of ourselves. A fingernail grazing the surface of an ocean, endlessly deep and unfathomably frightening and impossible to ignore. We seek knowledge as a plant seeks the sun. It drives us to do better, be better. Yet, for all that technology moves us forward and upward, there are some things that remain. As the Earth moves around our sun, the stars may change positions in our sky, but those stars were there before we were born and will endure long after we die.
So why do we continue to strive for them?
Why do we keep looking up?
Quite simply, because we do not know any other way to be. We will always ask questions, we will always explore the unknown, and we will never, ever be satisfied with knowing just part of the truth. No one could ever look at just one star after seeing a whole galaxy. At its core, our interest in science is born of a human tendency as deep as survival: curiosity.