Monday, 27 February 2012

Signs of life

NASA's latest mission recently launched. Apparently we’re heading back to Mars to search for ‘signs of life’ with a rover named Curiosity.

To me this enterprise feels almost like a parody. The more I learn about the planetary crisis unfolding around us, the more it colours everything I read. With that in mind, news of NASA's mission presents as absurd, with the craft's name deeply ironic. 

When taken in the broader context of our times, it is actually symbolic of how limited and specific our curiosity is. And it shows how powerful social inertia can be; how willing we are to continue unquestioningly following the pre-charted path to 'the future', despite all new evidence.

Human missions to Mars began in 1960 and have continued relatively regularly since then. So this voyage is just the latest in a line of many – following our gaze and our dreams out beyond our planet’s atmosphere, into the mysterious void above. But at what point does this sort of activity become redundant, misguided or distracting from more critical things? As the poles melt and our planet enters an ice-free future, will we still think it is heroic to send ships into space to ‘explore’?

The purpose of the mission, on the surface, is to find ‘life’. I would expect, with around one quarter of all mammal species on Earth presently at risk of extinction, with the fabric of our own planet’s life being torn apart around us, that our inter-stellar exploration for minuscule signs of ancient life might become a lower priority.

This is a reminder of how powerful yesterday’s dreams can be. We have told ourselves for decades that our strength and intelligence is measured by our highest achievements in space; that by 'stretching ourselves' in this way we can achieve collective greatness. More than that, the idea of humans exploring and conquering 'the final frontier' sits deep within our culture – with decades of novels, films, television shows and other tales shaping our collective imagination. 

And yet, driven by such ideas, we’ve found ourselves in a place where our actions no longer match reality. How can we let our past dreams persist unexamined in the face of all that we know? These days we need to act with more humility, with a renewed sense of our smallness in the scheme of things. Those, ironically, are some of the things you might expect to get from a visit to space.

Despite possible appearances, this isn't really a dig at NASA or science or space travel - rather an exploration of a different kind of awareness. Considering this example makes me wonder what other activities and future visions are similarly redundant – that we just haven't called ‘time’ on yet.

At what point do we say that our 'curiosity' - our seeking, searching and reaching upwards – may be aimed in the wrong direction or might be the wrong kind of inquisitiveness? At what point does it start to look like we’ve, to borrow sporting parlance, taken our eye from the ball? I’d suggest that moment came a long while ago now, for a whole range of human pursuits.

Yet in some ways things are starting to feel less like a sporting event than some kind of strange pantomime. Perhaps that's why, as the NASA craft heads off into the sky searching for LIFE, I am tempted to cry out, “It’s behind you!”.

I hope they find some perspective up there.

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