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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back - Space

Looking Back

Friday October 11 2013

Looking Back: The Final Frontier

A piece published in October 1963 expressing concerns about the space race.


Space: Conquest or Exploration?

By the Rev. CAMERON DINWOODIE, Ph.D., F.R.A.S.

Dr. Dinwoodie has been a distinguished "practitioner" in astronomy for many years.

THIS is an exciting age in which to live. During the past few years men have explored the universe to distance greater than their grandfathers thought possible; they have launched artificial satellites round the earth and probes into inter-planetary space; and they themselves have circled the earth in ninety minutes.

We need have no regrets about having witnessed these dramatic events. For this is an era comparable with the one in which Galileo and his contemporaries wrestled with scientific problems that almost baffled them, but which today are considered commonplace. It was as difficult for the men of the sixteenth century to displace the earth from the centre of the universe as it is for us to picture the universe revealed by twentieth century astronomers.

Exploitation

Yet there are causes for grave anxiety. One is that the first impulse of man has always been to use his discoveries and inventions to "exploit" other men or the universe itself. When Galileo invented his telescope there were countrymen of his whose first thoughts were of the advantages it would give them over their enemies. When the pioneers went out west on the American continent they exploited its natural resources so prodigally that they almost wiped outt he buffalo.

So today "space needles" and the "rainbow bomb" were devised and financed with military aims in view. The "space needles" plan is one to put belts of hundreds of millions of small thin copper needles into orbit round the earth to reflect long range signals from its surgace to the belts and back to a ground receiver, thus providing an almost jam-proof system of communications, claimed to be vital for command of strategic weapons. Last year nuclear tests were carried out at a height of about 300 miles above the Pacific, which changed the nature of the environment of the earth at that height so that some of its original properties cannot now be studied. Moreover, instead of the effects lasting for only a few weeks, as originally stated, it will be some years before they become negligible.

No consultation

For centuries astronomers over all the world have been accustomed to work together in harmony. Now, men whose only interest is in military security plan and carry out experiments which have made other valuable work impossible. The "rainbow bomb" has damaged some of the earth satellites so badly that they can no longer transmit useful information to the earth. What disturbs astronomers is that these experiments were planned without their being consulted about the possible effects, and carried out without effective controls. They have protested, but in vain. Nor is it only their researches which suffer. It is more than possible tha tthe disturbance of the Van Allen belt, in which the bomb was exploded, may eventually allow solar radiations harmful to life to reach the earth's surface.

Without God

Another cause for anxiety is the spread of humanist beliefs in our day. By them many people are encouraged to behave as if space belonged to man, and that he can do what he pleases with it. It is true that the marvellous means of exploring space we now possess tend to make men arrogant, so that they imagine a purely scientific account of the universe and its creation to be possible.

Long ago, however, other men declared their belief that the universe belongs not to man but to God. The Psalmist says it quite emphatically-"To the Lord belongs the earth". He believed that men could not be trusted with God's universe unless they obeyed the laws He had made for its guidance. Only the pure in heart, he declared - that is those whose thoughts as well as their deeds were well-intentioned in His sight - can stand before God. That is also the faith of the Christian. These other men are showing in a new form the overweening pride of the builders of the Tower of Babel, which was to reach to heaven as a monument to their genius and resourcefulness. To such men the universe is something they must conquer, to prove their pre-eminence over nature.

In spite of what they say, God has not left Himself without the means of defeating their boastful aims. For one thing, because of the nature of cosmic law, it is almost certainly impossible for us to give a purely scientific account of how the universe was created. For another, it may well be that man will have to be content to remain earth-bound. Soviet scientists are beginning to doubt if a man-on-the-moon project is worth-while. Their doubts are due not only to the almost insuperable difficulty of getting a man who has landed on the moon back to earth, but also to the likelihood of human beings suffering insurmountable damage to their bodies from extra-terrestrial radiation.

If ever the time does come when man is allowed to "tramp all over God's heaven", what is his attitude going to be? Will it be the silly vanity of the vandal destroying a lovely garden just to show what a big fellow he is? Or will it be the faith expressed in the Negro spiritual - the confidence that God has set him free to share in the delights of His handiwork, the better to understand His thoughts as Creator? Will it be "Conquest" or "Exploration"?

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