Tuesday, September 10, 2013

War and Space

It was around 1:30 am, and the traffic leading away from Wallops Island was finally letting up.   We'd watched, along with thousands of others, as a Minotaur V had heaved a lunar probe from our world.

At point-blank range, it was awesome.  The fire of the launch was a stark white, not like a sunrise, but like we were on the set of some Spielberg flick and he'd just kicked in a couple thousand kilowatts worth of klieg lights.

As the sky lit, being Americans and all, we hooted and hollered with visceral glee.  I think I may actually have said the word "Dang,"  in that stretched out way that marks me as at least part Southerner.

The launch vehicle itself was invisible to the naked eye, but the long comet-tail of white fire danced upward and away, refreshing with each stage, until it was a vague orangeish dot at the very edge of the atmosphere, on its way to being just another star in the heavens.

It was well worth the trip.  And now, a full day behind us, the boys were asleep in the car.  The big guy was snoring and twitching, the little guy finally shut down after tiring of Minecraft.

Alone with my thoughts and the road, I found myself in a reverie about war and space.  The rocket that went up was, after all, a repurposed ICBM, so that tended to shape my thinking.

So much of what we think about in our human storytelling about space revolves around war and conflict.  Since we began to have a sense of the depth of it, we have cast space in terms of conflict.  H.G. Wells began it, as implacable minds coveted this world.  Now, there's the endless Star Wars franchise, which Disney will sustain for a thousand generations.  There's also Star Trek, which seems to have evolved from boldly going where no man has gone before to boldly blowing things up at a pace no-one has seen before.  We have visualized the vastness of the universe as being filled with monsters, who will one day arrive with their tripods and their death rays and their vast battle fleets, bent on the annihilation of humankind. 

Watching that rocket recede to nothing, though, I found myself pondering the absurdity of that thinking as I drove through the darkness.  War?  In space?  It feels like a projection, an assumption that has no grounds in the actuality of space itself.

Why do we war?  What is the point of it?  It's power, of course, and our desire to control resources and territory.  It's an old thing, a deep part of our organic animal nature.  We want our progeny to flourish, so we need to control the resources that will insure their survival.  We want to expand the circle of our influence, and so we sweep across the world, dominating and destroying anything that might threaten our power.  It's what primates do.  It's what so many animals do.

Looking out into the Deep, the idea that war has much of a place in it seems absurd.  It seems so for several reasons.  

War is about resources.  In the universe, there are resources potentially beyond measure, an abundance so great that it boggles the mind.  

In that vast cornucopia of material resource, we also see that life is a rare thing.  Creatures that need to take resources are not plentiful.  And so as we listen and peer into the deep, we do not see or hear our story of violence being played out anywhere in our wing of the spiral arm.  Space may be filled with energies, but the sound of war drums is so far notably absent.

And life that has reached the stage that it can venture out of the kiddie pool would by necessity need to adapt itself to space.  We are not there yet as a species, being tiny little bipeds that need to cart along a prohibitively large amount of stuff to sustain our existence.  We are, as H.G. Wells observed, creatures of this world.  When we finally move among the stars, we will need to be different.

One of those differences, I would hope, will be that our old hunger for war will fall behind us.  

On a cosmic scale, it just feels so...irrelevant.