Why Does Space Matter?

Space.  The final frontier.  Space is big.  Really big.  Space.  It seems to go on and on forever.  Space is to place as eternity is to time.  Space […] can never be conquered.  Our destiny is in the stars, so let’s go and search for it.*

My last few posts have been about one topic I’m very passionate about and invested in – women, especially portrayals of women in media/fiction.  But for now, I’m shifting my attention to something else that I just can’t help but get worked up about (and touched on briefly before when I didn’t even intend to).  Space.  Like, wow, space.  If any of you are anything like me, you just glazed over, your mind now completely filled with visions of space travel and aliens and bizarre looking planets and infinite stars.  It’s okay; I’ll give you a few minutes.  Come back when you’re ready.

Confession time: I’m terrible at math, and unfortunately, that hampered my learning of science.  But my appreciation for science is something that’s never been deterred.  I have a deep, unshakeable admiration for scientists, and I will never tire of hearing them talk about their fields.  Like many (most?) others in my generation, the day the science teacher brought out the Bill Nye the Science Guy tapes was always the best day.  I know by the time I was in 8th grade, we were no longer supposed to find such things cool, and I don’t know when that happened, but it bothered me.  As I grew up, various influences pointed me in the direction of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan, these being the big three scientist-entertainers, I suppose.  The first time I watched Sagan’s Cosmos, I wept.  Openly and unashamedly, just sobbing hysterically.  I saw Tyson speak live at my university about 2 years ago, and it’s still one of my favorite things I’ve done in my time in college.  I avidly followed Chris Hadfield’s videos and tweets every single day that he was on the space station.  And I know I wasn’t the only one.

Space does a better job than just about anything of capturing our collective imagination.  Most of the best science fiction involves space in a significant way, because shit, what writer wouldn’t want to write about space?  More people care about space exploration than care about the exploration of the deep ocean, and I think it’s safe to say at this point that we know a lot more about space than we do about some of the stuff in the ocean, considering that it’s on our own planet already.  When it comes to exploration, science, technology, and just the role of humanity in general, space is frequently called “the next logical step”.  But why?  Why does space, above all else, play such a central role in our envisioning of the future and feel so important to us personally?

I have spent inordinate amounts of time thinking about space.  Many of my favorite movies/books/shows are about space (Wall-E, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to name a few).  It’s pretty routine for me to say to my friends (or vice versa) “…hey…do you want to talk about space?”  And it still took me a while to think through it and come up with some good answers.  Most of my early answers were just “Well, why not? Space is great!”, but that’s just lazy.

A friend summarized the first answer very well: “(Essentially) infinite space, (essentially) infinite possibilities.”  Space could be anything.  Sure, our knowledge about space is rapidly expanding, but we’ll never know it all.  Virtually anything that you can imagine could in theory happen in space.  And we’re finding new things we never even thought were possible all the time.  They found a planet with a crust made entirely of diamonds.  They found a planet that’s 12.7 billion years old.  There’s planets where a year lasts 10 hours, where it never gets warmer than -300 degrees (Fahrenheit? Celsius? At -300 does it really matter?), planets that are hot pink and coal black, planets with hundreds of moons and planets that orbit multiple stars.  And every single one of them is unimaginably different from Earth.  Not that we won’t try imagining it.


People used to think this was impossible, too.

Another reason, I think, is that space allows us to be optimistic.  Even the most cynical, most pessimistic among us can see the potential in space.  There’s potential for peace, for knowledge, for trust and cooperation between people whom Earth prejudices would have held back here.  In space, we are all humans, we are the only humans, and unity is what will save us.  There is no denying that most of space is cold, desolate, inhospitable, and at times hostile to our very existence.  But if we can survive in space, well, what can’t we do?  The tiny cynical misanthrope in the back corner of my brain says that it’s too easy to look at space as a sort of back-up plan, a place to go when we inevitably destroy this planet with our wars and our mess.  But one of my favorite lessons that I’ve taken from post-apocalyptic fiction is this: yes, we are human and yes we will make mistakes, but one of the most remarkable things about us is our ability to recover and adapt and change, and eventually learn to fix our mistakes.  Space gives us room to hope for the future, even when it seems hard.

I also like to think that space is a fundamentally shared experience.  A point I brought up earlier compared space exploration to deep ocean exploration.  And I know that both are happening; it’s just that space seems to captivate us so much more.  Then I remember that there are people who’ve never seen the ocean, never set foot in anything bigger than a pond, if that.  But who hasn’t looked up at the sky and wondered?  Every mythology, every culture has stories about the sun and the moon and the stars and where it all came from.  I know it’s naive to look at the stars and dream of a time when everyone on this planet will be treated equally, with dignity and kindness; I know that overcoming the barriers of categorism is not an attainable goal for the distant future, much less the near future.  But I think about space and think that if there’s a place where we can leave behind the attitudes and biases of Earth, we can find it.

On that note, I think space exploration in and of itself can be a great unifier.  We are so small.  Our planet is a speck, each one of us is inconceivably minuscule.  The universe does not care about us.  Some people find that scary; I find it tremendously comforting.  Nothing I, or any of us, do is the be-all, end-all of anything.  The amount of influence we can have is so limited as to be meaningless on the grand scale of things.  I do not believe we are alone in this universe, but it certainly feels like we are sometimes.  And in the face of that, it is equally comforting to look at the people around me and realize that as small as we are to the universe, we are immense to each other.  I might be the smallest iota of matter and I can still change the lives of the people around me.  We all have this potential to be massive on the scale of human lives, but nothing will ever stop us from being tiny to the universe.  We’re bigger on the inside.**

*If you can name the sources of all of these quotes, you get 100 brownie points from me



I started writing intending this to be a funny, lighthearted post, but nope, I ended up going straight sentimental.  Sorry.  Space does that to me.

4 comments for “Why Does Space Matter?

  1. Julie Damerell
    January 28, 2014 at 6:44 am

    Hi Jen. I saw this link on fb and hope you don’t mind that I read it. From “space allows us to be optimistic” to the end, you hit the high notes. Lovely thinking. Serious. Meaningful. Like a reader.

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