Humanity by Starlight

8 02 2009

Carl Sagan believed that humanity’s destiny was bound inextricably among the stars. Isaac Asimov too said, “Humanity has the stars in its future, and that future is too important to be lost under the burden of juvenile folly and ignorant superstition.” Well, I hope and dream that some day we get there. But even now, I think, a sliver of that hope, of that brighter future, shows in us.

We have watched the stars for as long as history has been written, and probably much longer. We used them to measure the passing of the year, and to find our way home when we were lost, on a raging sea or on the open plain or in an ancient forest. We knew their movements before we knew almost anything else. We knew, long before we thought to write about them, of even the faintest changes in the heavens.

But the draw of the stars has never been simply utility. Among them we found our gods, our heroes, our epics. We seated among them the greatest hunters, the greatest warriors, and the greatest leaders of which we knew. Our great tales told of battles waged in the heavens, of gods and devils and demons and angels massed above us, warring among the stars. The heavens, Heaven itself, was above us, just out of sight when we cast our gaze toward the stars.

Even today, long after most of us ceased to look skyward, the stars are of tremendous importance. Our language speaks to this, though we often forget it. Our most famous people are called stars, a relic of the days when we saw our greatest warriors and tricksters, thieves and kings among the stars. We say that someone has stars in their eyes, that the most astounding, amazing thing they have seen is more akin to the ghosts of light above us than to any worldly body.

And what science is it that draws everyone, old and young,  most powerfully? For all its fascinations, even evolution cannot rival astronomy for the awe and wonder it inspires. We grasp instinctively at the dream of some fellow beings out there in the vastness. Astronomy engenders an excitement and fascination in even the most uninterested person, drawing them for a moment into the beauty of the universe. A gaze down the depths of time and space, into the birthplace of stars or into their graveyards, into the heart of an explosion or the genesis of a new existence, will hold the mind of a child for hours by the sheer enormity and power of it.

And the universe calls us not just to look, but to come. We are a species of great voyages. With no more than the rudest of tools our ancestors traveled from Africa to Australia, then again through the barren, frozen wastelands of Siberia, across a bridge, and through two enormous continents filled with creatures of tremendous ferocity and power. And once we had settled, we immediately explored again, the Vikings setting forth across the Atlantic in open boats, Magellan’s crew the first humans ever to travel all the way around what must then have seemed an enormous world.

And still we were not content. We sent a man on the greatest voyage yet, a voyage beyond the pale specter of Earth’s atmosphere, out to the near edge of the enormous blackness of space. And then we brought him back, and sent more up, now even further, reaching our companion in our lonely orbit. Still not content, we have sent countless probes to the moons and planets orbiting our little star, never content to have seen only so much, always wanting to see and know more of these places. We have sent two probes flying away, truly away, so that some day they will pass beyond our sun’s reach entirely.

And still we continue. Soon we will embark on an even greater voyage. Many of us alive today will probably live to see the first human escape Earth’s grasp completely and reach a truly alien world. Mars awaits us, and before long we will rise to meet him.

And that leaves the greatest voyage that we will ever make. Some day, if we can survive so long, we will leave this solar system entirely. We will brave the depths of space and cross over to another world and another star. A voyage so great that we measure its distance by the years light takes to make it, and yet some day we will follow those faint rays of light. We dream of it, we tell stories of it, we hope for it. It is in our destiny, because we cannot but long for it.

This is humanity seen by starlight. Our quests, our voyages, our longings for the stars reveal the most beautiful and most human part of us. We devote our greatest minds to it. They tell us of it, describe it, and imagine it in ways almost too amazing to comprehend. We listen with awe to these great men and women, and for a while we are changed by them, becoming just a little bit more than human. We go about our days with thoughts of that last great voyage somewhere in our minds, with the hope they bring us and, for a while, with the glow of starlight in our eyes.