Well, damn. Seems we’ll be stuck on this spinning rock in space a while longer: humanity’s best shot at escape died a heavenly death this week. NASA announced it can’t fix the broken Kepler Spacecraft, tasked with solving an earth-shaking question, “Are Earths in the habitable zone of stars like our sun common or rare?”
Escape has been our thing for a while now. The Kepler mission (“A Search for Habitable Planets”) was just the latest. There was Icarus, of course. There are multiple religious or superstitious versions of an afterlife. There was the euphoria over the Age of Flight, illustrated in this comment by Jacques Alexandre César Charles, one of two balloonists on the first manned flight over Paris in 1783: “Nothing will ever quite equal that moment of total hilarity that filled my whole body at the moment of take-off. I felt we were flying away from the Earth and all its troubles for ever. It was not mere delight. It was a sort of physical ecstasy. My companion Monsieur Robert murmured to me – I’m finished with the Earth.”*
Earth will be finished with us even if we aren’t finished with her, Stephen Hawking warned three years ago. Other modern doomsayers, such as scientist James Lovelock of Gaia fame, have said humankind has already passed the point of no return, that in the 21st Century we are already too near to, and moving too fast toward, the precipice of existence to turn back. Hawking is a tad more optimistic: our future is in space he says, but we really should not have “all our eggs” in the one basket of earth.
There is still a chance the Kepler mission will come through: data collected on the mission and yet to be analyzed may hold the answer, said Kepler’s science principal investigator in the press release.
* Page 161, Age of wonder by Richard Holmes.