Follow the Money, the Science, or the Theology? A Second Reflection on the Forthcoming Artemis Moon Mission.

Last week, I offered a simple question for you to reflect upon – Should we return to the Moon?

The responses I received, both public and private, revealed three, clear conclusions.

There is definitely a body of people who think we should send people back to the Moon.

There is definitely a body of people who think we should send rovers to the Moon since they are more budget friendly and could maximize the science due to the budget savings.

The third conclusion I wasn’t looking for, but become very clear was this – Everyone felt we should go back to the Moon.

Now, something we need to keep in mind is the Artemis Missions are meant to prepare to send humans to Mars. With that in mind, it’s not a simple debate of “send people or don’t send people to the Moon.” If the goal is to put women and men on the Moon to prep for Mars, then having missions with people aboard are essential. Obviously, this aspect of the Artemis Missions leads to another layer of reflection – Should we send people to Mars (and beyond)? We’ll save that question for a future post. For now, let’s focus on three of the main concerns and interests that came up from last weeks reflection question: Fiscal concerns, scientific benefit, and theological insight.

Looking at the “Follow the Money” argument, the numbers are striking. As a means of comparison, the New Horizon’s Mission to flyby Pluto came in at $780.6 million dollars while the Artemis Moon missions will cost between $30 to $40 billion dollars. Obviously, this might not be the fairest of comparisons. The mission objectives of the Pluto flyby and the Artemis missions are very, very different. Also, the Artemis budget reflects multiple missions while the New Horizon’s budget reflects only one mission. Still, I think it safe to say that both missions remind us that space exploration is very expensive and this expense is always going to be a point of concern for many people. And sending people to space instead of rovers is even more expensive.

Personally, I’m okay with the price tags. At first glance it is easy to scoff at the expense, thinking of many practical things we could reallocate funds toward on Earth. Yet, when we compare these expenses with other culturally accepted, big ticket items, it brings the numbers into perspective. For example, the BBC reported that the presidential/congressional elect held this year in the United States cost almost $14 billion dollars. This, obviously, points to a number of questions on the ethics of elections when the price tag to elect someone to public office is over fourteen times more expense than sending a probe to Pluto. This post wont explore this hot potato of a political issue, but when you compare the expense of space exploration to other culturally acceptable big ticket items, we see that space exploration is not as fiscally outrageous as one may think.  Post your thoughts below on what you think of the expenses involved in space exploration!

From the perspective of science, one of the questions that was presented to me was whether or not humans are essential to do the science of the Artemis missions? To explore this question, we need to get a grasp of what the scientific goals are for Artemis. NASA has made public the mission outline and objectives of the Artemis Missions (Click here for the summary of the main science goals of the missions). After doing so, I would like you to post your thoughts on what you think the Artemis missions should explore? If you would prefer a shorter summary, here’s an Artemis interview conducted by NBC. 

Some may argue after watching this video, “Of course you need to send people into space if you want to do scientific exploration of Mars and worlds beyond!” Also, the video points out that this expense does have a potential fiscal gain in the exploration of usable resources that could be “mined” and brought back to Earth. This is one of the core truths I have learned over the years about the scientific exploration of space: As much as I would love to argue that the simple desire of the human person to wonder “what is out there” is a good enough reason to go to the Moon, there needs to be a benefit to humanity to justify the mission. Often times, people reduce missions to Mars and other worlds to an exploration to put people on a world that isn’t our own. However, there is a big part of the Artemis missions that strive to make life better on this world by exploring other worlds for usable resources.

As true as all of this may be, the argument can be made that many of the missions goals could be met without people ever being sent to the Moon or Mars at a much lower price tag. In the NBC video, the show host was using virtual reality goggles to demonstrate to the viewer different aspects of the Artemis mission. Virtual reality is transforming how things are done on Earth as well, whether it be educational, scientific, or recreational purposes. Could a small army of robot rovers be used on the Moon with humans using virtual reality on Earth to build space stations? Could the same tests be conducted from Earth with no threat to human life through virtual reality? Honestly, I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I would love to hear our professional scientists (and well educated enthusiasts) weigh in and share your thoughts below.

Okay, we’ve touched on money and science, what about faith? Some may think there isn’t any theological implications of sending human beings to the Moon and Mars. At one level, that would be a true statement. I haven’t heard of NASA exploring theological aspects of Moon and Mars missions nor would I expect them to do so. Still, there are theological questions and implications that are worth asking in light of these missions.

Do these missions change our view of God and religion as we discover things like water and usable resources on other worlds?

Let’s say we find water and usable resources on the Moon and Mars. Let’s push it a little further and say we find simple organisms on Mars that confirm that life is more common in the universe than we often presume. Does this finding change how we see ourselves as made in God’s image and likeness? And let’s say an historic event happens in a future mission that would be akin to a first contact with life outside of our common home that would allow for some type of meaningful interaction. Would this change the way we view our place in the universe? 

“‘Earth Rise” taken by Apollo 8 Astronauts. Image Credit: NASA

To end my piece this week, let’s look at how people of faith have understood past space missions and how those missions informed and transformed their faith life as a means of helping us reflect on what future space missions might reveal about our understanding of God.

Those of you who were around for the Mercury and Apollo Missions, how did the first images of the Earth from the perspective of the Moon not only change how you see our world, but how you see God?

In my priestly ministry, I’ve heard many reflections on the historic image of Earth-rise captured on Apollo 8. People have shared that Earth-rise was their first awareness of how fragile our world is and gave birth to modern ecological moments, embracing the mentality – As fragile as this precious blue marble is, we need to protect it!

Here is a remaster image of Earth-rise.

Remastered Image of Earth-rise. Image Credit: NASA, Bill Anders, Processed by Bill Weigang

In regard to people’s view of God, I find few that would say this image did any harm to their faith. If anything, the beauty of this image often strengthened people’s faith, seeing the contrast of the barren lunar surface and the blue “life-fest” that is the Earth. Still, the connection of viewing our smallness that evoked the need to protect our common home is something easily forgotten, but monumental for how we view God’s creative act and how we are to care for this gift.

The Voyager 1 Probe Image of Earth from Saturn Image Credit: NASA

Another image of our scientific past that does sometimes challenge people’s faith is “the pale blue dot.” If the Apollo 8 images from the Moon gave us a sense of the fragile gift of the Earth, images of our common home from Saturn gave us perspective of just how small we are in the universe – really, really small!

This smallness has led many to question God, wondering how beings on such a minuscule place mean anything to God? Perhaps its because I’m young enough to have grown up with these images and benefit from years of prior reflection, but I’ve never had the feeling that “size matters” when it comes to how I view God in light of the relationship between Earth and the rest of the universe.

One approach to the question of our physical place in the universe in relation to how meaningful we are to God was presented by Fr. Chris Corbally of the Vatican Observatory. In an interview he did with Br. Guy, Chris was asked to reflect upon how such a small creature could mean anything to God?

Chris stated that the problem with thinking we are too small for God to care about us says more about how we limit our understanding of God versus the insignificance of the human person. There are many images from Scripture that state that God is attentive and present to all of creation regardless how significant or insignificant something may appear to be – big or small. In light of this, could our smallness actually affirm our faith? And does it make sense that “the God of Smallness” chose to dwell with insignificance, came into our world through an impoverished family, and taught time and time again that God’s presence is to be found in the rejected and lowly of the world? These questions are good food for thought to start my post next week!

Here is the interview I referenced in the previous paragraphs with Fr. Corbally.

We will continue this discussion next week, but, for now, I want to hear from you. What are your thoughts on the fiscal, scientific, and theological aspects of exploring space? I’ll address these questions in next week’s post. That being said, I need comments to put next week’s reflection together, so error on the side of sharing thoughts! I will respect every response regardless of the perspectives offered and respond with the same respect.

Happy Monday everyone!