Space, Race, and Grace

The Dragon rocket roared and lifted off from NASA Cape Canaveral.  It flawlessly sped away from earth into the pristine realms of space.   Down below at Cape Canaveral, the people cheered.   But far away in Minneapolis USA, the crowd was not looking up.  The Black Lives Matter groups were protesting the senseless killing of a black man by the police.  Soon rioting, looting, and more violence will occur. Soon, amazingly, the astronauts would reach the space station and dock with it.   Once inside, they would meet with their colleagues already there and then together all would talk to the cameras.  Millions watched the five men with superior physiques and intelligence as they spoke with mission-control on earth.  Tens of millions watched the protests and the violence, which would grip the country in the coming days.

The next day, Elon Musk, the prophet of space travel,  sent a letter to all his employees.  He declared that now that the Dragon mission was successful, all resources of Space X will be focused on developing the Starship.  The Starship is the massive rocket developed by Space X, designed to take humans to the moon and then to Mars.  Elon Musk’s stated humanitarian mission is to colonize Mars so that mankind can survive.  Survive the dwindling resources on planet earth, an asteroid hit, or some other calamity. Except that there are still plenty of resources on earth and an asteroid hit is a remote possibility.  Implicit in Musk’s endeavor is the message that somehow, if mankind can go into outer space, most of its problems will be solved. Such is his passion that it seems not only a mission for mankind’s survival but for its salvation.  It is written that he had a traumatic childhood in South Africa until he escaped and came to America and found great success here.  So can mankind also escape its childhood and go to a different place and find happiness and success? 

While Dragon was getting ready to launch, a white policeman was pressing his knee into a black man’s neck until the black man died – while cameras watched.  The policeman looked straight at the cameras as if he was doing nothing wrong.  The whole world already reeling from a deadly COVID-19 virus, erupted.  It would be an understatement to say that the two pictures of the rocket and of the policeman kneeling on the neck of another human being, are highly incongruent to our minds.  How can so much technological progress take place while mankind’s moral behavior still remains the same as that of a million years back?  One can easily picture a Neanderthal leaning on another Neanderthal’s neck, a Mediaeval warrior doing the same, or this happening in the World Wars.   It also seems to be happening uninterrupted in the US from the time of the slave trade to the present.

In that respect, nothing has changed, and there are no signs that anything will change.  So it would be no surprise if, on Mars, a similar scene is enacted.  And just like back on earth, there may be another World War.  The US has already made plans for a Space Force, and other countries are doing the same.  Inevitably, conflict is likely.  Will there be a nuclear war in outer space.   At some time in the future, will humans on the earth watch flashes of energy on the moon and Mars, which they know are bombs being dropped on the enemy or by the enemy?  What would Musk think, if when he is old, this kind of scenario is playing out in front of his eyes?  Will he shrug it off, attributing it to the nature of mankind, and keep dreaming about conquering other planets.  The dichotomy and vast chasm between the thinking and the emotional aspects of human nature could never be greater.  And yet, we continue to struggle to explain these two aspects of human behavior.

A simple, if not simplistic, explanation is given by Koestler in his book – ‘The Ghost in the Machine.’ In the book he attributes the self-destructive nature of human beings to the flawed architecture of the brain. Mclean’s formulation of the triune brain with the cognitive, emotional, and reptilian brains working concurrently and to a large extent independently within the human brain, may also explain the contradictions of human behavior.  It would explain the rapid advancements in rocket technology while little or no improvement in humans’ violent and destructive nature. So if you go to the first-principles and see the brain as it is, you find a flawed structure.   And if that is the case, then reaching the moon and Mars is likely to amplify mankind’s tendency for self-destruction, rather than solve it.   

Freud, in a rare letter exchange with Einstein, was asked about how violent human conflict could be avoided. Freud expressed deep pessimism about the ability of humans to control their aggression. He felt that the only way this may be achieved is through social institutions which formulate a code of conduct for everybody to follow. Religion is one such social institution.   Messiahs of the world’s religions have all come up with solutions quite similar to each other, though in different forms and shapes.   ‘Love thy neighbor’ runs in all religions except in some when it is fine to be violent if you want the other to accept your gospel.  What is fascinating is that many of these solutions were formed hundreds and thousands of years ago.  But unlike the advancement in technology,  there has been no advancement in most religions’ moral code. In fact, the tendency is to interpret the religious doctrines, precisely as they were formulated thousands of years back.  Humankind has no confidence in its ability to interpret moral issues any better now than in the infancy of human civilization.  Needless to say that these interpretations are not only outdated but have often led to greater acts of violence.  The human tendency for violent behavior has increased and become much more threatening to mankind’s existence since man sailed and discovered new continents. And this tendency is likely to increase further when mankind colonizes the moon and Mars.

Musk may be advised to go back to the first-principles and also tackle the problem of the flaw in the human brain architecture. Developing the technology of matter without progress in the development of the mind may lead to even greater acts of self-destruction. However, it may be much more challenging to fix the flaws of the brain architecture – it is not rocket science.