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Just a touch

19 July 2019

1972, forty-seven years ago, was the last time that anyone could look at the Moon and marvel that two people were walking on its surface. It is remarkable to recall that the programme to put men on the Moon, which took such effort and made such an impression, was curtailed after only three years, and enabled just 12 men to accomplish the feat. The project was very much of its time, however. Fifty years ago, the surest way to make a piece of equipment work was to send along a human to operate it. Since then, although the romance of space travel and individual ambition endure, scientists have come to view humans in space as a liability, with their extravagant needs for fuel and oxygen. The thrust of space programmes around the world is to design machines and monitors that can survive conditions far more inimical than those encountered on the lunar surface. The surface temperature on Mercury swings from 430°C to -175°C. Storms on Jupiter can be 3000 kilometres deep. Machine that rely on solar power give up the ghost in a matter of hours if they happen to land in shadow, as did the lander Philae on Comet 67P.

As human knowledge of off-world conditions is increased exponentially, so, too, is the realisation that these places are not for us. The forces of creation did not have humans in mind when, say, they created Hyperion, a cold, rocky moon of Saturn that resembles a natural sponge; or Io, a moon of Jupiter, where the surface is covered in volcanoes and split by earthquakes. Such knowledge, gleaned from orbiting probes launched sometimes decades ago, is both fascinating and humbling. The failure of Walter Kronkite’s prediction during his commentary on the flight of Apollo 11 — that it was “something our great-grandchildren will undoubtedly be undertaking themselves on an excursion basis” — might not be good for the pockets of entrepreneurs; but it is essential for our souls to know the limits of our knowledge and abilities, countering the age-old tendency to take for granted the gifts that the world and human ingenuity have bestowed upon us. Flight! The internet! Aspirin! Clean, piped water!

God cannot escape this treatment. The Church has devoted much energy over the centuries to fighting heresies that suggest that Jesus was less than God; not so much on the opposite heresies, prevalent today, that God is no more than Jesus. It is profoundly instructive to our theology to be shown that existence is not limited to Earth’s bounds and the human sphere. The Apollo missions might well have extended the process of appropriation and domestication into space. Instead, they came at the start of an explosion of information about the universe which has extended our knowledge and revealed our ignorance. And this information has come with an admonitory message: you can touch, but you cannot hold.

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