Just What We Need: Another Planet

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

I’ve been a fan of the space program for a long time.

I’m old enough to remember standing in the front yard of our home in Pittsburgh in 1957 watching expectantly for the Russian-launched Sputnik to pass overhead in the night sky, and also listening to the grainy beep . . . beep . . . beep . . . the satellite produced for radios around the world.

I was in the eighth grade in 1962 and shared in the excitement when John Glenn became the first American to circle the globe. And even more vividly I remember watching television with my mom and dad that historic Sunday night in July of 1969 when Neil Armstrong made the first footprints on the moon, winning at least that phase of the space race for the good guys.

I continue to be impressed by the amazing technology that allows unmanned space crafts to travel many years to the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond, every move pre-calculated to the tiniest degree, and then send signals and photos back over millions of miles to breath-holding scientists here on earth.

And it’s a disgrace, I think, that the American commitment to the manned space program has deteriorated to the point that we now need to depend on the Russians for transit to and from the International Space Station, a floating science lab that was designed, built and financed largely by Americans.

With this personal history, I was surprised by my lack of excitement when, just a few weeks ago, NASA scientists confirmed the existence of flowing water on Mars. The discovery of water leads to the possibility that there are some life forms, even primitive ones, present on Mars. As one scientist explained, “Our quest on Mars has been to follow the water in our search for life in the universe.”

The discovery of water on Mars has also encouraged the notion of humans traveling to Mars and even living there. In researching this, I’ve learned about a private Netherlands-based organization called Mars One whose members are actively planning an expedition to Mars with the ultimate goal of establishing a permanent human settlement. More than 202,000 people first applied to become Red Planet explorers. After screening and testing, the candidates have been whittled down to 100. The first four-person crews are scheduled to depart for their journey in 2025. One catch – it’s a one way ticket!

So, we’re going to colonize Mars. “Just what we need,” I said to myself, “another planet to care for when we can’t care for the one we’ve already got,” a cynicism that arises in the context of reading Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ soaring encyclical “On the care for our common home.”

Pope Francis pulls no punches in describing the current condition of our planet: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” (#21)

The Pope goes on to list the problems that come from our destructive carelessness: pollution and climate change; the availability of fresh drinking water; the loss of biodiversity; the breakdown of society; and global inequality, i.e., poverty.

It’s important to emphasize that Laudato Si is about much more than climate change, although the topic is clearly addressed. It’s true — we need to repair our relationship with the earth, “our sister, Mother Earth,” in the words of St. Francis’ famous Canticle.

But because everything is interrelated, (perhaps the organizing theme of the Pope’s letter), we need also to repair our relationship with God, the Creator, and with our brothers and sisters with whom we share our home. “Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor, and with the earth itself,” (#66) the Pope writes.

And of course, God comes first. “When we can see God reflected in all that exists, our hearts are moved to praise the Lord for all his creatures and to worship him in union with them.” (#87) The Pope explains how religious faith brings a unique perspective to the question.

We need also to repair our oft-broken relationships with our human siblings, a dysfunctional family that abides in war, violence, crime, bigotry, poverty and abortion. “All of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.” (#89) And again, “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.” (#91)

Oh my . . . reading and reflecting upon Laudato Si can be a challenging exercise to be sure. The problems are many; the agenda is daunting; a response is urgently needed. Nonetheless, even in assessing the dire situation, Pope Francis includes this upbeat assessment, a good reminder for us: “Rather than a problem to be solved, the world is a joyful mystery to be contemplated with gladness and praise.” (#12)

But, in light of how we’ve ignored our Creator, mistreated one another, and abused our planet, I’m skeptical about the wisdom of colonizing Mars. What makes us think we’ll treat our second home any better than the first? And why transplant the human family to a new home millions of miles away when we can’t get along with our neighbor across the street?

Move to Mars? I don’t think so.