The long-awaited first images from the James Webb* Space Telescope were revealed the other day. Would it be heresy for this writer of science fiction to be meh about them? After all, I just released a novel about, well, space exploration. But like much of what I like to read, it’s about more than that.
As for the Webb images, they sure are beautiful. The sheer technical complexity of building this thing, getting it not just into space, but into just the right spot. Then for it all to unfold flawlessly. One step among thousands goes wrong and this is space junk. But everything worked perfectly. What an achievement!
Then the images themselves. The deep-field image from Hubble was my computer desktop for years. To think each of those dots was not a star but a galaxy. A Milky Way. Freaking mind blowing. How to feel small and insignificant. But Webb’s. Sharp lines extending from stars, like something out of a Nativity scene, calling us to attention. The colors, the shapes. Each image painstakingly manipulated from its infrared (invisible to our eyes) original to something we can appreciate. Bravo, team!
So why am I ambivalent? I think it’s the reaction to it all. As if this project, this search of the cosmos, will somehow save us from ourselves. The “rah, rah!” of it all. “Dazzling.” The “Coolest Space Picture” ever seen. A former president gushing about how the space program represents American dreams made real. Gee, space isn’t empty after all, as if that was actually a possibility.
The James Webb Space Telescope images are a triumph for astronomers, not for humanity. There, I said it.
There’s a now old line, “If we can put a man on the moon…” Fill in the rest with, why can’t we do this or that? Why can’t we halt climate change, stop the war in Ukraine, end homelessness, end poverty, end drug addiction. End this freaking pandemic!
We can, you see.
All it takes is the will and the means. We have both.
Getting to those Webb Telescope images began with a speech to Congress by President John F. Kennedy in May 1961. He set a challenge and a deadline: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
And it happened (maybe partly because Kennedy was assassinated and we needed something to cling to). All it took was throwing money at an agency and letting them run with it. It also helped that we were in an arms race with the Soviet Union, who had beaten us to space with Sputnik. The rocket that took Sputnik to orbit, you see, could also be used to carry a nuclear weapon. That isn’t mentioned nearly enough when we talk about the space race, the “final frontier,” going “boldly where no man has gone before.”
In another speech, Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone….”
I’ll leave it to you to decide which challenges we should accept, but climate change would be a good one. We could have solved this problem by now and yet with every climate conference, we set goals and then move the goal posts when it becomes clear we’re not going to make it. We talk about cutting emissions below 2005 levels, but we used to talk about 1990 levels. And has anything been cut? In 1990, the global CO2 level was 369 parts per million. In 2005, it was 380. In 2021, it hit 416. Wrong direction, people!
It is often said that humans are meant to explore, that it’s in our nature. No, it’s in the nature of some of us. Many more are content to live their lives in their villages and homes, doing what they need to do every day to keep themselves and their children alive.
For many—too many—they can’t keep up. A few—still too many—have more than enough and instead of using that money, power, or influence to help others, they choose to pad their egos, push the envelope, do something, anything, simply because they can. Not because it’s needed, not because it benefits anyone but themselves.
Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” But does the cosmos really care? It seems the ultimate conceit. Full respect to Dr. Sagan, he was a giant, but while we ogle the spectacular images from 13 billion years ago, today’s forests are being cut and burned. Trees dating back 300 years are clearcut to make toilet paper. Animals and plants that might cure diseases or feed the future are becoming extinct through habitat loss and climate change.
We arguably know more about the cosmos than we do our own oceans. By one measure, we have explored the same amount of each—about 5 percent. Yet the oceans are unarguably exponentially more important to our survival than space.
Who spends the most money exploring the oceans? The oil and gas industry, at about $42.6 billion in 2020. In FY21, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) budget was $4.6 billion (and some of that is spent in space, for satellites), a cut of $728 million from FY20. And NOAA’s ocean exploration arm only funds research in U.S. waters, with only $3 million for FY23. NASA’s FY21 budget was $23.3 billion, $2.3 billion more than in FY20.
I predict that a future civilization will look through a telescope at Earth and see a ruined planet. What will that tell them about themselves? Who cares?
Yes, we want to know why we are here, how we got here. But that is a luxury afforded to only a few. Like me, who get to write stories speculating a future and a past based on the work of scientists.
Viewing Webb’s images, and acknowledging the teamwork required to even create them, does not make us connected. To anything. You think a young pregnant girl in Texas gives a whit about this achievement? We can’t even take care of this planet or its people. Why should we be looking outside our world, our solar system, our galaxy?
None of this is going to magically bring humanity together. It won’t stop the war in Ukraine. It won’t give women their basic bodily rights back. It’s a distraction. One many of us sorely need right now. But it is not a solution.
By all means, enjoy the show. This is a great achievement for the scientists who have devoted their lives and passions to this. Just don’t lull yourself into thinking it is a great achievement for humankind.
But please buy my novel of space exploration and adventure! Hey, it’s cheaper than a telescope.
*The name remains controversial because, whether he actively participated or not, James Webb oversaw NASA during the “Lavender Scare.” A time when homosexuals were routinely fired from U.S. government jobs, including at NASA.
Thanks for putting things into perspective!