What Is Space For?

Why we gaze and why we should go
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I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it will be more the fact that it allows us to see things that maybe we should’ve seen a long time ago, but just haven’t been able to until now.

— Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, in First Man (2018)

Imagine the splendor of the night sky, and consider. Even with light pollution diminishing the clarity of the heavens in most of our cities, there is still something stirring about peering into the abyss. Whether it’s the dozens of stars dotting the cityscape or the thousands you can see from a rural vantage, the expanse of space is staggering, even to the naked eye. Add to that the wonders coming from deep space telescopes and modern astrophysics. To name only a few: Within the past few months, scientists have identified a planet with a shiny, reflective atmosphere; for a brief period of time, there was a sunspot larger than our entire planet; a chunk of metal five times the size of Hawaii’s Big Island is embedded in the mantle of the Moon; the fabric of space-time ripples like an ocean; and apparently these ripples cause the entire cosmos to hum with sonic frequency.

Yet, in spite of its grandeur, space is also deadly, a lethal vacuum coupled with lethal radiation. And it’s huge. The great distance between us and our cosmic neighbors radically inhibits the possibility for meaningful interaction. A recent article noted that scientists have discovered one of the closest supernovas to Earth “at only 21 million light-years away.” Such numbers are bewildering. Even a voyage to our next-door neighbor Mars requires astonishing amounts of fuel, thousands of tons at minimum, relegating the prospect of deep space travel to far futures or sci-fi dreams. We are so close, and yet so far.

At times, when reading the latest astronomical discovery from this awe-inspiring, magisterial realm, one feels like Jack Skellington, the King of Halloween Town, puzzling over Christmas presents and shouting, “What does it mean? What does it mean?” For us to make progress in the quest to understand what space means, we must linger on the question: What is space for?

The question is rarely asked in this direct way. And yet it is there already, just beneath the surface of the many things people say today about a more practical matter: Should we go to space? The answers we hear to this question get us part of the way — but then stop just short of naming the deeper truth human beings have always known about the great promise of space.

‘Space Is for Us’

The modern space industry is fueled by the consensus that space is for us. Space exists as a resource to meet human needs, in one form or another. NASA’s marching orders reveal a host of human interests at stake in the modern space race, including governmental, political, economic, and aspirational needs. The 2017 “Presidential Memorandum on Reinvigorating America’s Human Space Exploration Program” instructs various agencies, including NASA, to

lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.

Grounding its Moon-based Artemis Program upon this directive, NASA declares, “we’re going back to the Moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new generation of explorers.” What is space for? Space is for us — to advance and enrich humanity.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

It sounds noble, until we probe a little deeper and ask what “for us” might mean. Understandably, NASA’s aims are in large part about U.S. supremacy in space, “maintaining American leadership in exploration,” as NASA describes the Artemis program. However, the Artemis mandate is coupled with Space Policy Directive-4, “Establishment of the United States Space Force,” which would “ensure unfettered access to, and freedom to operate in, space, and to provide vital capabilities to joint and coalition forces in peacetime and across the spectrum of conflict.” For all its universal humanitarian language, the real fuel powering NASA’s rockets is America’s national interest, backed by American military might.

Of course, this is nothing new for NASA. According to the agency itself, the Apollo program sought to put a man on the Moon while also “establishing the technology to meet other national interests in space” and “achieving preeminence in space for the United States.” This is to be expected. It would be naïve to insist that space exploration funded by national tax dollars be free from national interests. And as suggested by the TV show For All Mankind, a counterfactual world where Russia beats America to the Moon, we should count it a blessing that the biggest player in space has been a nation committed to democratic ideals.

But we can easily be tempted to mistake this reasonable view of space’s purpose for America as the entire story of space’s purpose per se. If we were to view political goals as the whole reason for exploring space, we would cheapen the wonder of the heavens. This is why we experience a certain amount of cognitive dissonance when we hear that President John F. Kennedy, who uttered the rousing words “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,” was, in NASA’s own later estimation,

not a visionary enraptured with the romantic image of the last American frontier in space and consumed by the adventure of exploring the unknown. He was, on the other hand, a Cold Warrior with a keen sense of Realpolitik in foreign affairs, and worked hard to maintain balance of power and spheres of influence in American/Soviet relations.

Surely the beauty of the Moon and of Mars demands higher regard than being mere pawns in a political scheme.

Hardened realists might respond that this is just how government works. If so, we must consider that an unfortunate byproduct of serving the national interest is red tape, which hampers both exploration and national success in the long run. The U.S. space shuttle tragically exemplifies this reality. Far from an awe-inspiring upgrade to the Saturn V rocket that might open up the possibility for interplanetary travel, the actual shuttle was birthed out of Cold War military concerns and constrained by congressional spending cuts, which dramatically altered the design, function, and cost of the machine. Ultimately, these political enmeshments doomed the shuttle to become what Adam Keiper, writing in these pages, has called “an unmitigated failure” (“A New Vision for NASA,” Fall 2003). This sad history offers a cautionary tale: valuing space primarily through the lens of national interest will almost certainly reduce our capacity to meaningfully interact with space. As an answer to our question — “what is space for?” — the nationalistic-militaristic “space is for us” reply falls short.

Meanwhile, space-tech billionaires offer another flavor of the “space is for us” approach, centered not on national interest but the survival of humanity. Speaking at a 2013 conference, SpaceX founder Elon Musk bluntly stated his rationale for investing in space exploration: “Either we spread Earth to other planets, or we risk going extinct.” If not explicitly focused on survival, Jeff Bezos’s galactic aspirations are similarly grounded in an expected humanitarian crisis on Earth. Upon receiving the 2018 Axel Springer Award for business innovation and social responsibility, Bezos stated his motivations:

If we don’t [expand to other planets] we will eventually end up with a civilization of stasis…. If you take baseline energy usage globally across the whole world and compound it at just a few percent a year for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells. That’s the real energy crisis.

Compared to the energy constraints of Earth, Bezos finds the solution in interplanetary civilization:

The solar system can easily support a trillion humans. And if we had a trillion humans, we would have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts and unlimited, for all practical purposes, resources from solar power and so on. That’s the world that I want my great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren to live in.

Is this what space is for — a planetary Hail Mary for our failed tenure on Earth, or an endless battery supplying our ever-increasing energy needs? And when space ambitions are driven by apocalyptic fervor, what extreme steps are we willing to justify? Musk, for one, does not seem to mind the wanton destruction of Mars’s poles that he thinks may be required for terraforming the planet (in his words: “Nuke Mars!”) or the bleak prospects for its early explorers (“Honestly, a bunch of people will probably die in the beginning”). Less the blustery showman, Bezos has more to say about the potentials of space than the costs of getting there. But his basic assumption remains unquestioned: that scattering trillions of people throughout the solar system will make for a brighter human future.

Will it? Having a few thousand more geniuses on hand, without a corresponding growth in virtue, will not likely make a dent in human suffering. And if that future turns out to be bleak, are the vast riches of outer space worth turning into consumables for the interplanetary masses? By reducing the riches of outer space to mere resources for our survival, we risk losing them entirely to space barons who insist that their conquest of space ultimately ushers in the good of all humankind. In its apocalyptic shade, “space is for us” reaches a destructive nadir.

Aside from nationalistic or anti-apocalyptic motivations, there is a final version of “space is for us” worth exploring, one that has often been advanced in the pages of this journal: a romantic-idealistic version. For this type of writer, outer space provides the last meaningful frontier to fulfill the human need to explore. Robert Zubrin writes that the prospect of sending humans to Mars “is the chance to do something heroic, to advance humanity on the frontier” (“The Human Explorer,” Winter 2004). For Adam Keiper, such heroism is tied into our very nature: “we must go to space: it is the human thing to do” (“A New Vision for NASA,” Fall 2003). Far from being detriments, the risks inherent in space travel actually provide the necessary backdrop for human heroism. As Charles T. Rubin movingly writes, “it is the grand vision, the sense of destiny and purpose, the excitement of playing out the widest range of human possibility, which sustains our long and risky journey into the dark” (“Thumos in Space,” Fall 2007).

The romantic-idealistic account of space-meaning strikes much closer to the actual experience of outer space. For the average person stargazing on a clear evening, the first thought is not “I wonder if those stars could fuel my great-grandchildren’s energy needs,” but rather the wonder-filled “What would it be like to see that up close?” This imaginative, emotional connection with outer space prompts James Poulos to re-cast the quest for human exploration of Mars, not as a functional escape from Earth, but as an expression of eros, “a cosmic, intimate, and given relationship of loving destiny” (“For the Love of Mars,” Spring 2018). Space is grand and attractive, inspiring the human need for challenge and striving. This is why movies such as First Man, Apollo 13, October Sky, and especially 2001: A Space Odyssey resonate so deeply. Romantic-idealistic space-meaning is on to something.

And yet, this vision still feels incomplete, because it stops short of naming the very impulse driving it forward. Romantic-idealistic space advocates laud the human need to overcome hard things. But why this hard thing? Why space? There are any number of human endeavors that are both challenging and beneficial: safer oil pipelines, longer bridges, taller buildings, a rat-free New York City. Many dangerous places remain under-explored: Antarctica, the Himalayas, the Mariana Trench. Yet none of these command our universal human affection like outer space. There must be something more to space-meaning than us, something that these writers gesture toward but never fully articulate. Space may be, in part, for us. And yet, the sheer Otherness of space — its vastness and bewitching beauty — gestures toward an innate, transcendent dignity.

‘Space Is for Space’

There is another version of space-meaning, centered on the inherent dignity of outer space. As astrodynamicist and self-described space environmentalist Moriba Jah puts it, space “belongs to no one.” It exists in and for its own right. In other words, space is not for us; space is for space.

Space-centric arguments are numerous and varied. At times, they overlap with a more humble “space is for us” approach. Space regulations such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the less-successful 1979 Moon Agreement, and even the recent Artemis Accords stress the value of respecting and preserving celestial bodies and sharing the benefits of exploration with nations who have yet to go there. Even while these international agreements accept the permissibility of harvesting space materials for human use, they lay the groundwork for thinking about space as a common good, perhaps with a value independent of humanity.

Other “space is for space” arguments rest on pragmatic grounds. Writing in a Dubai newspaper in the mid-2010s, amidst the rapid growth of Middle Eastern space programs, foreign policy expert Narayanappa Janardhan raised the decades-old concerns of waste, militarization, and how humanity has already mismanaged life here on Earth as reasons to “leave space alone!” While eschewing this purely hands-off approach, others argue that, at the least, it should not be human hands doing the exploring. Writing in Scientific American, Donald Goldsmith and Martin Rees argue that, in spite of possible gains for national pride and the human spirit, the actual costs of human missions to Mars, including the potential cost in human lives, renders the pursuit thoroughly unwise. Maciej Cegłowski, a tech entrepreneur and writer, agrees: After detailing the costs of a human Mars mission — “something north of half a trillion dollars” — and the current gaps in our engineering, such as reliable long-term life support and dependable mechanisms for preventing widespread contamination, Cegłowski concludes, “we shouldn’t send human beings to Mars, at least not anytime soon. Landing on Mars with existing technology would be a destructive, wasteful stunt whose only legacy would be to ruin the greatest natural history experiment in the Solar System.” This pragmatic version of “space is for space” rests less on the positive independence of space than on its thorough inaccessibility.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mary-Jane Rubenstein, professor of religion and science at Wesleyan University, offers a different account of cosmocentric space-meaning in her 2022 book Astrotopia: The Dangerous Religion of the Corporate Space Race. Her critique begins with theology: the drive to conquer space, or even imagine it as a frontier, is driven by Western colonialist-imperialist-religious doctrine. From a misreading of Genesis 1 and 2 that centers on human dominion, to the European “Doctrine of Discovery,” to the American “Manifest Destiny,” to the modern space race, for her there is a clear running thread: salvation through conquest. The modern “space is for us” entrepreneurs, in her reading, share a theological heritage with those who conquered the Americas or the Wild West because it was there for the taking, “thus saith the Lord.”

Because a religious problem demands a religious solution, Rubenstein rejects Western Christianity and opts for a pragmatic blend of pantheism and indigenous spirituality that beholds outer space as possessing its own personal integrity. Drawing from philosopher Holmes Rolston III, the question is not “how ‘this astronomical world can belong to us’” but rather “‘how we belong to it,’ and ‘whether it belongs to itself.’” She quickly qualifies this radical premise by stating a more pragmatic goal: “Let me say from the outset that I don’t think it’s ethically necessary to say that rocks have rights in order to envision a just and peaceful approach to outer space. But I do think we can learn a lot from asking whether it’s possible.”

Rubenstein advances this thought experiment through Rolston’s framework of ecological justice, which broadens the familiar opposition between subjective and objective — in short, human beings acting on the world — by adding a third category: “projective.” In the subject–object duality, subjects are free to act upon objects. But there are also “natural entities that have their own value independently of anything humans might want from them,” and they need to be regarded as such, Rubenstein argues. Space, she writes, belongs to this third, projective, category: “Projects include not only animals, vegetables, and microbes but also lakes and rivers, moons and stars.” Planets, stars, and other heavenly bodies have intrinsic integrity, rather than being merely objects that exist to be used by human subjects.

Like Rubenstein, Moriba Jah also draws inspiration from indigenous peoples seeking to live in harmony with creation, preferring ideas of stewardship and ecological management to ownership. He suggests seeing space as an independent ecosystem with the capacity to teach habits for conservation, stating in a recent lecture at M.I.T., “Mother Nature is so resilient, if we allow her to show us the way. These are principles of traditional ecological knowledge.” For Jah, everything in the universe is interconnected, a reality that invites humanity to approach outer space with humility and gratitude, even empathy.

As a philosophical approach, “space is for space” has its benefits. If space is indeed an independent entity with inherent worth, human beings ought to take greater pains to care for it, which would at the very least prevent our abuse of it. Jah’s own research aims at charting the location of space junk to prevent damage to the satellites that provide valuable services to people, including television, cellphone, and GPS signals. But more than that, “space is for space” helps explain the mythic power of the celestial realm that we intuitively sense when we see deep space photographs of ancient nebulae: that outer space has value beyond its material contents.

Even a celestial body as ordinary as the Moon possesses an entrancing mystique. The 2018 film First Man brilliantly captures this lunar majesty in one breathtaking scene. After minutes of stressed, strained, cramped close-ups of the astronauts struggling to land safely, the camera makes a dramatic shift. Once Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) opens the door, the lunar landscape is filmed on sweeping, seventy-millimeter IMAX film. The effect is stirring. Compared to the claustrophobia of the lunar lander, the Moon is gorgeous, serene, and expansive. Viewing this magisterial landscape, Robert Zubrin’s assertion in a 2020 National Review article that “clearly the Moon is a dead rock” rings hollow.

At the same time, “space is for space” is not the complete picture. Rubenstein’s defense of space reads like a patchwork of environmentalism plus indigenous mysticism plus postmodern pantheism, more a collection of interesting ideas than an integrated philosophical worldview. In the end, “space is for space” fails to provide a coherent and positive framework for how we should respond to our longing for space. There is a palpable sense of loss, even resignation, as these writers uphold the vast Otherness of space without real guidance for experiencing it. After decrying Mars as a “hellhole” in The Atlantic, science writer Shannon Stirone still admits that “walking around on Mars would be a life-changing, amazing, profound experience,” though living there permanently “will kill you.” Rubenstein admits that the Apollo missions were “thrilling,” even if they were, in her view, “replay[ing] the Christian imperialism that founded and expanded the US.”

These confessions reveal a perplexing truth: the dignity of space is precisely what makes space so desirable. We don’t, in fact, want to leave space alone. It would be a loss of spiritual proportion to simply give up. “Space is for us” articulates this desire: we want space. “Space is for space” tells us why: space is sacred. It throbs with a special power that calls out to us like no other. On the map of space-meaning, these positions are like two coordinates, pointing toward the missing third piece: relationship with the sacred.

‘Space Is for Divine Communion’

Think again about the majestic enigma of the night sky, an expanse that both humbles and exhilarates. The best accounting for this mesmerizing experience is that outer space is a sacred space that invites communion with the Divine.

With science as secularized as it is today, this claim may feel radical. But it echoes what has been said throughout human history. We have long associated outer space with divine presence. The aboriginal Yolŋu people view outer space as an interconnected layer of this world, called Sky Country: the place where the ancestors live, giving an intimate connection to past generations. In Osage religious mythology, the first peoples were originally spirit beings in the sky, who came to earth with guidance from the sun. Upon death, their warriors were presented to the sun so that their spirits could return heavenward. We could add to these examples numerous others from Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythologies, where the cosmos, and the high peaks of the earth stretching into the skies, was the home of the gods.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Global polytheistic cosmologies agree that the heavens are the realm of the Divine. The Shinto religion worships the Sun Goddess, one of the highest deities and the mother of the Japanese emperors. Taoist rituals aim to create sacred space on earth to connect us with the heavenly realm. Hindu theology has a rich engagement with space, teaching that the universe was created by Brahma as an extension of himself, giving the heavens a sacred quality, while Brahma himself lives in another cosmic, planet-like sphere named Brahmaloka. One sacred text even recounts an interdimensional journey of the Hindu King Kakudmi, traveling to Brahmaloka to consult with Brahma himself (and learning some advanced astrophysics along the way).

The great monotheistic traditions also view the heavens as sacred space. In the Bible, Psalm 19:1 announces that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” In the Quran, Surah 16:12 teaches “He has subjected for you the night and day and the sun and moon, and the stars are subjected by His command. Indeed in that are signs for people who reason.” While differing with their polytheistic neighbors on whether the heavenly bodies should themselves be worshipped, the great monotheistic religions affirm the common truth: outer space is sacred space.

And as sacred space, outer space offers an unparalleled venue for encountering the Divine. To borrow a concept from Celtic spirituality, sacred spaces are “thin places” where “the distance between heaven and earth shrinks, and time and eternity embrace,” as theologian Timothy George has written. In these thin places, humans find themselves enrapt in a spiritual encounter with what philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto termed “the Numinous.” In his studies on religious experience, Otto discerned that when humans met the Divine — a numinous, radically-other presence — they described their experience as simultaneously humbling and enlivening, producing the complex sensations of smallness, dread, and awe combined with fascination, exuberance, and joy. In these moments, “the mysterious is already beginning to loom before the mind, to touch the feelings,” rendering a truly “beatific experience,” Otto wrote. This is divine communion: an exalted encounter with the numinous presence in a thin place. This is also what makes outer space so enthralling, and explains its universal draw. Outer space is numinous space, a sacred space of immediate spiritual encounter. Of all the thin places in our world, space is perhaps the thinnest.

Human space travelers confirm this, routinely recalling a singularly transcendent experience as they view Earth from the vastness of space. Some highlight the fragility of humanity compared to the coldness of the cosmic abyss. Upon his return to Earth after a Blue Origin space flight in 2022, actor William Shatner broke down in tears, reporting that he had experienced one of “the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered.” Others report a distaste for nationalism and warfare, with increased sympathy for the unity of humankind. Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins captures this when he writes,

I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of, let’s say, 100,000 miles, their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified façade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment. The earth must become as it appears.

Some recall a spiritual exuberance brought about by seeing the beauty of the Earth from this privileged vantage, reveling in what astronaut Terry Virts describes as the “bizarre and exotic colors that God must have saved on his palette for some very special places.” Others appreciate the untranslatable sense of mystery. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, writes, “While it’s natural to try to liken space flight to familiar experiences, it can’t be brought ‘down to Earth.’ The environment is different; the perspective is different. Part of the fascination with space travel is the element of the unknown — the conviction that it’s different from Earthbound experiences. And it is.” Many have called this the “overview effect.” Otto would call it a divine encounter.

The Apollo 11 mission provides a succinct case study of divine communion in outer space, as all three men reported some form of numinous encounter. On the surface of the Moon, Buzz Aldrin prepared for his lunar walk by pausing for prayer and taking Holy Communion. He later wrote,

We had come to the moon in the name of all mankind — be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists. But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.

First Man Neil Armstrong had a different but equally profound experience. He has been quoted as saying, “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” Meanwhile, with Armstrong and Aldrin down on the lunar surface, pilot Michael Collins grappled with an unparalleled aloneness, circling solo in the command module, cut off from radio contact with Earth — one man, floating alone in space, on the dark side of the Moon. He described the experience like this: “I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it…. I feel this powerfully — not as fear or loneliness — but as awareness, anticipation, satisfaction, confidence, almost exultation.”

Awe, humility, perspective, transformation — these are the hallmarks of a divine encounter in a sacred space. You don’t even need to go to space to have your senses sparked by an encounter with the Numinous. An evening with a telescope, or an outing to a planetarium, or an afternoon perusing space pictures can provide a similar experience of transcendence. As Neil Armstrong’s character, played by Ryan Gosling in First Man, puts it, space exploration “allows us to see things that maybe we should’ve seen a long time ago, but just haven’t been able to until now.” This is the beauty and promise of space in full: a chance to enter the heavens and experience divine communion.

‘By the Stars, We Hope’

This theocentric account of outer space both chastens and completes what is implicit in the other two, and it offers the inspiration to renew our vision for space exploration in an age where we ask yet again, despite all the urgent problems that need solving in the world: Why space? As Kendrick Oliver observes in his book To Touch the Face of God: The Sacred, the Profane, and the American Space Program, 1957–1975, “When religion was present [in the Apollo program], its presence meant more, to more people, than it did in any other national undertaking of the time.” Far from imposing a religious, outdated worldview on a purely scientific undertaking, theocentric space-meaning offers deep, spiritual purpose to our journey to the stars.

Theocentric space-meaning amplifies the riches of our cosmological studies. Our ancestors knew well that there is wisdom to be gained by studying the wonders of space, beyond mere scientific knowledge. As sacred space, outer space offers a satisfying synthesis of science and spirituality, and the more we learn, the more wonderful the mysteries become. As Pope Benedict XVI writes, “Physics and biology, and the natural sciences in general, have given us a new and unheard-of creation account with vast new images, which let us recognize the face of the Creator.” These theological lessons offer a hopeful vision of reality: “The universe is not the product of darkness and unreason. It comes from intelligence, freedom, and from the beauty that is identical with love.” We can lean into outer space with a listening ear and open heart, seeking spiritual as well as scientific enlightenment.

Similarly, theocentric space-meaning helps direct our efforts at space conservation. We can applaud efforts to reduce space junk and minimize our biological impact on other planets. We can ask hard questions about resources and the environment, because space is not simply there for the taking. It is a transcendent gift to be stewarded. And, lest we believe that stewardship cannot provide reason enough for heroic human effort, we need only remember how vigorously people strain to protect what they view as sacred. The Maccabean warrior-priests, who gave their lives to purge the Jewish temple of pagan desolation in the second century b.c., demonstrate that protection of the sacred can inspire the greatest acts of courage, discipline, sacrifice, and strength. Applied to outer space, conservation and protection can be inspiring and noble callings that engender great purpose and ingenuity, once we fully embrace outer space as sacred space.

Theocentric space-meaning also offers a profound vision for human space exploration: spiritual pilgrimage in a sacred wilderness. To heed an Arabic proverb, taken from Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, “The further you go into the desert, the closer you come to God.” In its fullness and beauty, its emptiness and harshness, outer space provides a vast sacred wilderness for transcendent experience, not only inviting but requiring human participation.

This brings our quest for space-meaning full circle. Why should human beings explore space? Because space offers transcendence from which only human beings can benefit. The James Webb Space Telescope cannot articulate awe. A robot cannot go into the deep and come back with soulful renewal. To fully appreciate space, we need people to go there and embrace it for what it fully is. Space is not merely for humans, nor is space merely for space. Space is for divine communion. “Creation exists for the sake of worship,” writes Pope Benedict. Or, as Becky Chambers writes at the beginning of her space opera, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet:

From the ground, we stand;
From our ships, we live;
By the stars, we hope.

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