Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dawn and the pursuit of purpose

The Dawn spacecraft launched this morning from Cape Canaveral. Dr. Russell, the Principal Investigator of the mission, is a professor in my department here at UCLA. Dawn is going to be the first spacecraft to orbit two separate planetary bodies (the asteroids, Vesta and Ceres) in the same mission. Its mission is to study these asteroids to determine their geophysical properties: whether their interiors are differentiated (like the Earth's), or undifferentiated (like a smaller asteroid or rock). It will send back data that will help us to understand the process of planetary formation.

One of the reasons I chose to go into space science as a career is stuff like this. The sense of true exploration; of finding ways to explore places no human has ever been before, and of using these observations to better understand the amazing and surprising universe we find ourselves in.

In my (possibly a bit melodramatic) estimation, organizations like NASA are important because they help to give humanity a purpose. At the end of the day we humans spend so much time, money, sweat, and blood fighting with each other over chunks of dirt, hurting each other because we don't believe in the same mythology, working hard to ensure that more members of the human race are able to live healthy lives, or simply finding new ways to keep ourselves entertained. But what for? All the military effort spent keeping us safe, all the medical science helping us to survive, all the time we spend on enjoying and accentuating our art and culture is essential and vital to our existence as a species; don't get me wrong. But should we be content with merely existing?

Increasing the percentage of the human population that can expect to live long, healthy, and happy lives is a noble pursuit. . . but it is ultimately all for the purpose of our continued existence. Assuming we humans continue to improve our ability to survive, to increase our population, to increase our quality of life. . . what do we intend to do with ourselves? Will we just sit on the porch and enjoy the existence our efforts have earned us, content to live out our lives happily, then disappear after our individual deaths?

It is efforts like exploration, or natural science simply for the sake of satisfying our curiosity, that can give humanity deeper purpose: to explore and understand our amazing universe. We are such an insignificant species, a result of an accident of physics and chemistry, on a tiny world in a vast, vast universe. There is so much in our world and beyond it for us to explore. Stretching our vision out into space is an effort in the pursuit of our purpose.

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