A major rocket launch by entrepreneur Elon Musk’s aerospace company, SpaceX, on Feb. 6 has been hailed as a major step toward cheaper and more frequent spaceflight – and the eventual population of Mars.
In the face of such unexplored terrain, how should Catholics respond?
While “this kind of expansion is in its infancy, and full exploration of space is a long way off... this is the time to start thinking about and planning for these things,” Jesuit Br. Robert Macke told CNA.
Curator of the meteorite collection at the Vatican Observatory, and holding a PhD in physics, Br. Macke said technological progressions such as the SpaceX rocket do not change how we relate to God, but “as with any new development in technology or the way things are done, the main question for persons of faith regards how it is to be used.”
The question we need to ask is if the technology is being used “in a way that is just, and compatible with moral theology and ethics,” he said, raising the importance of Catholic social teaching in the future of space travel.
While it is still too early to see how it will be used, “one aspect to keep an eye on is whether such technology, accessible to the private sector, further divides the rich and the poor; those who can go to and exploit the resources of space, and those who will never have that chance.”
According to the SpaceX website, the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket by a factor of two. It lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Feb. 6 at 3:45 p.m. ET and has the capacity to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lbs) – a mass greater than a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel, the website says.
The rocket carried and released into orbit a Tesla Roadster, complete with a mannequin driver called “Starman,” decked out in astronaut gear.
The luxury sports car is worth $100,000, and according to the website whereisroadster.com – which is tracking the convertible’s up-to-the-second location – on Feb. 13 at 5:50:14 it was 1,245,8587 miles from earth (and quickly increasing).
The same website tracks that at that time, the car had exceeded its 36,000-mile warranty 231.4 times “while driving around the Sun” at a speed of approximately 55,479 miles/hour.
The development of commercial enterprises, such as the Falcon Heavy, is a necessary first step to “widespread space travel and colonization,” Br. Macke said, but he stressed that whether they are on earth or Mars, human nature remains the same.
“As more people are in space, they will not cease to be people. They will form a complex society with all of the good and bad aspects of any modern culture,” he said. This includes good things, such as economic growth and new technologies.
But it could also have some negative consequences, he noted, especially environmental ones.
“As we have learned from the age of exploration on Earth, when we introduce invasive species in a new environment, they often take over and overwhelm the area. Microbes and bacteria that hitch a ride on spacecraft may become invasive on Mars or other planets, and if there is any native life, it may be overwhelmed and lost.”
Governmental space programs have protocols in place to minimize the number of microbes and other earth-based contaminants that could reach other planets on spacecraft, he said, and there are international laws in place to which private corporations must adhere.
But increasing the amount of space travel will also increase the risk of contamination. For example, the Tesla Roadster wasn’t fully sterilized, Macke said. Because it won’t land on Mars, it is not subject to the same laws.
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