The Awe Paradox

This week I published an essay in The Atlantic which you can (and should) read here, about Elon Musk and his view of populating Mars.

I touched on this briefly in the piece and in a twitter thread afterward but I felt compelled to dive a little deeper into exploration in this weeks letter.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

Over the last six years I’ve written a lot about space missions, their beginnings and their endings and within that framework I’ve felt the gamut of things stirred by witnessing these events or even just seeing photos from the spacecraft. As many know when you see an image of the Pale Blue Dot or a photo from Juno of Jupiter’s swirling ghost-like clouds it sort of brings on this odd discordant sensation. There is a sense of insignificance, an immediate shrinking down of ourselves and yet at the same time a realization that we are not so separate from everything. Rather we are connected in the most profound ways to these objects we’ve usually understood as dead or alien. And it’s not just because we are made of the same things. Something else is going on.

If we have a purpose to search for answers we will only nurture this paradox–the simultaneous shrinking and expanding of our hearts. It’s why in the Atlantic piece I wrote, that I bring up the difference between exploration for discoveries sake rather than going to a place to take over just because we’ve developed the tech to do so.

It’s cliche but it’s so for a reason, with great power comes great responsibility and we are fabulously intelligent beings who are advancing our technological prowess every single day. But this ability means we must be thoughtful about what we do and how we do it.

This is why when we launch an astrobiology mission, like we just did with the Perseverance rover meant to search for ancient signs of life on Mars, that we take the utmost care in preparing the spacecraft because the essence of that mission is to (hopefully) answer one of the biggest questions humans have ever asked, are we alone?

To me exploration in this way reaches such a tender part in us, some part that aches for assurance and significance. The part that longs to know how we fit into the grand scale of things, but no matter what the context, it always brings me back home to myself. If it’s a photo of Jupiters watercolor clouds or dusty burnt plains on Mars or a seemingly silent spiral galaxy hovering in the darkness, I realize every single time that I am a part of this story. There is nothing about our existence that is separate from the rest of the universe. It’s in our awareness of ourselves, our separation of distance and yet fundamentally chemical connection that makes for this strange feeling we can never quite put our fingers on and maybe it’s best this way.

I think about this paradox a lot if only because I overthink everything and not understanding an emotion that I experience so regularly is bewildering to me. But at the end of the day, we are still animals, intelligent, but animals nonetheless. We have been so consistently curious over thousands of years that as soon as we were able to explore space, we did. Personally I find this disorienting feeling refreshing because I think there is something so deeply human about it. We are able to examine the cosmos and reflect those answers back to ourselves. What magic to look out at the stars and feel so much wonder from the unspeakable beauty and know we share the same iron and calcium and history. This is the awe I just can’t get over. We are nothing, just a speck, and truly insignificant. And yet it is in this insignificance, in this rarity, that we can allow ourselves to discover our own meaning.