Nov 16, 2008


India has successfully hit the moon with an impact probe, called Chandrayana - Sanskrit for "Moon Vehicle." The space race appears to be on again. Beside the old players, Russia and the USA, the new players are China, Japan, India, the European Union and even South Korea. Japan says its goal is a manned base on the moon by 2030, and 2031 is currently set as the US target for a manned Mars mission. These are probably the two "prestige" goals and other players, notably China, may beat them to it.

Exciting stuff, but the question inevitably arises, why do it? The Buddha already noted the ultimate futility of such travel in the Rohitissa Sutta;

"In times past, I was a seer, Rohitassa by name, ... gifted so, that I could fly through the air. And so swift, was my speed that I could fly just as quickly as a master of archery, .. armed with a strong bow could, without difficulty, send a light shaft .... And so great was my stride that I could step from the eastern to the western sea.

"In me, arose such a wish as this: 'I will arrive at the end of the world by walking.' And though such was my speed, and such my stride, and though, with a life-span of a century, living for hundred years I walked continuously for a hundred years, save the while I spent in eating, drinking, chewing or tasting, or in answering calls of nature, save the while I gave way to sleep or fatigue, yet I died on the way without reaching the end of the world.

"But neither do I say, friend, that without having reached the end of the world there could be an ending of ill. It is in this very fathom-long physical frame with its perceptions and mind, that, I declare, lies the world, and the arising of the world, and the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world.
In other words, the end of suffering is here-and-now and we will not move any closer to that goal even by crossing the galaxy.

However, the same could be said for all mundane pursuits. The affairs and doings of samsara are ultimately futile; "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic" as someone said. Space missions are no more, and no less, valid than any other karma.

Leaving the ultimate question of spiritual transcendence aside, even within the strictly conventional plane of conditionality, space exploration may seem useless or a waste of resources better used elsewhere. Certainly, from a strict economic view-point, it is very hard to see how any space travel beyond earth orbit could ever repay the investment, at least for a very long time.
(Unless you buy the Helium-3 hype)

Sometimes the argument against space exploration is framed in terms of how the money could better be used to deal with poverty and disease on earth. But it's really a false argument. It would be valid if that's where the resources really would go, but there would already be plenty available to help the poor and sick if that were a priority. Sadly, it isn't. There are trillions to spend on war, and hundreds of billions to give to the financiers to help them out of their folly, but thousands still sleep on the streets of our cities.

Realistically, nations will compete, one way or the other. Human beings are territorial primates. I would much rather see money and research go into a vigorous competition to be the first on Mars than to see the same resources go into building warships and bombs. Besides, aren't we all curious?

I say good on the Indians, the Chinese, the Yanks and the rest of them. First one there wins. Ready, steady, go!


Nerdy note - Assuming the air-speed velocity of an arrow to be about 200 feet per second, and allowing Rohitissa twelve hours of travel a day, in one hundred years he would have gotten about 60 million miles, somewhat more than the closest approach of Mars to Earth.


Thomas said...

Making it to the mars or the moon is very important. If we don't do it, and if our earth does eventually become inhabitable, then it will be difficult to be reborn as a human and get another chance to escape samsara ;). Besides, how cool would it be to spread the Buddha's teachings to all of the Martians?

Unknown said...

Being indirectly connected to one of these space programs, as human beings have to do what humans have to do and I keep getting bills every month, I get a lot of information not only on this local national space program but also on the NASA one.

Locally, the main interest is on research and technology and their related business spin-offs. The secondary emphasis is in using it to generate interest in scientific education at universities and schools (to stop the taxpayers from realizing that it is all a waste of money.

The technology involved does not only cover the International Space Station and rocket transport technology, but also covers data gathering and monitoring satellites that are used in meteorology and disaster mitigation.

The main interest at the moment is in more detailed moon mapping and identification of minerals.

It has now become an industry of its own, and has many facets (and yes I did propose that the astronauts learn basic vipassana in order to stop them from going nuts while up there, but predictably they go with the academic psychology approaches).

Here, at least, they realize that Star Trek was only a TV program and look upon space exploration as being perhaps a thousand years into the future, so they don't take the living on Mars idea seriously.

One possible future scenario is that there will be so much space junk floating around up there that no one will be able to go anywhere.

Like the $10 bill toy in Europe the space programs are simply toys for the scientific caste. Here, it represents business opportunities while elsewhere the interests are purely military and strategic (and that should come as no surprise).

Honsing said...

The space race is a race in technology. Hence the process of the race is actually more important than the end itself. When a manned base is finally possible, it marks a milestone in technology that all the difficulties have been overcome.

The scientific breakthrough necessary for a manned base can be applied elsewhere such as in medicine, in fuel efficiency, in communications (applicable in areas such as tsunami warning), in IT, and in geology such as forecasting natural disasters. Hence the process can potentially be very beneficial to mankind.

The scientific breakthrough will definitely be equally applied into war technology as well, leading to smaller and more powerful weapons, and more invasion into privacy.

Regardless, scientific progress will be here. Our only hope would be that wisdom and compassion can grow as fast. Hence we Buddhist practitioners are in the space race as well. Theirs is towards the moon, while ours is towards Enlightenment.

E-B-E said...

History shows that technology does not provide ease in the long run.

I'm not impressed of those space programs. So much effort in the wrong direction. Moreover, those technologies will be used for war- that's for sure.

Mark London said...

You might be interested to check my blog "Face on Mars"
Thanks, nice blog as usual.