Acton Commentary

Stewards of the Cosmos


SpaceShipOne with starship

SpaceShipOne and the White Knight.

SpaceShipOne in space

SpaceShipOne in space.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
-- Psalm 19:1 NIV

Earlier this week, SpaceShipOne earned the $10 million Ansari X Prize, awarded “to jumpstart the space tourism industry through competition among themost talented entrepreneurs and rocket experts in the world.” The success of SpaceShipOne has scientists, entrepreneurs, and commentators buzzing about the possibilities of space travel and exploration.

Undoubtedly the strength of the XPrize program was its emphasis on the importance of private enterprise to the future vitality of spaceflight. Indeed, the X Prize creed states, “We believe that spaceflight should be open to all — not just an elite cadre of government employees or the ultra-rich. We believe that commercial forces will bring spaceflight into a publicly affordable range.” To this end, an essential requirement for X Prize entrants is that the vehicle be completely privately funded and constructed.

People of faith have a vested interest in the possibilities of broadened space travel. The heavens have long been a favored topic and hobby for theologians. Numerous commentators, for example, pause to explicate the meaning of God's creative work on the second dayrecorded in Genesis 1:6-8 and deal with topics regarding the celestial bodies. In the twentieth century, C.S. Lewis wrote a fictional space trilogy, deeply informed by his theology, revolving around travel between the Earth, Mars, and Venus.

Philip Melanchthon, the author of the Augsburg Confession (1530) and friend of Martin Luther, stands as an example of a theologian who spent a great deal of time investigating the heavens. He defended many times the scientific value of “astrology” (at a time when the line between astronomy and astrology was not as clear as today). Melanchthon's biographer Clyde Manschreck observes that on one occasion, Melanchthon “alluded to its past value in medicine, agriculture, statesmanship, and character, and ended his oration by saying that the sun, moon, stars, and comets are all God's oracles of fate. If the sun affects the changes of season, if the moon affects the humidity of our earth,then why should we assume that other heavenly bodies were created without purpose?”

Melanchthon's interest in the stars was fueled not by superstition, then, but by his belief that the created purpose of the heavenly bodies was to point to the will of God, normed at all times by the written Word of God, but nonetheless portending the future. Manschreck writes, “Accumulations of experience indicate that unusual positions among the heavenly bodies presage extraordinary events.” This was certainly true in the case of the Magi who visited the Christ-child, who asked King Herod, “Where is the one who has been bornking of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2 NIV).

Even if Melanchthon's views were founded on assumptions that subsequent advances in astronomy have disproved, his theological vision is a salient reminder that every part of the created cosmos fills a specific purpose within God's created order. While we may be uncomfortable with Melanchthon's belief that “the stars were created by God to tell men what God intended,” we should acknowledge that there are created purposes for the heavenly bodies andseek to understand them.

It is with this concern in mind that Christians ought to celebrate the success of SpaceShipOne.The feasibility of popular space travel underscores the significance of our solar system as a responsibility and blessing for human stewardship. The Ansari X Prize emphasized and encouraged human creative genius in an effort to open up new horizons of knowledge and innovation. Satellite technologies are already improving the lives of human beings and connecting people around the globe.The possibilities for communication and trade are especially breathtaking and seemingly limited only by imagination.

The novel phenomenon of easy and affordable space travel immediately brings up new and important issues. Space property law is a fresh and burgeoning field of legalthought and practice, with important implications for whether or not theblessings of space travel are fully realized.

To this end, the Ansari X Prize wants to spur on the privatization of space travel, attempting to move away from the de facto monopoly on public space travel by the governmentsof the United States and Russia. Peter H. Diamandis, Chairman and President of the prize, writes,“The problem is not the lack of financial resources among today'sadventure tourists, nor the demand in the marketplace, but specifically thelack of licensed, low-cost, reliable vehicles.”

The private construction and funding requirement for the prize is intended to make sure that “a large government cannot come in and win the competition in a manner which does not lead to economically viable tourist capability.” The coalition of participants, funders, and staffers of the Ansari X Prize have come together to make a significant contribution to the betterment of the world. Congratulations are due to the SpaceShipOne team, and a new task has been set before the people of Earth: the stewardship of space.