In the last three years, we have seen China and India each successfully send a lander to the Moon, one of them returning 1,731 grams of lunar samples to Earth a month or so later, and the Americans land a roving laboratory the size of a Mini Cooper, called Perseverance, on a precise location on Mars.
It is truly a wonder that people are able to calculate how to hit a precise spot on a moving and revolving target 300 million miles away, after a journey of 7 months, gently setting down a vehicle weighing over a ton and that was travelling at 12,500 mph just 8 minutes beforehand.
The human drive to explore beyond the confines of our modest but beautiful blue planet seems irresistible and I, for one, think it’s absolutely worth the money. If the Apollo programme was essentially, like Scott and Amundsen racing to the South Pole to plant a flag in a previously unexplored territory, these subsequent missions are more about never-ending discovery than rivalry and it is fitting that the previous large NASA rover to land on Mars was called Curiosity.
Curiosity and Perseverance’s missions are to attempts to discover whether there are, or ever have been, conditions on the Red Planet capable of supporting life. This is the Eldorado of interplanetary exploration. Some say the emergence of life is inevitable wherever the two basic conditions (liquid water and sunlight) are present. Life on Earth, they say, was always bound to happen given we tick both boxes.
Others disagree, saying it is hugely unlikely and only possible because of the highly exceptional conditions on Earth (our planet is just the right distance from just the right sort of star, is just the right size to support a life-sustaining atmosphere containing just the right mix of key elements in just the right quantities, especially an abundance of surface water, has just the right core; an iron centre giving us a magnetic field, without which our atmosphere would slowly erode away through solar wind, has just the right crust with plate tectonics to replenish the nutrition that primitive life depends on, recycling carbon around the planet, and has just the right sort of moon, stabilizing our axial tilt thus avoiding rapid and life-threatening climate changes). Looking at it this way, the emergence of Life on Earth is a result of the sort of luck you need to win a lottery jackpot several months running.
Agnostic author and biochemist Michael Denton tends to this view saying: “Between a living cell and the most highly ordered non-biological systems, such as a crystal or a snowflake, there is a chasm as vast as it is possible to conceive. Even the tiniest of bacterial cells, weighing less than a trillionth of a gram, is a veritable microminiaturised factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up altogether of a hundred thousand million atoms, far more complicated than any machine built by man and absolutely without parallel in the non-living world.”
Wow. If Professor Denton is right, this relentless scientific pursuit of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe will probably last as long as the human race does. How fitting that NASA’s Martian rovers are called Curiosity and Perseverance.
We have to decide whether we are either an inconceivably improbable accident, or intended, planned and crafted by an unfathomably wise Designer.
Ecclesiastes 3.11, in the Old Testament, speaks of a created spiritual instinct in which human beings yearn for eternity; we wonder about God and marvel over these mysterious and weighty matters. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”
In this light, our never-ending scientific quest to discover if there is anyone out there is an expression of the spiritual pursuit built into every human heart. It tugs away inside us, prompting us to seek and to discover, wonderfully, that we are not alone, because when people really look for him with curiosity and perseverance - with an open mind and an open heart - they so often find to their surprise and delight that God is absolutely real.
For this is what the Lord says— he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited— he says: “I am the Lord, and there is no other.”