#SpaceDay2015: From Tannhäuser Gate to the Pillars of Creation

This is a featured guest post written by Wyatt Channell, Executive Producer for Science Channel’s How the Universe Works. 

Don’t forget to register for our #OfthePeople Virtual Field Trip to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center this Friday at 1 PM EDT!

I couldn’t tell you how many programs I’ve made about space over the last five years. I’ve had the honor of working with some of the best scientists and science filmmakers in the world on series like How the Universe Works, Strip the Cosmos and Wonders of the Solar System. Those programs, like most of today’s cosmology shows, are packed with photo-realistic graphics, impossibly distant deep space images and grandiose-sounding topics like black holes and dark matter. We’ve journeyed into wormholes, circled Earth-like exoplanets and occasionally even peered inside the still-burning heart of a dying star. In short, our ability to explore through the medium of television has largely kept pace with much more important advances in our larger knowledge of the Universe. The cosmology program you saw on television last night was built directly off the same technology and telescopes that continue to push the frontiers of our knowledge every day.

But it’s been more than 40 years since the Apollo program. We drink less Tang and abandon Velcro immediately after mastering the bow knot. With the end of the Shuttle Program, our astronauts now travel up to the ISS on a rocket our Cold War rivals designed in the 1960s. So why the continuing push to keep funding NASA; to keep building bigger, better telescopes? Why invest in expensive endeavors like traveling to Mars, exploring the Jovian system or peering into deep space?

Smarter people than I could provide you with any number of well-reasoned responses for doing so. There is, however, one reason that has nothing to do with scientific advancement or serious concerns about our long-term survival. Put simply, even if humans exist for a million millennia, we will never make anything as beautiful as this:


The Pillars of Creation Credit: NASA, Jeff Hester, and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University) http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/newsdesk/archive/releases/2003/34/image/a

Which brings us to Roy Batty’s famous soliloquy in the Ridley Scott film Blade Runner. As the replicant’s death approaches, he laments that his memories and experiences will disappear with him like “tears in the rain.” As a movie fan, I marvel at the moment’s quietude, poignancy and flawless technical execution. (How brave to give the movie’s android antagonist the most humane moment of the film!) As a human, however, I wonder if we’ve learned much from Roy or the thousands of others before him he echoes. Mortality is most haunting in the absence of context, especially if you believe that the Universe’s richness is its own reward, limited only by our willingness to explore it.

I doubt I’ll ever see “attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.” But I don’t need to. The Pillars of Creation are better.

Discovery Education Science Techbook


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