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Interstice: Space The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return. —Carl Sagan, Cosmos We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the earth. —William Anders, astronaut, Apollo 8 In November 1961, a poem entitled “Space Prober” was inscribed on the instrument panel of a satellite launched from Cape Kennedy into the Earth’s orbit. It read: “And now ‘tis man who dares assault the sky . . . / And as we come to claim our promised place / Aim only to repay the good you gave / And warm with human love the chill of space.”1 Tethered by gravity at 600 miles altitude, this satellite will continue to circle the planet for 750 years before it either falls back to its terrestrial birthplace or is plucked from the heavens like a talisman by celestial navigators from another realm. The dream of escaping the Earth and world of tellurian elements is a perennial one, embedded deeply within myth, story, religion, and the history of technology. Icarus flew too near the sun and paid the ultimate toll. The Presocratic philosopher Anaxagoras reputedly saw the very purpose of life as an investigation into the heavens. We read in the Book of Genesis, “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens.”2 Leonardo da Vinci delighted in the idea of flying machines, including the hang glider and “airscrew,” a prototype of the modern helicopter that would propel us high into the sky. Before planes, hot air balloons lifted humans several miles toward the elusive stars. Starting in the 327 328 | Elemental Philosophy 1940s, photographs from cameras attached to rockets provided us with startling new perspectives of our aboriginal home, re-enchanting it temporarily as a consequence . Fifty years ago, Sputnik was sent ceremoniously into orbit and the Space Age was officially inaugurated. Shortly thereafter, cosmonauts followed by astronauts succeeded in breaking the bonds of gravity, the latter touching down on the lunar landscape. We are now exploring Mars, Saturn, and the vast reaches beyond these outposts. At the same time, private companies and subcultures are preparing for intra-galactic travel by projecting millionaires into the beyond or simulating space colonies in the desert. The cables that tie these intrepid “technomads” to mother ships might one day be considered embryonic umbilical cords, conduits between a human past and a post-human future. Given that outer space is by its very nature extra-terrestrial—afar of the planetary pail where earth, air, fire, and water co-exist and intermix—it poses a special challenge for contemplating matters elemental. Kant understandably asks, “How is it that in this space here, we can make judgments that we know with apodictic certainty will be valid in that space, there?”3 One line of response points to the continuity and similarities between these spheres. Things by this reckoning are not wholly and utterly different “out there,” especially if space and time are a priori as Kant thought. The moon’s matter is arguably akin to a second earth; the sun burns with primordial fire; water is locked up as interstellar ice or may lie dormant beneath the soil of other planets; and the medium of space almost seems to be a type of highly attenuated air. And yet in outer space, elemental activity is generally of a very different order. The energy of stars emanates from thermonuclear furnaces with interior temperatures reaching upwards of fifteen million degrees. Solar flares are more powerful than the greatest atomic blasts on Earth. Black holes warp the cloth of space and tug at the arrows of time. We are stepping without a reliable compass into an exotic terrain of anti-matter, leptons, wormholes, bosons, quarks, and hadrons. Even the names of such phenomena are foreign-sounding and discomfiting. Although the nascent field of astrobiology is searching diligently, there are no signs of life in view. This is not just nonhuman territory; it is extreme and inhuman compared with everything we have known. Kant himself was fascinated by thorny quandaries involving the relation of inner and outer worlds, concluding his Critique of Practical Reason with...


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