[Column] Cosmopolitanism for the blue planet

Hasok Chang

The author is a chair professor of history and philosophy in the science department at the University of Cambridge.

NASA has recently renewed lunar exploration. The Apollo program launched in the 1960s under US President John F. Kennedy’s vision of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” completed its mission in 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Apollo 11 mission left the milestone human footsteps on the surface of the moon and returned home with moon rocks. Given the technology level at that time, Americans were extraordinarily lucky and indeed made a “giant leap for mankind.”

Back in Korea, many children were heart-broken to learn that the myth of a rabbit living on the moon was a fairytale. Apollo 17, launched in 1972, was the last human-crewed mission to the moon.

Through the multinational Artemis program, NASA is renewing manned spacecraft expeditions to the moon for the first time in half a century.

Artemis I, launched on Nov. 16, achieved its unmanned mission of traveling over 2 million kilometers (1.4 million miles) to and from the moon over nearly 26 days, making its closest flyby of the lunar surface to test out all of the necessary processes for landing a human crew. The Orion capsule returned safely back to earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California. The space craft took various video and picture records home and sent some of them even while on its journey. The successful test flight has given impetus to America’s adventurous spirit of exploration.

The capsule took pictures of the lunar surface by slowly circling around the moon. It beamed back incredible images of the earth as it approached our home planet. The blueish marble against the backdrop of the thick-black vast emptiness of space looked wonderful and fragile. Most of all, it was a sight of magnificent beauty. A stunning snapshot captured the rare moment of the earth being flanked by the moon as if they were twins, one big and one small.

Would our planet look so beautiful in the eyes of aliens? Upon arriving, they would discover quite a different sight from the serene exterior. The planet houses over 8 billion people who kill, torture, menace, exploit and shame one another. From now on, it appears to be peaceful. But the planet never goes by a day without conflict. The ecosystem and environment have lost balance from human recklessness to the extent of irreversible ruin.

Many would still remember the iconic astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan, who contributed to bringing the mystery of extraterrestrial life to the public and popularizing space science. The TV documentary series Cosmos and book series inspired young people around the world to look and imagine a world beyond the earth. Sagan once said, “Look again at that dot. That’s time. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives,” to remind mankind of their smallness and selfishness. He thought that if we realize we are this tiny insignificant species, we could stop fighting and hating one another.

Sagan dream of cosmopolitanism, the universe seeking the same goal of co-prosperity over self-centered nationalism. Globalism, which can imply a similar meaning, panned out differently. The ideal and universal goal became distorted as cross-border capitalism expanded in a borderless chase for profit. The enterprising idea of ​​running on the global stage was commanded by greed for dominance and resources across the world.

But the phenomenon is not entirely new. Europeans have come to dominate the world after adventurous people went on sea expeditions to explore other parts of the world. The explorers, however, ended up paving the way for imperialism. Today, bold-minded entrepreneurs are on an expedition to rule the world through multinational enterprises. High-tech science and innovations are employed to meet their mission. ICT advances have allowed global expansion without making numerous trips. Some in the private sector are pursuing space exploration to find riches.

But space exploration must not serve human greed. It must be used as a means for human meditation and self-reflection. As global powers refrain from over-competition in polar studies, space expeditions must revive cosmopolitanism in its true sense. Since space remains unowned, the possibility is still alive. We must restore cosmopolitan ideals where humans on earth try to sustain their wonderful ecosystem and co-existence. It could be better for more far-sighted people to travel to space to look back on the blue planet.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.