I can't recall the moment that it happened, but at some point in high school I decided to devote my life to exploring the universe. I've spent the years since then working on robots that traverse the surface of Mars, studying aerospace engineering and space policy, and most recently, helping tell the stories of the future exploration of Jupiter and its icy ocean moon Europa. And with today's test flight of NASA's new Orion spacecraft, the opportunity to wander amongst the cosmos is that much closer.
But in the wake of yesterday's grand jury decision in the Eric Garner case, instead of looking up at the stars, I find myself looking down. I look down not just because my head is too heavy in despair for yet another case of injustice for an unarmed black man killed by police; I look down not only because I'm afraid to meet the gaze of strangers, a gaze blurred by eyes filled with tears; But today, I find myself looking down because it feels like a betrayal to look up.
A betrayal to Trayvon.
I have come to the understanding that in many ways, looking up has been a convenient distraction from looking around. It allows me to opt out of facing the darkness here on Earth.
Space brings me comfort, even in its challenges. I decided to make it my life's work to deconstruct the values, and policies, and technologies that stand in the way of humanity becoming a multi-planet species. I take pleasure in analyzing the complexities at the intersection between politics, technology, and culture. I've got theories. I know who the stakeholders are. What hypotheses to test.
Institutional racism, being killed by those sworn to protect you, and a justice system that doesn't seem to value your humanity? That, I cannot wrap my brain around.
And so I retreat to the sky.
I think of the beautiful images the Hubble Space Telescope's cameras have collected, showing us the splendor and vastness of the universe. We gasp at the pictures in wonder as we contemplate our place in it all.
However, on Earth, on that sidewalk in New York, cameras were not enough. Cameras will never be enough.
What do we do? How do we tackle this? The moment we begin to crack open the system and see inside of it the quagmire of centuries of hate, pain, and brutality, we become overwhelmed. Some of us trudge through it because we have no choice, some of us trudge through it because it is moral to do so, and some of us are just not yet capable of seeing it for what it is.
Perhaps most troubling is that some of us have the privilege to declare that we are more evolved than all this. Our day-to-day lives do not include a risk of being shot dead in the street or having to watch our father's killer walk free. We privileged have convinced ourselves that somehow our intellect allows us to transcend these unenlightened earthly perspectives. That race and oppression are social constructs, and therefore humanity's progression lies in rising above this faux reality. That technology, yoga, and meditation will heal all. And that these wars and this suffering are beneath us.
But these wars and these sufferings are us. Technology, yoga, and meditation could not have saved Mike Brown or Eric Garner. And while we sit upon our thrones amongst our fellow intellectuals in our salons and unconferences, 12 year-olds are getting shot by police.
Our grand visions for the future may come through zooming out, but the action and realization of those visions come through zooming in on the reality of the present.
We all bear the burdens of the crimes and sufferings of both our ancestors and our neighbors. The people that will one day populate the surface and caves of Mars are the same ones bearing the cultural traumas of our dark and bloody roots. And the DNA of these roots will follow us, like poltergeists, to whatever exoplanets we run to.
So let's stop running. Let's wrestle with this. Let's get dirty. Let the brightest minds of the day step down from their thrones and engage. Engage in not only what inspires us to greatness, but also what reflects our deepest failures as a species.
Look around at both the beauty and the suffering surrounding us.
Look inside at both our darkness and our light.
Look down in shame at our crimes.
Look up at the stars.