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Escape from earth

Noah Syndrome

February 7, 2003
The Iranian

Beyond the human and national tragedy provoked by the disintegration of Columbia upon reentry into earth's atmosophere, questions are being debated about the future of the space program and NASA.

But as the President said while paying tribute to the seven crew members who lost their lives in the line of duty: "Our journey into space will go on". I nonetheless beg to disagree with the reasons he invoked : "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand ".

I am not thinking to discuss here the economic and military aspects of space exploration. Neither am I considering national pride or similar dimensions. I would rather mention an additional and more powerful inducement, a kind of built-in motivation that drives humans since their apparition to escape from the clutches of our planet's gravity.

Indeed the dream of flight and exploring the heavens seems as old as our species itself and one can find it in many culture. It has been developed in literature and more recently in cinema and television. It has been, so to say, "metaphorized" in mythologies.

Myths never die. I believe as we advance and develop, they continue to light up our trek toward the future by revealing new meanings. We should constantly reinterpret them.

Let's, for instance, consider the story of Noah. It boils down to this: a man was informed well in advance of a coming catastrophe. He invited his fellow citizens to help in building a huge ship in order to ensure their survival and that of all species. They laughed at him. So he personally undertook the job with his sons. He thus survived the "deluge" with his family and the animals.

I submit that, viewed in the light of modern astrophysics, the myth of Noah conveys a very specific and vital signal to humanity as a whole. In a way we all are Noahs today. Indeed science informs us that our habitat and our sun will die -- some say in half a billion years, others in a shorter time.

Long before the end, climatic conditions will not sustain life in our environment. Are we going to allow our species and its civilization disappear? Certainly not. Science teaches us that the whole universe is populated by newly-born and dying stars. Like Noah we have been warned of a catastrophe laying in wait.

At the same time science tells us that numerous solar systems similar to ours exist out there. We have to find ways to reach one of them before doomsday. Like Noah, we must build "spaceships" and envisage interstellar voyages. Our present space programs are but a very first step. They represent the beginnings of a long endeavour.

I have coined the phrase Noah Syndrome in order to characterize the internal forces that drive us in our quest of outer space exploration. The astronauts who perished in the Columbia accident will always be remembered as pioneers of future "Noah Arks".


Fereydoun Hoveyda is a senior fellow at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and former Iranian ambassador to the UN before the 1979 revolution. He is the author of The Broken Crescent.The Threat of Militant Islamic Fundamentalism (Praeger 1999). To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit their web site.

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