September 18, 2019

FOX | Look Up

Print More

Cornell will lose a giant this week. In only a few days, Steve Squyres ’78, Ph.D. ’81, James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences, will depart from the helm of the astronomy department to assume the role of chief scientist at Blue Origin, a space exploration company. Having led NASA’s Mars exploration efforts, Squyres continued to teach at Cornell for over 40 years. His classes garnered acclaim among students, with Arts & Sciences Dean Ray Jayawardhana  said, “He brought Mars to campus and gave us all a chance to see another world close-up. His infectious enthusiasm for exploration will continue to stimulate planetary scientists at Cornell for years to come.” Squyres’ years of service to the University and his dedication to the dual pursuits of discovery and its emotional conveyance have made Cornell history. His departure is an opportunity for Cornellians to address the importance of his life’s work and the worldly implications of looking toward the stars.

The first Space Age happened in an era of striking dichotomy between political tumult and social oppression and unprecedented advancement of the human species. As the Civil Rights Movement challenged historic systemic oppression, Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy Triumphed and the Cold War turned bloody with the quagmire in Vietnam. At the same time, new technologies unlocked the women’s liberation movement, turned visibility into a weapon of social justice and cemented a belief in the infallibility of human progress. The Space Race served as a great unifier, instilling the nation with a collective sense of purpose and direction. Americans ended the 1960s sitting in their living rooms, clenching hands and holding back tears, as they watched an American step off a rocket ship built by union workers and Hidden Figures and walk upon the moon.

This is not to fall into the disastrous trap of waxing nostalgic about the 1960s, a time best left in the past. But the sense of possibility created by the realization that the sky was not, in fact, the limit offers helpful lessons in our current era of political polarization, rejuvenated liberation movements and renewed interest in space.
Even this early in modern space history, Cornell was a leader in space exploration — it has been for longer than any of its faculty have taught here. Its astronomy and physics departments regularly lead their fields, and greats such as Carl Sagan were able to call this place home, leading Cornell into space-stardom when he joined the community in 1968. While Dr. Squyres’ departure will leave a hole in his department and our institution, it speaks to our outsized role and responsibility in the new era.

The drivers of the second Space Age, however, look very different. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, the tech billionaire owners of two private space companies, endure reasonable criticism that their immense wealth is wasted in space where it could improve the lives of millions here on earth with relative ease. The Twitter account @HasBezosDecided questions each day whether Jeff Bezos has decided to use his fortune to end world hunger, echoing a sentiment held across the globe. To be clear: It is true, beyond any doubt, that our economic system creates far too many billionaires and that our billionaires are consistently failing in their moral obligation to turn their wealth into welfare. But we cannot allow this truth to hide the importance of their chosen missions. We must spare no resource in the fights to stop climate change, eradicate hunger and reverse the rise in dangerous political extremism; we should double down on our investment in the pursuit of other worlds, and a collective advancement toward our own unified future.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French writer, poet and aviator famously said, “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” The Second Space age offers a chance to renew humanity’s unifying upward gaze. Until we can shift our government back toward high taxes on the wealthy, massive infrastructure and large-scale projects inaccessible to most individuals and businesses, the private sector does its part to illuminate the tantalizing night sky that we might gaze upward, together. While these efforts funded by billionaires, we ought to be thankful that they can be led by our own.

As Dr. Squyres leaves Cornell to ensure the continuation of our looking outward together in the same direction, and as we continue our innately human journey into the future and into space, don’t forget to marvel at the amazing, even as it tumbles reliably back toward appearing expected and normal.

We must insist that more time and wealth be invested in the people and infrastructure that need them here on Earth. At the same time, while we fight to control and repair this singular ship, our voyage into the future and into space reminds us that we are all on the same boat. That is a message we need right now. So thank you Dr. Squyres for your decades of service to Cornell — and in turn to humankind — and best of luck in your efforts to bring us ever closer to the final frontier. Bon Voyage.

Elijah Fox is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at efox@cornellsun.com. What Does the Fox Say? runs every other Thursday this semester.