Science in Christian Perspective



Man on a Spaceship*
Oak Ridge Associated Universities Oak Ridge, Tennessee

From: JASA 21 (June 1969): 34-39.


Natural History

The earth, in common with the other planets of the solar system and the sun itself, was formed by condensation out of a gravitationally collapsing cloud of gas and dust some 4,600 million years ago. Its history since that time has almost certainly been much richer than that of any of the other planets. It is probable that all of them initially had rather extensive atmospheres of hydrogen, ammonia, and methane, the same as those still retained by the major planets Jupiter and Saturn. During the first one or two billion years of the earth's history, the action of ultraviolet radiation from the sun on this atmosphere, combined with electrical discharges within it, produced free radicals of nitrogen and carbon with hydrogen. Reactions of these energy-rich free radicals with methane and ammonia then produced a variety of amino acids and other basic organic components of living systems. These processes must have occurred to some extent on all the planets in their early history.

Gradually the smaller planets, including the earth, lost their primordial atmospheres through escape of hydrogen from their gravitational fields. Through volcanic activity a great deal of water of crystallization was released, and the earth acquired its oceans. As the oceans grew in volume, the organic materials produced out of its shrinking original atmosphere accumulated within them. The combination of these materials with phosphoric acid and dissolved ammonia in the primordial ocean produced in time, by processes not now understood, the elementary components of living systems. The earliest evidence of life that we have at present comes from the Gunflint Iron Formation on the north shore of Lake Superior near Schreiber Beach, Ontario. A chert in this formation, whose age is 1,900 million years, contains the fossils of many single celled microorganisms somewhat like modern algae. Thus cellular life had developed in the oceans two billion years ago.

Very slowly through photosynthesis these organisms replaced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with free oxygen. In time the oxygen built up sufficiently to produce an ozone layer in the upper atmosphere which thereafter has effectively shielded out the intensive ultraviolet radiation from the sun. As a result of this and other changes in the environment, the evolution of life took a new turn some 600 million years ago. Geologically the period is known as the Cambrian. In it the evolution of a variety of multicellular organisms was initiated and elaborated. The earth began to acquire a biosphere. By 300 million years ago the land was well covered with vegetation and populated by land reptiles and insects. In this period the great coal beds and oil fields of the earth were laid down.

Man in the form of our biological species Homo sapiens is one of the most recent to appear on the planet, arriving a mere thirty-five thousand years ago. During the first thirty thousand years he had very little effect on the balance of nature on the earth, over and above the effect which the introduction of any other new species had on it. The emergence of human civilizations, of cities and empires, literature and science, has all taken place in the last five thousand years. Even these developments, however, left vast areas of the earth largely untouched by man.

Our century, the twentieth, is unique in the whole history of our species on the planet, and indeed in the whole incredibly longer history of the earth itself. There is nothing in these previous histories to which it can be compared. We find ourselves in the midst of revolutionary changes of a magnitude and scope far beyond that of any other cataclysm which the earth has experienced throughout its billions of years.

The Genesis Summary

A remarkably applicable key to these questions is found in a summary statement at the end of the first chapter of Genesis in the Bible. Although this chapter is based on the prevailing Babylonian cosmology of the fifth century B.C., the summary at the end of it relating to man is, as we shall see, remarkably applicable to our present concern. This summary occurs with considerable repetition in verses 26 through 28. "So," it begins by way of definitive summation, "So, Cod created man in his own image and blessed them and said to them; 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth.'" This remarkable statement about man and his destiny in the earth has waited thirty-five thousand years to reach fulfillment, but is now with breathtaking speed being realized before our eyes. Only in the twentieth century has it been at all true of man's status on the earth. In it we can find a key to the meaning of the twentieth century.

Have Dominion Over the Earth

All during the intervening twenty-four hundred or so years since this summation was written, it has not been really descriptive of man's status in the earth. Vast areas, even whole continents, of the earth's surface were only sparsely if at all settled by man. Man thought consciously of himself as a minority species among many other species. Human settlements were for the most part tiny islands in the midst or on the edge of vast forests or jungles in which the wild beasts held sway. He exercised a limited dominion over his own flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, horse, and dog. But always there was danger and uncertainty as everwatchful tigers or wolves lurked in the shadows ready to pounce at the first opportunity. He exercised no dominion over two basic essentials, the world of microorganisms and the fertility of the soil. Pestilence, plague, and famine were ever-present threats periodically actualized in terrible scourges before which man stood helpless. Since he was bound to the earth's surface, the birds of the air remained beyond his reach. For all his cleverness as a fisherman and sailor, the sea remained vast and alien in which creatures large and small disported themselves oblivious of man and his ways. The dominion over the earth exercised by man was token and symbolic at best, and he was very, very far indeed from having subdued the whole earth to his purposes.

Be Fruitful and Multiply

Man had been fruitful through previous centuries, but disease and famine prevented him from multiplying. At the beginning of the Christian era there were only about 300 million human beings on the earth. It required seventeen centuries to double this number to 600 million. Then in 1820, for the first time, the world population of species Homo sapiens passed the one billion mark. By 1930 it had doubled to two billion. Just a few years ago, in the early sixties, it passed three billion. By 1977 it will have reached four billion, by 1990 five billion, and by the end of this century, in the year 2000, it will be well beyond six billion, and the world will be just twice as crowded as it is now. Clearly our century, the twentieth, is the one in which the biblical injunction to be "fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" is at last being fulfilled. It is true of no other time in history. To us and to our generation the lot has fallen to experience the fulfillment of the purpose asserted for man when he began to inhabit this planet thirty-five thousand years ago; namely, that he should in the fullness of time multiply and fill the whole earth. It is a startling thought.

Subdue the Earth

But the same century, the twentieth, marks the fulfillment of the rest of the injunction as well. There are many living today whose childhood was spent in the first decade of this century before the advent of either the automobile or the airplane, electric lights or appliances, radio or TV. In just the span of a single life time they have seen the whole face of the earth transformed by the phenomenon of technology. A jet flight over almost any part of the earth today provides striking evidence of this transformation. Everywhere the fields and highways, factories and cities of man stretch endlessly in every direction. The great primeval forests of the earth are rapidly shrinking and by the end of this century will have essentially disappeared. This is true not only of the developed portions of the earthJapan, America, Europe, and Russia-but of those areas we consider underdeveloped as wellAsia, Africa, and Latin America. Even where the people continue economically depressed, technology in the form of steel mills and factories, highways and airports, dams, power plants, and machinery is everywhere in evidence. In this century man has not only filled the whole planet but he has subdued it as well and taken effective dominion over every creature.

The End of Wilderness

In recent years wilderness and wildlife societies have been formed with a sense of panic about them. Even in Africa, which we still think of as a continent teeming with wild and exotic animals in a natural state, the true situation is one of the rapidly approaching extinction of many species. With the best that these societies, or any of us, can do, by the end of this century the only wild animals left on the earth will be found in zoos or scattered national parks maintained by man for their protection. All the rest of the planet will he devoted directly to man and his needs: to the production of his food and of the water and energy to do his work; his vast cities and the system of highways, air lanes, and seaways linking them together; his recreation and pleasures, foibles, fancies, and vanities. Occasionally he will visit a zoo or a wildlife preserve and sense the pathos of a vanished world before man took his Cod-given dominion over it, and feel a sharp nostalgia for the earth as it was before man filled it and subdued it. Over all the rest of the earth every square inch of arable land will be devoted to human agriculture in which all that grows and moves will be specially selected crossbreeds far removed from the wild varieties which covered the earth before man began to exercise his dominion over them. All that lives will be especially suited to the needs of man; any creature which fails to meet this standard will be bred out of existence. Yet this vast change in the status of living things on this planet is the work of but a single century in the whole 4,600 million-year history of the earth.

Thirty-Three Years To Go

We have just thirty-three years to go in this century. It is a dreadfully short period in which to accommodate ourselves to the things which are so rapidly coming upon us, and to accomplish all that must be accomplished for man to continue his existence on the planet at any reasonable standard of living. In this brief period technological and social changes must somehow be achieved which dwarf in magnitude all others which have occurred in our past history and which have been accomplished over much greater time spans. It has become of the utmost importance for all of us to see as clearly as possible the character, direction, and challenges of the revolution through which the earth is passing.

The most effective image I have found for this purpose is based on recognizing that the earth is fast becoming a spaceship carrying mankind on a long journey through space. I am indebted to Kenneth Boulding for this image, which is partly developed in his important and stimulating book, The Meaning of the Twentieth Century.1 Recently the British economist Barbara Ward has employed this same image most effectively in a book entitled Spaceship Earth.2 Now that our astronauts completely encircle the earth in less than two hours, and the rest of us can get jet flights to almost any part of the earth in twelve hours, we have all come to see the earth as small enough and compact enough to be thought of as a spaceship. The atmosphere of the earth is an ideal radiation shield, transparent to light, but very effectively shielding us from the fierce ultra-violet, X-rays, and higher energy radiations of outer space. In this the earth fulfills admirably one of the primary requisites of a well-designed spaceship.

During its long prehuman history, the earth has been prepared with a wealth of supplies now required by man, when he has filled the earth and subdued it, to carry him on his long journey through space from now on. Over long stretches of its geologic history, the processes which have concentrated ores of iron, copper, uranium, and other vital metals have by now well stocked the earth with them for man's requirements. Later in its history coal beds and oil fields were laid down slowly over 100 million years to provide vast reserves of fossilized fuels for man's utilization, primarily in the twentieth century and after. It is as though some hidden designer had been at work for the last billion years or so specifically preparing the earth to become the spaceship for this creature who is now rapidly filling the earth and subduing it to his own uses.

Spaceship Requirements

There are several fundamental requirements for a satisfactory spaceship. First it must have an adequate source of energy which will last throughout the trip. Next it must have an adequate food supply or means of producing food for the crew throughout the journey. The air and water reserves in the ship must be kept pure and adequate for all needs. Wastes must be reprocessed or disposed of in ways which will not contaminate the ship. And, finally, the crew must not he allowed to increase in numbers, and it must remain unified throughout the journey. Divisions into warring rival subcrews or interpersonal conflicts between crew members would be catastrophic in a spaceship on an extended voyage.
Energy and Water
All these elements of a spaceship economy face us in a particularly acute form as we move into the last third of this century. Consider first the basic requirements for energy and water. These are interrelated, and the key to both is nuclear energy. As we consider the vast requirements which face us in the immediate future, it seems remarkably providential that man should have stumbled on nuclear energy and the possibility of its controlled utilization less than thirty years ago. Although, spurred by the terrible threat of Hitler's Nazi Germany, it was first developed destructively, its discovery has come barely in time to make our continued occupancy of our spaceship possible.

Until only a dozen years ago, man was exclusively dependent on chemical energy (with the minor exception of hydroelectric power) derived from the burning of fossilized fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, with the oxygen of the atmosphere. This form of energy is exceedingly rare, even esoteric, in the universe as a whole. There are very few spots other than the earth in the entire universe where the necessary ingredients for such energy can be found. Nuclear energy, on the other hand, is extremely common and universally present throughout all creation. Our sun is a natural hydrogen bomb in process of continuous explosion and so are the other so-called "main sequence" stars. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains some hundred billion such stars, and all the other galaxies are equally thickly populated with them. Cod has made more hydrogen bombs than He has anything else. There is nothing more common or more natural and universal in all creation. In the fullness of time it was inevitable that man in the fulfillment of the promise made at his creation would come to exercise dominion over this universal element of nature as well.

To us and to our generation the lot has fallen to experience the fulfillment of the purpose asserted for man when he began to inhabit this planet thirtyfive thousand years ago; namely, that he should in the fullness of time multiply and fill the whole earth. It is a startling thought.

Most discussions of nuclear energy today seem to miss completely this natural character of it. Instead it is discussed as though it were a purely human invention, something introduced into the scheme of things by human technical ingenuity but not intended to he contained in the world as God prepared it for human habitation. Moreover, such discussions tend to concentrate almost exclusively on its destructive aspects as though its only role in human affairs were that of placing upon man the terrible burden of our arsenals of nuclear weapons. Both of these views represent a dangerous distortion of the true situation. Hydrogen, lithium, thorium, and uranium are natural, pre-existent fuels just as much, if not more so, as are coal and oil. In the same way gasoline can be burned in a controlled manner to produce useful energy or made into napalm bombs for destructive purposes. Like everything else in nature over which man exercises dominion, he can exercise it either for a blessing or for a curse. This is the true status of nuclear energy.

The true role of nuclear energy for man becomes abundantly clear when we consider the postrevolutionary status of man on this planet in the twenty-first century. With the earth then supporting a total population in excess of seven billion human beings, we are forced to contemplate a radically different world from the one we knew before the revolution in the midst of which we now find ourselves began. To support such a population in a continuous and stable way will require an immense consumption of energy on a scale far greater than any we have seen so far. It will also require vast quantities of fresh water, mainly for irrigation of great desert areas of the earth not previously required for agriculture. Both the requirements for energy and for water can be met only with nuclear energy. We have already reached the danger point with water, and soon it is inevitable that we shall see more and more large nuclear-powered desalinization plants constructed along ocean shores all over the earth. Whether we burn the rocks (by extracting uranium for nuclear fission reactors) or burn the sea (by extracting deuterium for thermonuclear power plants), adequate reserves of nuclear fuels are available in the earth for many millenia. Coal and oil will be carefully husbanded and burned as fuel only for small mobile power systems, such as automobiles and airplanes. For electric power, desalted water, and space heating, nuclear power will be universally used. There is no other longterm alternative.

Thus by the end of this century nuclear power and sea water desalting plants will be commonplace in every country of the world. This is an essential requirement for the maintenance of the population which the earth will then be sustaining. Considerations such as these show how essential to human welfare it is that man should now he exercising his Godgiven dominion over nuclear fuels. In retrospect it is providential that the key discoveries which make it possible for man to use nuclear energy were made just when they were. Otherwise we would be facing the gravest problems of human survival on the planet for a period just a few decades away from the present. The blessing which man derives from his exercise of dominion over nuclear fuels is far greater and more crucial than has been generally realized. On the other hand, the corollary wide-spread distribution of nuclear fuels among all countries large and small is charged with terrifying possibilities. By the end of the century nuclear fuels are bound to be as common and universal as coal is now. In such a world any country large or small can fabricate these plentiful fuels into nuclear weapons at any time it wishes to. The problem of proliferation of nuclear weapons which so concerns us now will appear very different then. The specter of vast destruction in a nuclear holocaust can only grow more acute as time goes on. This too is an essential aspect of man's exercise of dominion over nature. We cannot have the possibility of blessing without the possibility of curse. Since it is man who exercises the dominion, it is man alone who determines whether it will be made a blessing or a curse. Hydrogen and uranium are inert. Like alcohol, dynamite, or morphine, they can be applied to either end by him who exercises dominion over them.


The need for water is closely tied in with the need for food. We are already running dangerously short of food for the world's explosively increasing population. The vast surpluses of grain and other staples which have plagued our agricultural system in this country for so many years are now gone. We will never see them again. Instead, restrictions on land under cultivation will be rapidly removed in the next few years, and the United States and Canada will be shipping greatly increased tonnages of grain and other foods to India, Pakistan, and China, and perhaps for several years to Russia as well. At the same time extensive increases in world fertilizer production which are already under way will be accelerated and the productivity of land in these countries which is already under cultivation will be greatly increased. All of these steps, however, will be adequate for not much more than another five years or so. To prepare ourselves for double the population at the end of this century, we must between now and then add an average of some thirty million acres of new land each year to that already under cultivation. Since most of this new land must come from desert areas of the earth's surface, we must arrange to supply it with about twenty billion gallons of fresh water per day, and we must add this much new water supply each year.

It is as though some hidden designer had been at work for the last billion years or so specifically preparing the earth to become the spaceship for this creature who is now rapidly filling the earth and subduing it to his own uses.

This is a staggering requirement, but we at Oak Ridge are convinced that it is now technologically feasible. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory has developed a prototype nuclear power reactor, the molten salt reactor, which promises to provide abundant energy at very low cost. The Laboratory is also the major center in the United States for research and development of nuclear desalinization plants. With very largescale installations, it is technically feasible to produce several billion gallons of fresh water from the sea per day at a cost comparable to that for present irrigation water, with associated large-scale production of electric power at costs well below those of TVA today.

Nothing we do in nuclear desalinization of the sea will compare, however, with the evaporative power of that natural nuclear power plant, the sun. The action of the sun generates a known supply of 14 million billion gallons of fresh water per day which is twentyfive times the requirement of a world population of six billion people. This supply, however, is distributed very unevenly for agricultural purposes. To utilize even a small portion of it will require major engineering projects. One such project diverts three rivers in Australia which used to flow to the coast and into the sea through tunnels through the Snowy Mountains where they will irrigate arid valleys in the interior and generate two and a half million kilowatts of electricity in addition. In this country the diversion of the Colorado to the Los Angeles area, the Imperial Valley, and Mexico is under consideration, together with the huge Feather River project in northern California.

The most ambitious project of this sort would reverse the flow of rivers in northern Canada, which now flow into the Arctic Ocean, so as to provide 160 billion gallons per day to the western deserts of the United States and Mexico. Russia may in time reverse the flow of the Ob, the Lena, and the Yenisei rivers to supply tillable but arid regions there. Similar major projects are possible in China.

Given sufficient time, the dominion which man already knows how to exercise over the earth seems adequate, therefore, to provide food for a population of around ten billion people or even more. But the tragedy of the present decade is that we do not have time enough to carry out such projects before largescale famines will set in. By 1970 famine of catastrophic proportions seems inevitable in India, Pakistan, and China. It will be a calamity unparalleled in human history, involving death by starvation for numbers running into the hundreds of millions. We have somewhat longer in South America, but, unless major projects can be initiated in the next few years, famine of comparable proportions will occur there by 1980. These are some of the realities of our filling the earth and trying to achieve the means in such a short time to subdue it and convert it into our spaceship. In the long run, say thirty or forty years, we have the technological means to provide enough food. But the immediate needs are so pressing and are increasing so rapidly that there seems no possibility of avoiding short-term catastrophe.

Waste Disposal

Another spaceship requirement which is already becoming crucial, particularly in the United States, is the necessity for adequate reprocessing and disposal of all wastes. Air pollution, particularly in Los Angeles and New York, has become a problem already of crisis proportions. The pollution with industrial and human wastes of our rivers and lakes has reached such levels that vigorous national programs of control seem to he imminent. In another ten or twenty years, however, the same problems will plague the whole earth. Rapid world-wide industrialization will soon persuade all nations that this is a planetary, not a local, problem. The earth is a single spaceship with a single atmosphere and single water system. With a population over double that presently on the earth, waste reprocessing and pollution control will have become recognized planetary necessities requiring a world-wide system of controls.

Here again the technological means for achieving adequate control of atmospheric and fresh water purity are either available now or seem assured in the next ten years. Most of the industrial effluents now fouling our rivers and lakes could be processed with equipment already on the market to recover and process chemicals and pay off the initial capital investment in three to ten years. Air pollution from industrial and utility plants can be similarly controlled, although at some additional cost. In time fuel cells or improved rechargeable batteries must replace gasoline for automobiles and trucks. The whole problem is now more political and economic than technical. Its solution threatens deeply intrenched interests and firmly established patterns, and so will be accompanied by considerable social and political stress and strain. But the ultimate demands of a spaceship economy will in time force a solution.

Population Explosion

These problems of energy, water, food, and waste handling arise from and are created by the explosive increase in human population which is now going on.

As we have seen, in the remaining third of this century man will have fulfilled the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. But an inescapable corollary of this injunction faces us now with terrible urgency. Because the earth is in fact a spaceship for man's journey, it is essential that once the earth has been filled by man, he must stop being fruitful and cease further multiplication. Moreover, this must be accomplished within a generation, or certainly within no more than two generations. The children of today's college graduates must, as they approach adulthood, already have started the process which their children must complete; namely that of separating human sexuality from procreation. All over the world this process will involve a profound religious and moral readjustment. Yet there is no viable alternative to such a transformation. What God required of man during the long centuries before he filled the earth is quite different from what He will require of man after he has done so. This seems clear enough. Once the crew of the spaceship has reached its full complement, there is an absolute requirement that it not be allowed any further increase. Yet no other requirement calls for such a deep-seated readjustment in long-established religious, moral, and social patterns, or is more resolutely resisted by mankind.

The children of today's college graduates must... already have started the process which their children must complete; namely that of separating human sexuality from procreation. All over the world this process will involve a profound religious and moral readjustment. Yet there is no viable alternative.

This problem of achieving a stable human population on the planet dwarfs all others in both urgency and difficulty. Yet one way or another it must and will be achieved. I am fearful that only after famines of awful proportions and their accompanying social paroxysms will sufficient pressure have been brought to bear to force men to a solution. But there is no other way out. In the end sometime in the twenty-first century, and hopefully early in the century, a stable planetary population will have been achieved at somewhere between six and ten billion human beings. When this has been done the requirements of that population for energy, fresh water, food, and pure air can and will be met, although most of the intellectual energy and scientific and technological skill of humanity will be absorbed by this task.

Unity in the Crew

The last, and certainly the most difficult problem in achieving a satisfactory occupancy of our spaceship, is the requirement of unity in the crew. It is to this aspect of the problem that Barbara Ward's book, Spaceship Earth,2 to which we have already referred, is devoted. When we consider the vast social and political problems which presently confront mankind, the ultimate unification of man on the planet which must somehow he achieved seems almost unattainable. There are radical conflicts in ideology dividing the world into two vast armed camps. As we crowd closer together on the earth the way must, and, I feel confident, will be found for holding these ideologies in some kind of creative balance. Other tensions arising out of deep historic hurts maintain local conflicts in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, among African tribes, and elsewhere on the earth. America and South Africa are powder kegs of racial tension between white and black. Doubtless the achievement of what Barbara Ward calls a "balance of ideology" will involve paroxysms along the way of an intensity greater than any we have so far known. But each will, I believe, bring us closer to that unity which our spaceship status requires. Each of these adjustments will involve, as Miss Ward so fully describes, a move toward a "Balance of Power" and a "Balance of Wealth" in addition to the balance of ideology. All represent drastic changes in the world of warring nation states, of haves and have-nots, which we know now. Yet her searching analysis of all these problems does lead to a kind of guarded optimism about the ultimate outcome.


1Kenneth E. Boulding, The Meaning of the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper & Row, 1965).
2Barbara Ward, Spaceship Earth (New York: Colombia University Press, 1966).

*"Title of a special guest lecture at the Annual Convention of the ASA at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, August 21, 1968. Dr. Pollard, Ph. U. in physics from Rice University, became executive director of the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies in 1947, and president of the Oak Ridge Associated Universities in 1966. He was ordained a deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1952, and a priest in 1954. Dr. Pollard is the author of Physicist and Christian, On the Fermi Theory of the Beta Roy Type of Radioactive Disintegration, and Chance and Providence. This article is based on Chapters 1 and 2 of his book, Man on a Spaceship, published in 1967 by The Claremont Colleges, Claremont, California 91711, and reprinted here with permission of author and publisher.