The Heart Of An Explorer: A Reflection On The Future Exploration Of Mars In Light Of The Lost City Of Z

Percy Fawcett. Image Credit: R. De Montet-Guerin/New York Times

This past weekend, I was in need of seeing a good movie. After consultation with the manager of our local family video store, (yes, they still exist) I decided to rent "The Lost City of Z." The movie is based on the book of the same title by David Grann of The New Yorker. The story is centered on the adventures of British explorer Percy Fawcett.

Fawcett is depicted as an undecorated soldier that desires above all things to receive military honors to restore his family name. When he is approached about a surveying expedition to create a map of the border between Bolivia and Brazil, the status hungry Fawcett is less than thrilled. However, after accepting the commission, Percy's journey brings him upon some pottery deep in the Amazon jungle, feeding his speculation that there is a lost city, Z (also known as El Dorado), that was hinted to him by an indigenous guide.

The desire to find this lost city became an all-consuming endeavour for Percy. On each expedition, the movie depicted the struggles these journeys would place upon him and his family. While watching this unfold, I couldn't help but wonder how I would respond to an exploration that would last between three to seven years with no hope of seeing family, friends, and the surroundings of which I am familiar?

This honest depiction of the human toll upon Percy and his family revealed both the heroic nature of such a journey, but also showed how the corruption of the human heart, fueled by the desire for riches, status, and power, can also sway humanity to such expeditions. By the end of the movie, I came away with a deep appreciation of how the film depicted the commingling of the human desire to explore with the sinful desire to exploit and dominate. (For a detailed look at the actual history behind this movie, click here to visit a detailed summary of Percy Fawcett put together by The Telegram.)

There are many interpretive directions one can take with this movie whether it be the slave trade, deforestation of the Amazon, or relationships (or lack there of) with indigenous peoples when cultures literally collide. To take things in a slightly different direction, I am moved to compare The Lost City of Z with the strong desire to put humans on Mars within our lifetime.

For starters, I would like to reflect upon the question: What do we seek when exploring Mars? In regard to the movie The Lost City of Z, we find a whole host of reasons why people wanted to search the Amazon for a lost city. In a book review by Rich Cohen, he nicely lays out how there were as many motives to explore this unknown region as there were explorers.

What drove the British, from the start of the age of empire to its closing chapters in the 20th century, to all corners of the globe? Was it money, glory, adventure, or was it the dismal reality of their isles? Were they fueled by the simple need to get as far from Nottingham and Bath as possible, away from the cold gray rain? Was a craving for color the wind at their back? (Ambition belongs to those with a taste for citrus who live in a land where no citrus is grown.) The quest grew increasingly frenzied as the age ripened and there seemed ever fewer places to explore. As economists say, scarcity creates demand. This era was a moment ago yet seems ancient; the names of its heroes ring like names in a fairy tale: Richard Burton, Ernest Shackleton, David Livingstone. Some of the most daring converged on the Amazon, where hunter-gatherers still lived on human brains and even the most gaudy human creations were swallowed by vines if left for a week. (Rich Cohen, On the road to El Dorado. The New York Times - February 26, 2009)

For Percy Fawcett, the movie depicted his motives as moving from a less than invigorating mapping assignment to a search for the "missing key" to human civilization. At one point of the movie, Percy claims that finding this ancient city would hold the key to understanding human civilization. Much can be said about this presumption, but what it reveals is that the human heart has a natural wiring to want to understand both its origins and where it is ultimately going. This search for origin, meaning, and purpose is at the heart of how the human person is religious by nature.

When comparing Percy Fawcett's exploration for a missing key to understand humanity with the future Mars missions, one can hear similar tones of origin and end in NASA's explanation as to why we should visit the Red Planet.

Mars is a rich destination for scientific discovery and robotic and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. Its formation and evolution are comparable to Earth, helping us learn more about our own planet’s history and future. Mars had conditions suitable for life in its past. Future exploration could uncover evidence of life, answering one of the fundamental mysteries of the cosmos: Does life exist beyond Earth? (NASA's Journey to Mars)

Though it should be clear that there is no hope of finding a group of indigenous people on Mars, the exploration will focus upon understanding the science of how planets and life form. With a better understanding of these two aspects of creation, we will be able to understand our good Earth in a new way. Other motives for exploring Mars are that the missions will serve as a stepping stone to develop better technologies for human exploration, improving the quality of life on Earth, and exploring the possibility of human colonization on another planet. Citing urgent pleas from notable names in science media circles, Jessica Orwig in her article, "5 undeniable reasons humans need to colonize Mars - even though it's going to cost billions," states that in order for humanity to survive, we need to get off our pale blue dot!

When reading Orwig's fatalistic interpretations of why we need to find a "new Earth," I find myself gravitating toward two sets of ideas. My primary thoughts evoke panic and fear, thinking that the quicker we can develop these technologies the better. My secondary, more sober thoughts make me wonder if we are falling into the same exploitive trap that early explores did that led to the slaughtering of indigenous peoples and the exploitation of natural resources. In many ways, I find it ironic that many scientific figures that are appalled at those who exploit natural resources for personal and/or commercial gain on our common home seem to have no scruples about invading another planet for purposes of self-preservation, seeming to care little about our impact upon a new Earth. When we try to learn from lessons in the past, might our final conclusion be that life on our Earth is unique? In this sense, unique would not mean that we are the only planet with complex life on it, but we are uniquely suited to exist on this planet and trying to move to another planet would do irreversible damage to the new Earth and/or ourselves?

The other thoughts I have about the exploration of Mars is the human toll. When I learned that a mission to Mars would probably mean 4 to 5 years of an astronaut's life, being away from family, friends, and familiar surroundings, my initial reaction was "that's too much of a price to pay for someone with a family." However, The Lost City of Z reminded me that, as a child of modern travel where most places on Earth can be reached in a day or two at the most, the early adventures of new world exploration took about the same time as a mission to Mars. The important lesson we must take with us on these explorations is to have a sober understanding of our motivations for such exploration and a realistic sense of what can be accomplished. The heroic part of the human heart is wired to explore, but that desire needs to be tempered by a moral vision that approaches each mission with the simple rubric, "Do no harm to ourselves or the world we visit."

What are your thoughts on a mission to Mars? Is it something we should do or is it a waste of time? Is this simply a continuation of the human desire to explore or do the mixed motives of humanity risk more harm than good? Leave your thoughts and if you're looking for a good movie to watch, rent The Lost City of Z. I don't think you'll be disappointed!


Fr. James Kurzynski

About Fr. James Kurzynski

Fr. James Kurzynski is a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin and a hobby astronomer. Originally from the small town of Amherst in rural central Wisconsin, Fr. James completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, majoring in Applied Music (Saxophone, Voice, and Composition). After graduating from UW-SP, Fr. James worked at the University of Nebraska at Kearney as a Hall Director and pursued a M.S.ed. in Group Counseling. After a year at UNK, Fr. James left his position to attend the University of Saint Mary of the Lake - Mundelein Seminary to discern his priestly vocation.

Fr. James earned a Bachelor in Sacred Theology, a Master of Divinity, and a License in Sacred Theology. While pursuing these degrees, Fr. James also studied Spiritual Theology with the Institute of Priestly Formation at Creighton University and completed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

Fr. James was ordained a priest June 28, 2003. Fr. James’ first assignment was as an Associate at the Tri-Parishes of St. Mary’s - Durand, Holy Rosary Parish - Lima, and Sacred Heart Parish - Mondovi. After two years, Fr. James was assigned as Chaplain and Instructor of Religion at Regis Middle and High School and was also assigned Associate Vocation Director. In his final year at Regis, Fr. James was also appointed Parochial Administrator of Saint Raymond of Penafort Catholic Church, serving south east Eau Claire County. From 2012-2015, Fr. James served as Pastor of Roncalli Newman Parish, serving the college students of Western Technical College and the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse. In 2015, Fr. James was named Pastor of St. Joseph's Parish in Menomonie, Wisconsin, which also serves St. Joseph's Grade School (3K thru 6) and the Newman Center at the University of Wisconsin - Stout. In 2017, in addition to his responsibilities to St. Joseph Parish and StoutCatholic, Fr. James was also named Pastor of St. Luke Parish in Boyceville, Wisconsin. Fr. James also teaches Introduction to Philosophy for the Diocese of La Crosse’s diaconal formation program.

In regard to his interest in astronomy, Fr. James is a member of both the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society and the La Crosse Area Astronomical Society. He taught an Introduction to Astronomy course during his time at Regis High School in Eau Claire. Fr. James' first involvement with the Vatican Observatory came when an inquiry led to the development of the first "Faith and Astronomy Workshop" (FAW), designed for parish educators and clergy that are not professional scientists.

This blog is made possible by contributions from visitors like yourself. PLEASE help by supporting this blog.

Get the VOF Blog via email - free!

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


The Heart Of An Explorer: A Reflection On The Future Exploration Of Mars In Light Of The Lost City Of Z — 6 Comments

  1. The current mindset of abandoning our planet in order for humanity to survive is a denial of our Christian faith. John 3:16 states that “For God so loved the world…” It is our duty to preserve all of God’s creation, especially the Earth, the cradle of our existence. In his reflection on our “Pale Blue Dot” Carl Sagan reminds us of “our responsibility to deal more-kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, our Earth, the only home we’ve ever known.”
    In my planetarium lectures I remind the audience that “God does not create what He cannot love, all of Creation is sacred”. He gave humans a nurturing abode to preserve. In Genesis 1:26 God said: “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.” God has tasked us to be the caretakers of His Creation and specifically our Earth, “the only home we’ve ever known.
    Yes, eventually we will travel into the Cosmos and colonize other worlds. But it is also our duty to do whatever is necessary to preserve our cosmic cradle.

    The Earth Is Worth Saving!

  2. Thanks,Fr.James,for this thought-provoking post. Because I write a first person column on various aspects of space exploration ( and blog on a similar topic) I often find myself having to “defend” the cost of space missions and exploration to people who, Understandably, feel that the money could be spent elsewhere–including taking care of our own home planet, the “pale blue dot” that Carl Sagan so lovingly refers to. And they are right! But I believe that it is about striking that balance and constantly reminding ourselves that we must be respectful and and responsible when we explore–including periodically checking in to ask ourselves why we are doing it.

    As a life long space enthusiast, I believe that we explore because we have no choice. It’s who we are and what we do–we are programmed to reach beyond our shores. Otherwise we would still be sitting on the other side of the world, believing that the world is flat. Perhaps I am naive but I believe that this is as God intended. As Galileo famously said : “I do not feel obligated to believe in a God who endowed us with senses, reason and intellect and has intended us to forgo their use.” We not only gain important scientific knowledge from exploration but I agree with you that, part of our programming to explore, is that spiritual need to understand our cosmic origins and more importantly, whether we are alone in this unfathomably vast Universe.

    Having said all of that, I do feel that we need to be more mindful and measured when it comes to the current excitement and passion about getting to Mars. I cannot help but be intrigued and cautiously supportive of the vision of the Elon Musks and the Mars One missions that are currently leading the way on this front, but honestly, I feel like it is all getting to be a bit trendy. It’s hugely important to explore Mars for sure–as it apparently was a previously very different world which may have hosted “life” of some kind but we have robotic missions, and more to come, that are currently doing an excellent job of that. So -why the big rush to send humans? And, in my opinion, just “because we can” is not good enough. There are profound ethical and moral issues that need to be studied and considered as we undertake this historic human endeavour of leaving our cosmic cradle and I really hope that this is happening at some level—somewhere..

    One last thought ….Considering the prospect of having an opportunity to become a space explorer really does give you an opportunity for personal and spiritual introspection. As we all have heard in the media, the Dutch sponsored Mars One is a one way mission which is open to applicants from all over the world with various backgrounds. Thousands of people, including many young people at the beginning of their lives, are willing to leave it all behind to become the first colonists of the Red Planet. Which tells you a lot about the current state of the human species, including the fact that our inherent pioneering spirit is alive and well. I hadn’t applied at the onset of the program as I assumed that my age (which I won’t disclose here but suffice to say I grew up in the 60’s 🙂 ) would disqualify me as a suitable candidate. But when I read that some of the candidates on the first short list were my age and even older, I reconsidered. I am still surprised that I actually pondered it –seriously–for 2 full days– before deciding against it. That was a revelation ,even to me. I actually thought about it! At this stage of my life, I thought that it was an opportunity to do something really important–something that would make a difference. As a widow, I had no life partner to leave behind and my adult children, I told myself, were raised with families of their own. But the human needs and emotions won out and although my kids were supportive, ( I assured them I would never be selected ) I caught a look on my youngest daughter’s face when I discussed it that said differently. Besides–I want to stick around to see my grandkids grow up-especially my 6 yr. old granddaughter who is showing a budding interest in astronomy. Who knows? Perhaps in 30 years or so–she will go to Mars. For all the right reasons, of course:)

  3. To both Maureen and the Renns, thank you for your thoughts! James and Jean, I can embrace your desire to not give up on our common home. Sometimes I feel that some of the desire to colonize Mars rings with a certain, “We blew it here, so let’s start over again somewhere else.” I whole heartedly agree that we need to be more attentive to caring for our common home. What worries me is that, at least in the United States, there is a deep apathy about care for creation. In short, the Earth is worth fighting for, but who is willing to fight?

    Maureen, I enjoyed your reflection. I often struggle between the practicalities of “better to take care of home instead of going to Mars” and “We’re explores, we MUST go to Mars!” I hope we land on Mars some day and celebrate the accomplishment. However, colonizing Mars seems to be a bit of a reach. Then again, if one never dreams, one never can accomplish that which is presumed impossible. Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. Thanks, Fr. James, for the excellent article, and approached from a thoughtful and slightly different angle than similar pieces I’ve read by others recently. I will admit to being a hopeless, tragic “Explore and colonize Mars at the earliest possible point and highest priority” space-cadet, an enthusiast of that cause since the age of 6 or 7; even then I felt such an enterprise to be immensely worthy in both a Christian-spiritual and humanistic light. In saying that, I appreciate the more measured and differing insights of the Renns and Maureen here, thank you folks!

    I have to rush off to a uni lecture and then a meeting with my Spiritual Director, but I’ll just finish with the quick observation that right or wrong, & the proper spiritual and scientific path to embracing right now or not? These may be worthy matters to consider, yet still moot. I strongly suspect either the estimable Mr Musk, or the Chinese space agencies, will rush ahead and “just do it” in the next decade or two, leaving us to ponder the deeper implications of said endeavours in their wake! Which will make for a fascinating period to be alive, dreaming, and experiencing – perhaps by proxy – one of the wilder, rockier but most beautiful nearby realms of Creation. 🙂

    • Ben, Thank you for your kind words and welcome to our blog! I always appreciate it when people drop a comment! Your speculation about what other countries might or might not do with a space race to Mars reminds me of the history of the race to the Moon. We cannot avoid the fact that there were deep, cold war motivations behind a lot of the space race.

      That being said, when I was a kid and looked up to the stars and wanted to know what is out there, it wasn’t fueled by politics and war. It was a simple curiosity I have to this day. My hope is that the better part of our human nature will always win out, seeing in the idealist pursuits of space exploration a healthy expression of our desire to discover. Yet, we are fallen creatures and always need to be honest about sinful dispositions. In short, life can be a mess and that mess can impact every aspect of life – Including the desire to explore.

      • Thank you again for the welcome to the blog, Fr. James! “The Catholic Astronomer” has become one of my several online mainstays in keeping abreast of astronomical and space-science matters for a while now, and I finally motivated myself (or was perhaps gifted with the motivation, my Spiritual Director might gently suggest 😉 ) to stop lurking and join up properly. I look forward to dropping by for discussions when a rather crazily busy (but thoroughly fruitful and rewarding) current work, academic and discernment schedule permits me to.

        I agree with you that even our seemingly idealist explorations of new frontiers like Mars can have some some ignoble as well as virtuous motivations, at the personal, corporate or national levels. The metaphorical angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, both whispering advice, or perhaps what St Ignatius would tell us are the Good and Evil spirits at work on both individual humans and countries as a whole. But like you, I have tremendous hope that the better nature of humans to look out at space and the planets will win out, leading to a largely harmonious and peaceful exploration. If we do get another space race, let it be driven by good-natured rivalry between friends, rather than the grimmer metrics of the cold war. I’ll certainly hope, advocate and pray for that gentler option 🙂

Leave a Reply