Thousands of years ago, the Colossus of Rhodes stood on the Greek island from which it got its name. A bronze statue likely standing over a hundred feet high and carved in the likeness of the Greek sun god Helios, it soon earned a reputation, eventually becoming known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world alongside marvels like the Pyramids of Giza and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Though the Colossus fell within a century of its creation and its remains were destroyed over a thousand years ago, its memory still remains, immortalized in cultural memory and imagination.
Today, I often lament that wonders like that are not so easy to find. Sure, our statues and skyscrapers tower over anything the ancient world could create (the Burj Khalifa is over 25 times the size of the Colossus), but, at least to me, they fall short of the sheer breathtaking quality that the ancient wonders held. If our tallest buildings could not fill the role of a modern wonder, a Colossus of the new age, it seemed that our world was without a replacement for these old marvels until at last it occurred to me that I was looking in the wrong place. The new Colossus is not a building or a statue or a temple or a garden, but instead something less physical and, arguably, grander: space travel.
One of the major reasons that skyscrapers like the Burj Khalifa fall short of the mark of wonder is the amount of effort and ingenuity which we perceive going into them. Compared to the herculean effort which we imagine must have been needed to make something like the Colossus or the Pyramids of Giza without modern technology, skyscrapers built with state-of-the art tools seem much more mundane.
Further, creations like the Colossus hold much greater cultural significance by being ingrained within widespread beliefs. As a depiction of Helios, the Colossus was a tribute to deified light and the communal aspect of a religion held by the entire community. In contrast, the Burj Khalifa is used for residency, restaurants, and as a tourist attraction. Without appealing to wider ideas which draw a community together and evoke a sense of, for lack of a better term, wonder, something, no matter how impressive it is to look at, can simply not compare to things like Colossus.
Space travel both requires the grand effort and uniqueness of the ancient wonders and the same level of cultural significance. The most recent NASA mission, the launching of the new Mars Rover Perseverance, cost an estimated $2.7 million, more than $1 billion more than the Burj Khalifa. But more important than the literal cost of these endeavors in the perceived effort that is put into them—buildings, even tremendously tall ones, are inevitably seen as less spectacular and easier than sending a machine 127 million miles away to another planet.
Further, space travel holds great cultural significance. Space travel can be seen as a unifying endeavor. The space race and our successful manned trip to the moon was a source of national pride and, in a wider context, space occupies our imagination through popular culture, from Star Wars to Alien to The Martian. In the modern day, space travel represents, to many, our values of exploration and investigation of the unknown, emblemized by the Mars Rovers’ names of Curiosity, Discovery, and Perseverance. Space exploration, in our imagination, explores the same feelings of wonder of the unknown and the beautiful as well as communal accomplishment that the ancient wonders likely evoked.
When seen as a modern wonder, space exploration can draw the same criticisms. As spectacular as they are, the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World required massive amounts of resources within societies that had lower classes which suffered from a lack of resources, provoking questions of inequality. Space exploration can be seen in a similar critical light. After all, Perseverance, short of a miraculous discovery, will likely do little to help people across the globe who are struggling in poverty. Whether we should invest money and time into spectacle and achievement when they could be used to help the populace is a question that has endured for thousands of years.
These questions are especially important if we choose to treat our endeavors in space exploration as a modern wonder because we are choosing to allow these actions to define our society for history. Today, much of our understanding of civilizations like Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt are created by the wonders they left behind. As a society, it is important for us to choose to use our resources and our imaginations to decide what will represent us to future generations, whether that is space exploration or anything else.