Morning Thoughts: Escaping Our Island Earth

- -

As sometimes happens, last night I found myself watching youtube videos of Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson and other astronomer/astrophysicist heroes of mine. I've also been reading Gene Kranz's wonderful memoirs, Failure is Not An Option, and, well, it's just got me thinking of space a lot this morning. In the time that I've been alive, there have been 127 space shuttle missions (I was born in 1983 so I missed 7 of them that happened before I was born). When I was little, every single one of them was exciting. Every chance that we humans had to lift up off of this Earth and touch the stars for just a brief shining moment was palpably thrilling to me, and of course like many children I had dreams of being an astronaut. Now that the space shuttle program has ended, in 2011, there's nothing on the books until 2020, if then, and I feel like my fellow humans on this planet are not sufficiently upset about that. Allow me to pontificate for just a moment on this, because it's really important.

I think it's vitally important to think of humanity as a species in a tremendous and highly dangerous game. Here in the United States there are still anti-science ideologues and other idiots who think that natural selection isn't a thing, but it's undeniable that it happens, and whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we've taken over our whole planet now, so we're engaged in natural selection at the cosmic level. There are other species out there somewhere—there simply must be—that are taking over their own home worlds, and eyeing the rest of the cosmos. As we look out to the stars at night, it's important to realize that there are many eyes looking back at us. Many of those eyes will never build civilizations; some will. Many of those eyes will never see their species leave their planets; some will. Our species has left this planet before, but not permanently. We are only visitors to space, to the Moon; we need to prepare ourselves as a species to take up residency in the cosmos, and make permanent and lasting our mark on the Universe.

With the United States, leader of the Earth in terms of space travel and getting actual humans up into space, ceding this ground indefinitely, I am distraught to think that we may be procrastinating what should rightly be our primary imperative as a species.

One of my favourite photographs as a child was one of the Earth as seen from the surface of the moon, rising over the horizon just the same way we see our Moon from here.

It's a beautiful photograph, but if you only focus on the beauty of it, I think you miss the message this photograph brings to our planet: that we as a species are vulnerable, that this blue rock that contains everything we know, everything we are, every single one of us and everybody we love, is but a mote of dust floating through the cosmos. It's too easy to forget that, because this Earth is huge, from our diminutive perspective. We have to remember that ant-hills are huge to ants, but they're all one lawnmower pass away from destruction.

We're all so caught up in what we need to do as individuals to survive, I know, but at some point it becomes important to think about what we will do to survive as a species. Nevermind the whales, the giant pandas, the polar bears, the glaciers—the Earth itself would be just fine if the human species were to suddenly become extinct—but what of events that could destroy the entire Earth? We need a spare planet, and ultimately that's what space travel should be working towards.

This is our island. We as a species were born on this island. It is also, however, our prison. We own it, we can do as we wish with it, we have built structures that cover not only its entire surface but the bottoms of oceans (see also: the internet, road systems, railroads; we have been planetary engineers for quite a while now), as well as a cloud of our own creations that orbits this planet and several other planets, comprising a network of sensors and probes that span the whole solar system (see also: the deep space network), but we as a species are trapped here.

Just as it was a priority hundreds of years ago to explore and colonize the New World, so it should be our priority now to escape this island prison, and expand to many more worlds.

As a species, we have brazenly crossed the thresholds of many other frontiers. We have sent ships filled with our best and most capable explorers away to shores we didn't at the time know existed. We've sent our astronauts to the Moon and returned them home safely. It is our curiousity and our fearlessness that has carried us this far as a species. Why is it that, when faced with this new frontier (notice I did not say "final"), we hesitate? Why do we allow our politicians to argue about whether or not it's worth the expense to send more explorers into the stars, when the questions we want to answer and the goals we want to achieve by it have nothing to do with money at all? If a gamma ray burst hit our planet today, there would be no one left tomorrow to spend the money that was saved by not exploring the cosmos. If the Sun were to explode tonight no alien species would ever even know we were here by inspecting the ruins of our creations. How can we stand here at the brink of humanity's greatest discoveries, and balk at the price tag? It is as if the Vikings saw Newfoundland in the distance and decided to turn back, or as if Columbus had seen the West Indies and decided they simply weren't worth sailing for.

So let's go ahead and terraform Mars. Let's send people there in 10 years, not 50. Let's begin the process of finding another star system that seems like it might be able to harbour us. The Earth has been the cradle of our species; let's find more safe harbors in the great ocean of space. Let's etch our name in the very cosmos themselves, so that thousands, millions, billions of years from now there will be no mistaking the fact that we existed! Let's go further, faster, more efficiently. Let us not allow ourselves to become callow and complacent on our little blue rock; let's find more little blue rocks out there and claim them as our own the way we've claimed the lands of this one. Evolution is not a linear process; it is exponential. Complexity begets complexity. So should exploration beget exploration, knowledge beget knowledge, expansion beget more expansion. As we reach the limits of how many humans we can cram onto our little blue island, are we really content as a species to say that's all the humans we need in the Universe? Are we really prepared to content ourselves with only one planet, only one star system, only one galaxy? The human species wasn't even content to inhabit only the nice, temperate continents on this planet; we needed to colonize Antarctica too, because it was there. Humans can't live on the summit of Everest, but hundreds travel there for a few fleeting minutes anyway, because it's there. We need to similarly inhabit the cosmos, because it's there.

We don't have the resources to do this right now, but we have the resources to begin the process. Get on it, space cadets.