We gotta get out of this place (Earth, that is)

spacephoto2So let’s start with the good news.  As 2014 dawns, the earth has emerged as an increasingly global society.  We’re not quite the United Earth government envisioned in Star Trek, and may never be.

But the internet and increasingly rapid transit along with the steady globalization of commerce and the rapid acceleration of technological discovery have created a relatively prosperous, integrated planetary human ecology of roughly 7.1 billion people.

War is already on the wane, prosperity is increasing rapidly, medical science is pushing back frontiers, and democracy is spreading at a rate that no one would have envisioned in the last century.

We have tamed many of the demons of our past, from rampant hunger to Medieval ignorance.  This is a moment when we humans have the luxury, the opportunity, of thinking big about where we go next.

Now let’s pivot to the bad news — and it’s very bad news indeed.  Despite our successes and our rapidly advancing technological prowess, our entire species remains cloistered on one exceptionally fragile chunk of rock.

There are a very large number of precious eggs sitting in one astonishingly unstable, precarious basket.

That may seem an extreme and ungrateful way to describe Mother Earth.  After all, this is the birthplace, the cradle, the evolutionary hothouse that literally made us what we are.  We owe everything to this chunk of gassy, fertile, spinning island.

Its magnetic fields, layers of cocooning chemicals, and salad bowl of edibles are a perfect fit for us, a relationship that has evolved over millions of years.

But here’s the dirty little secret about our home world.  She is a murderous orb not a loving one.

Scientists have identified at least five different moments in the planet’s bloody, fiery history when plants and creatures — including many of the most dominant organisms — faced tidal waves of death.

In the Permian period, roughly 96% of all living things on earth were wiped out in a relatively short period known to researchers as the Great Dying.  These regular tsunamis of death have been accompanies by smaller, more frequent tides of destruction, some caused by our own ancient ancestors.

The new global ecology of human society that has emerged over the last century is frighteningly vulnerable to this sort of mass-destruction event.

The spread of a single aggressive pandemic, the eruption of a super volcano like the one under Yellowstone, the impact of a large meteor, a rapid tipping-point event in human-caused climate change, nuclear or biological conflict, environmental disaster in the earth’s oceans — the list of threat factors is long.

Some catastrophic events wouldn’t wipe us out as a species, but they could very easily unravel the complex, highly-advanced society that we have cultivated.  Look how long it took us to sort out the single city of New Orleans after Katrina.   A global event of that magnitude might set us back decades or centuries.

It’s worth pointing out that the most dangerous of these threats aren’t human-caused and there’s probably not much we can do to prevent them.

A meteor-like object large enough to cause a mass-extinction event on earth — or even simply a societally devastating event — is probably too massive and moving at too rapid a rate for us to destroy or divert.

And if the caldera under Yellowstone decides to erupt next year or next century, there’s nothing FEMA can do but wish people luck.  It’s Morgan Freeman time.  (Corrected.  I suggested earlier that the caldera existed under Yosemite.)

I think there’s also a strong argument to be made that humans are essentially explorers.  It’s wired somehow into our DNA to want to be on the move, looking over the next hill, establishing a foothold in the next valley.

The reason, one might suppose, is the powerful evolutionary advantage of spreading out, of not choosing to sit isolated in one place where your entire race is vulnerable.  The race that spreads itself out is the race that survives and thrives.

Space, meanwhile, poses immense technical challenges, but its scope and resources are essentially infinite.  If we can make this leap, emerging as a space-faring species, we will have opened a door into a permanent, unfence-able frontier.

So what do we do to take that first step?  How do we prepare?  The simple answer is that we begin moving as rapidly and aggressively as possible to go elsewhere.  For decades, space travel has been cursed and crippled by the question of practicalities.

The conversation goes something like this:  “Sure we could go to other worlds, we have the technology, but why should we?  What do they have that we don’t have here in the home nest?  And why should we spend all those resources sending people Up There when we could be addressing things like hunger and homelessness Down Here?”

The answer, we now know, is that we would be investing — first and foremost — in the long-term viability of humanity.  More accurately, we would be investing in the long-term viability of a highly-advanced, aspirational human society.

Even a generation ago, this idea would have fallen firmly in the realm of science fiction.  We lacked the resources and the technology to realistically consider the development of long-term self-sustaining colonies on places like Mars or in orbital structures.

We’re now at a very different place.  And while a permanent settlement off-world is unlikely in our lifetimes, this is the moment when we lay the groundwork.  We continue to expand and invest in the space station now orbiting above our heads.  We move toward a manned expedition to Mars.

We continue to develop the technology that would allow things like large-scale sub-surface settlements in the polar region of Mars, where water (in frozen form) and other resources are abundant.

But even before we invest the next dollar in building our space capability, we have to make one other step — a cognitive one.  We need to permanently flip the conversation.

We have to make it clear that the conservative, practical vision for our future involves a commitment to space.  That’s the common sense dream, the smart-money bet.  Meanwhile, only a wild-eyed gambler or someone who accepts that we humans lack a long-term future would turn their back on the heavens.

24 Comments on “We gotta get out of this place (Earth, that is)”

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  1. Jim Bullard says:

    The premise reminds me of basic training in the army when we were told “Don’t bunch up boys. One grenade will get you all”. Personally, I’m not sure that the extreme long term survival of humanity is all that important in cosmic evolution. If we don’t learn from what we are doing wrong here on Earth in terms of sustainability, of what value is it to export our civilization to other worlds?

    And sorry to be nitpicking the giant caldera that might explode anytime soon is under Yellowstone, not Yosemite.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Why? Why bother?
    I have no idea what the future might bring. That is part of the fun of life. Also part of life is death. Without death, we humans would have ruined this planet years ago. I am certain that at some point in the future there will not be a single human alive on this or any other planet even if we manage to get to some other planet and start messing it up.
    All good stories and all good games including the game of life must end so that a new story and a new game can begin.
    Mind you, I am not opposed to space exploration or even colonization of another planet. I am merely pointing out that the game of life will end – and you might as well enjoy it while you can.

  3. Two Cents says:

    …..like fleas off her back
    by the way,nice catch jim

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Here you go Brian, you can be one of the first to sign up. Then you can cover NYC’s weather from Mars!


  5. Brian Mann says:

    yes, jim, nice catch. post corrected. thanks. but i’m standing firm by my view that the survival of the human race actually matters.

    also, pete, i’ll point out that we actually DO know what the future will bring.

    science offers us unambiguous and really unquestionable data indicating that if we stay here, we will, sooner or later, be wiped out completely…or at least reduced to a seriously reduced state.

    given that we know what’s coming, to borrow jim’s metaphor, i think we should think about trying to avoid falling on that grenade.

    –brian, ncpr

  6. Pete Klein says:

    Brian, sooner or later, no matter where we go, we will be wiped out completely because the entire universe will come to an end – and then the next one will start with the next Big Bang.

  7. Two Cents says:

    brian, I think on some level that if we think we can move on, we don’t feel the need to treat what we have better. it becomes another disposable item to leave behind rather than a sacred cow to milk very respectfully.
    on the other hand, 5 billion? years, until our sun explodes is a good run, if we can pace that one out…

  8. Michael Greer says:

    So the Voyager spacecraft finally left the solar system after 40 years of travel, and it wasn’t just poking along. If it sails on for another thousand years, it may reach some other place…just like Star Trek, only slower….and reaching some other place doesn’t necessarily imply some other “habitable” place. The distances are too great, the expense, far to dear, and the chance of success infinitely too small. If it was easy to do, those “superior civilizations” would have come to see us by now.
    Likewise, the difficulty of starting something up on some other closer place, like Mars or the Moon, are beyond anyone’s budget. We haven’t even figured out how to support life in Phoenix past the middle of the century.

  9. Ken Hall says:

    Michael, it will take Voyager on the order of 30,000 years to travel a distance roughly equivalent to the distance to the nearest star to ours, approximately 4 light years.

    The cost to put astronauts per woman/man in low Earth orbit, for a very limited time span, using the Space Shuttle was on the order of $100Million/person per launch and recovery and that cost ignores the R&D and production costs of the shuttles. If memory serves me the folks pushing the colonization of Mars, per KHL’s link, initially intended to fund the operation using private money; however, they recently admitted they would not be able to do it without, gasp, Government funding, who’da thunk? The current crop of “private’ space launch companies continue to obtain the bulk of their funding via government programs, not by launching privately owned satellites. NASA currently contracts with the Russians to put our astronauts on the ISS to the tune of a mere $70Million per person hell-of-a-deal.

  10. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I like that the Mars One operation is basically a reality TV show. Will there ever really be a mission? Who knows?

    This all might be a scheme straight out of “The Marching Morons” science fiction story written by Cyril M. Kornbluth. In the story the Earth is over-populated by dimwits who drive big polluting cars and watch stupid TV shows like “Would You Buy it For a Quarter?” The protagonist cooks up a scheme to reduce the population by getting them to self-deport to Venus.

    “Propaganda depicts Venus as a tropical paradise, with “blanket trees,” “ham bushes,” and “soap roots.” In a nationalistic frenzy, every country tries to send as many of their people to Venus as possible to stake their claim.”

  11. Paul says:

    This isn’t a “murderous orb”? That is just how the ball rolls sometime. On a planetary scale this one is quite gentle. I should qualify that with based on what we know. Most likely there are many other planets that are probably even more hospitable. Including some that may have even better skiing than this one. The main reason to have a space program is to find those other hills!

  12. Mervel says:

    I think Brian has it correct though on the mind set. Space exploration by humans has be accepted as a goal first. We went to the moon in 1969, with computers smaller than modern calculators. We walked there we stayed there for a day, so I am a bit confused why we could do that 45 years ago. Before cell phones, before super computers, before facebook and i-phones and all of this “great” technology. Yet we can’t do it today. What happened?

    We will need not only a re-set in our attitude toward human exploration, but also a re-set in how we do technology, the outcome to our modern technology seems to be mainly about small scale communications and consumer products.

  13. Mervel says:

    I am not sure I am concerned about destruction of the earth, we are all going to die, we all have an appointment “once to die”, so does this planet. But the basic desire and good and need for human exploration of space; is still very important in my mind.

  14. Mervel says:

    Didn’t Carl Sagan posit that the reason we have not found other developed planets, or more importantly that they had found us, was that all life eventually destroyed itself and thus very few planets will develop long enough to gain the technology needed before destroying their planet or each other.

  15. Paul says:

    I don’t think so. In fact no one was more convinced than Carl Sagan that they were out there and we just haven’t made contact yet. The number of planets out there, many of which are probably just like ours, is far too many for us to comprehend. We are not unique we just think we are.

  16. Two Cents says:

    I’ve said it before-
    if you want to find out if there is other life out there, send up a rocket , pay load jammed tight with trash, plastic milk jugs and the like.
    it’ll either come back with a note to keep our crap in our own yard
    instructions on how to eat it, if their friendly.
    but i’m not risking offering any time-frame here….
    personally I believe we will be able to go to every planet in our solar system in due time

  17. Mervel says:

    We will see, the evidence would suggest otherwise. Not one radio signal, with all of those planets to large to comprehend, billions and billions, not one signal. Yet as screwed up as we are , we are able to do that.

    But anyway I still think human exploration of space is critical to our future, not just a luxury.

  18. Mervel says:

    The other issue would be would; what set of ethics would we use in this round of exploration?

    Would we be totally exploitative, dumping our trash wherever we went, simply going someplace to see what we could take from it? Would we respect the beauty of some things enough to leave them alone?

  19. Mervel says:

    I think the space shuttle was a huge, huge mistake and really put us off track from where we should have spent the period of time between 1975-2014. That period should have been dedicated to getting rocket technology and human factors technology in shape to go to mars.

  20. Walker says:

    “…I am a bit confused why we could do that 45 years ago…”

    Well, I should think the main reason we couldn’t do it today is that the anti-tax forces would go totally bonkers. Of course, for what we have spent to two useless wars…

    But you also have to consider that going to the moon is like walking to the end of your block, as opposed to walking to Tibet.

  21. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Doesn’t it seem reasonable that life could develop on other planets if forms we wouldn’t understand or even know to look for it? Couldn’t intelligent life develop and not generate radio waves?

  22. Mervel says:

    I have thought about that also Knuckle, but it is likely my lack of knowledge. It just seems that we are always assuming that life, or sentience is always going have to be biologically developed as we are; what if in other worlds, it develops in some other form maybe even in another dimension, that it develops in some totally different way that we cannot even conceive of?

  23. Mervel says:

    Walker I wonder in today’s dollars, (I guess I could figure it out) what was the cost of going to and landing on the moon?

  24. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Look! Whitehall Man going to Mars!!!!! figures it can’t be much worse than home. (okay, that was my bit of editorializing)


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