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Colonizing Space: We Must Boldly Go
by Robert J. Sawyer
Op-Ed piece for The Ottawa Citizen, the largest-circulation
newspaper in Canada's capital city, Tuesday, June 20, 2006.
Copyright © 2006 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
We shouldn't need a genius to tell us it's folly to keep all
our eggs in one basket. But that's exactly what the world's
most-famous genius recently told an audience of 2,500 in Hong
Kong. Speaking with the robotic voice of his speech
synthesizer, Stephen Hawking said, "Life on Earth is at the
ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as
sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered
virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of. It is
important for the human race to spread out into space for the
survival of the species."
To Hawking, it's a no-brainer: establish colonies on the
Moon and Mars, and the people there will survive whatever
calamity might befall us here on Earth a death sentence
averted thanks to science.
Hawking's the perfect spokesperson for this: he'd have died
years ago were it not for technology, so it's no wonder that he
believes using technology to prolong the life of our species is
the right thing to do. But is it?
Not everyone thinks so. Hawking may be the most famous
British scientist, but close on his heels has to be Doctor Who,
the fictional boffin of the long-running BBC TV series. And, as
The Doctor said recently when dismissing a plea that he step in
at the last moment to save Earth from destruction: "Everything
has its time, and everything dies."
Many doubtless agree with The Doctor. We've made an awful
mess of this planet, and war seems to be our natural state.
Perhaps we're doing the universe a favour by having all of us in
one place so we can easily be dispensed with. If humanity's days
are numbered, so be it.
But to Hawking and to me that's treasonous
thinking. Yes, the mantra of the last few decades has been,
"Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do it."
But when the thing we can do is save our species, then we have an
obligation to our genes, or to God, take your pick
to indeed do it. We should not go gentle into that good night;
we must rage against the dying of the light.
I have no doubt that we can indeed build colonies on the
Moon and Mars. No breakthroughs or magical new technologies are
required. Write the cheque and it'll happen.
How big a cheque, you ask? Well, the figure usually bandied
about for the cost of building and maintaining the International
Space Station is $100 billion but a lot of that is because
the station isn't self-sufficient; supplies have to be
constantly brought up by space shuttles.
A base on Mars would have it easier, because the water
already there in the permafrost could be harvested. Water is the
wonder molecule: you can drink it, or split it into oxygen for
breathing and hydrogen for fuel. We could probably establish a
self-sufficient base on Mars for ten or twenty times the cost of
the Space Station one or two trillion dollars.
Granted, that's one heck of an insurance premium, and, as
always happens when the cost of manned space flight is brought
up, some say we'd do better to spend the money down here. But
that misses the point.
Global warming is only one inconvenient truth; there are
lots of other impending disasters, both man-made and natural.
Every penny spent today on eliminating poverty or cancer, or on
building schools or day-care centres, is wasted if there's a
massive nuclear exchange tomorrow, or if a plague sweeps across
the globe, or a comet slams into the Pacific.
And Hawking's solution is the only one that deals with all
those disparate threats: diplomacy doesn't stop plagues;
antidotes don't deflect asteroids. Even if we could magically
change human psychology so that we didn't wage war or commit acts
of terrorism, we'd still be vulnerable to Mother Nature. As
science-fiction writer Larry Niven
famously quipped, the
dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space
Still one or two trillion dollars! Is it worth it? If
you have to ask the question if you're willing to dicker
about the value of the continued survival of Homo sapiens
then you've already got your personal answer.
But maybe I can change your mind. In January, Joseph
Stiglitz, the Columbia University professor who won the 2001
Nobel prize for economics, and Linda Bilmes, a Harvard expert on
government spending, calculated that the total cost to the US of
the Iraq war will also be one or two trillion. If we're willing
to spend that much on war, maybe it's time we started spending
equally big amounts on something more positive.
But will we? Humanity is almost certainly not the first
intelligent race to emerge in this galaxy after all, we're
only 100,000 years old, and the universe has been around for 11
billion years. Alien races that appeared before us will have
likely faced the same threats we do now: natural catastrophes,
disease, and misuse of their own technology.
But when we listen with our radio telescopes for their
signals, we detect nothing. This failure is sobering. Perhaps
no intelligent race survives for long for with knowledge
of the atom comes the secret for building nuclear bombs; with the
study of life comes the ability to make biological weapons.
In Hawking's plan, colonizing the worlds of our own solar
system is only step one. Step two involves moving to the planets
of other stars. After all, our own sun will die in just a few
billion years, and long before then it might belch out flares
that could wipe out life on Earth, the Moon, and Mars.
But time is deeper than space is vast: even at just a small
fraction of the speed of light, our entire galaxy could be
colonized in only a million years a trivial span in cosmic
terms. And yet most scientists agree there's no real evidence
that aliens have ever visited this planet, which, with its oceans
of liquid water, doubtless would be a tempting destination. That
absence suggests no galactic colonization has ever actually taken
So, maybe the bean counters always get their way. Maybe
wherever intelligent life arises, those who complain that the
dangers are overstated, that somehow their race will survive
without dispersing its population, win.
But, of course, they don't get to enjoy their victory for
Robert J. Sawyer's latest science-fiction novel
is Mindscan, published by Tor.
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