Normally when discussing space and space exploration, the arguments in favor of it cite the expected: research and development has a trickle down effect to the free market, giving us inventions like velcro, microwave ovens, and mattresses.
The Human Disaster Recovery Plan
The fact of the matter is, at some point, the world is going to blow up. Ok, maybe it won’t actually blow up, we could just be hit by an asteroid and have a nuclear winter killing off our entire species, or experience a deadly plague which exterminates or species, or some nut in Israel or Pakistan launches a nuke… at some point humans on earth will be wiped out. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Every single time I do, I keep coming to the same conclusion: we need a “disaster recovery plan”.
For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a disaster recovery plan is something companies do to guard their assets. In it’s simplest form, it’s a back up copy of important documents like your birth certificate kept in a safety deposit box in the bank. At the other end of the spectrum is “Iron Mountain”. Iron Mountain was the bomb shelter of all bomb shelters. Out in Nevada (I think) the US government did a geological survey to find a mountain made mostly of iron ore. This mountain was hollowed out and inside there were shelters for important people to be evacuated to, and tons and tons of books, computer tapes – everything one would need to restart the US civilization in the case of a nuclear war. A more normal case is to have two smaller offices instead of one, or for google to have servers located in multiple areas of the country in case there is an earthquake or something.
We need a disaster recovery plan in case we loose earth. This may seem like a crazy concept, but it’s a natural phenomenon. If you look at how distributed and isolated pockets of humanity were from each other before we got high-speed transportation, it mimicked this fairly closely. Take the black plague for instance. Half of Europe was wiped out by it. Five in ten people died. Think about that for a minute. Think of the last ten people you’ve talked to on the phone – half of them would have died if it had happened now instead of then. In fact, it was one of the reasons the “dark ages” lasted so long – before the bubonic plague, Europe was getting close to getting back to an era of civilization – the plague set it back one hundred years. If you look at the rest of the world, however, it was relatively unaffected – the Middle East was untouched, as were the Americas. The Mayans and Incas were happily chugging along while Arabs were evolving math and science, and Europeans were dying by the score.
So a disaster recovery plan is a good thing, but what exactly should we be doing? We need to colonize. We need to embark on two fronts, exploration and terraforming. What in gods name is terraforming? – we’ll get to that, but first, lets look at exploration. Currently, the best we can do is launch antiquated rockets, each of which costs millions of dollars to put into space. Crazy talk. We need a full-fledged space station capable of building spaceships. The reason we need a space station is because the big cost is getting off the planet. Gravity. If you’re already in space, your cost of take off is zero. All you need to do is point yourself in the right direction, fire off $1 of propane and you’re on your way. Granted, you won’t get there very quickly, but the point is – since there little to no resistance in space, you don’t need a lot of energy to move heavy things. We could build a space ship the size of a city and run the propulsion off solar cells. If we were to build a space ship big enough to comfortably cart several thousand folks around space looking for earth 2 we couldn’t even get it into space. If we bring up one piece at a time and put it together up there – way easier.
The other option is terraforming. Terraforming is taking a planet, which can not currently support life, and turning it into one that can. It’s going to mars and installing solar generators to melt the frozen carbon dioxide and water on the polar caps, then dumping algae into the oceans, and eventually plants and trees and small furry animals. The most optimistic estimates of how long this would take is about three hundred years. The folks on the other side of the spectrum say millions of years. Does that mean we shouldn’t do it? Hells no.
If you look back a few centuries to the gothic churches of Europe, they took generations to build. It was incredibly rare for the initial architect to be alive when the church was finished. An interesting thing happened though – they rarely stuck to the original plan. As time passed, they figured out better ways of doing things: maybe they figured out the walls would be stronger if they used flying buttresses, or they figured out a more efficient way of building arches that saved time and used less resources – these new innovations would be incorporated into the church’s design, and it would end up getting done quicker, or would become bigger and more impressive. I think the same thing would happen if we began terraforming mars. Advances in technology would speed the process up. Even if it doesn’t get speeded up, three hundred years, or even a thousand years isn’t that long in the big picture. Some of those processes would likely even work their way back to earth, potentially helping fix the problems we have here. Heck, even if it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try – that’s like saying, “eh, we’ll never cure cancer, screw it, lets not try.” If we try to do something next to impossible, there is a chance, however small, that we will succeed. If we don’t try, there’s no chance at all. Heck, the odds have to be better than a guy who looks like Lyle Lovett marrying Julia Roberts, but that happened.
The real problem we face is the lack of political will and money to spend. The Iraq war is currently costing the US $177 million per day. We’ve already, as of Sept. 30, 2007, spent over $400 billion on the iraq war. NASA’s current budget for 2007 is 16.8 billion. Conversely, the X-Prize, a contest setup by the founder of ebay and a lot of other rich geeks, gave away $10 million dollars to anyone who could build a private space ship, launch it into low earth orbit, come back down, and do it again the next day. Scaled Composites, a private company backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen achieved this last year. Scaled Composites, after winning, was purchased by virgin atlantic and we should be seeing flights into space in the next few years. If we took $75 billion of the dollars we spent on the iraq war and gave it to NASA and took $25 billion and gave it as prizes to encourage private companies to invest in terraforming or space exploration on a large scale, I have no doubt that we could be on the road to accomplishing this in the next ten years. I’m not saying we would have this licked in ten years, but I’m sure we could have interplanetary space ships going back and forth to mars and winging around the galaxy.
The idea that we can survive another thousand years without some meathead launching a nuke, or global warming, or some uber-virus wiping us out seems like an incredibly scary bet to make. I don’t think there’s any good reason to make that bet. We need to secure another planet for human beings to live on, and I think if we as a species dedicate our resources to doing so, there’s nothing we can’t do. That includes living on multiple planets throughout the universe.
What’s the point of all this? Just because every news station in the country and all the politicians have already decided the issues that are important (healthcare, iraq, etc) it doesn’t mean that they’re the only issues that actually matter. Think about the big picture and the issues that are important to you, and whatever candidate you support, support one who believes in and supports science… it works, bitches.
You can find out more about presidential candidate’s positions here, the list of issues are growing: http://2decide.com/table.htm