Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The High Frontier

Oh, goodness.

I read the other day that Stephen Hawking says it's important for humans to create space colonies. From the AP's coverage:
"It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species," 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."
Others take a slightly more cynical view of the importance of this matter to Hawking.

And then I found a clever and amusing discussion of the matter at

All this takes me back to my high school days, when we read the writings of Gerard O'Neill, like Hawking, a physicist, but an experimental one. Hawking's brilliant work has been mostly of a theoretical nature, and he has a great genius for communicating his lofty thoughts to the masses. But O'Neill really dug down into the guts of what it would take to build space colonies. His best-known book, The High Frontier, laid out just what it would take in terms of research, resources, and human commitment to build colonies in space. (One key, by the way, was not to rely on governments to do the job.)

And like Hawking, O'Neill saw it as important to ensure the survival of the human species. I'll leave aside for the moment the question of whether that's actually important; reasonable people can differ on that. But really, as optimistic as I usually am, I find it difficult to believe that anything like the necessary commitment exists. Nor is it clear to me that in the hundred years that Hawking claims we might have to pull off this stunt, we could actually produce a separate, sustainable human population somewhere off the earth.

I would far rather we look for ways to reduce or eliminate the human-caused threats to humanity, and perhaps to focus on ways to survive other threats here at home.

As I mentioned in one of my earliest posts here, Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was a very influential book in my formative years. Not only did it introduce me to my first self-aware computer, but it depicted some of the conflicts that might likely arise between an off-planet human population and those still on earth. One can only imagine that those conflicts would be all the worse in light of some of the threats Hawking cites.

Space colonization is not a panacea for the ills that face humanity and Earth. It might be a useful (and certainly interesting!) expansion of our world. But ultimately, both for humans as individuals and humanity as a species, the solutions to our problems lie within ourselves and the world we already have.

It may be "important," as Hawking notes, for us to spread into space. But I would argue that it's more important to face up to and deal with our issues right here.


Sue Hobbs said...

I agree. Additionally, we should consider our history of expansion and the impact we have had on those already occupying the places into which we've expanded. I'm not at all confident that we would restrain ourselves any more than we've done in the past.

sarette said...

I'm going to have to disagree here, if only because I'm convinced that we'll never achieve independence from fossil fuels without at least semi-permanent off-world habitats. Think orbital solar arrays or mining the moon for helium-3 (if that proves the path to fusion that it's proponents seem to claim it will).

Heavy industry on the moon or in orbit is also attractive, IMO, if only because there's no air or water to pollute. You also get really cheap delivery costs -- just drop it on your target. ;)

Anyway, I think going into space is a good first step towards healing all the harm that we've done to the planet. Just my two cents....

Chard said...

I'm good with the idea of using and working in space. I just don't think I buy into the notion that we can have any kind of meaningful presence off the planet that is sustainable on its own. Entirely likely that we'll continue to exploit off-planet resources, either as scientific platforms or as raw materials. But sustainable colonies of humans? Not in anything like the foreseeable future.