Escape Velocity

15:31 Sun 24 Dec 2006. Updated: 23:20 16 Jan 2007
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Recently NASA announced plans to build a permanent base on the moon, and Stephen Hawking said that reaching space is critical to human survival. Is it time to invest in getting off-planet, or is the whole thing a wasteful boondoggle?

It seems clear that at some point, humanity needs to figure out how to get off this planet—at least, if you think humanity should try to ensure its own long-term survival. Even if you believe that humanity’s best chance for surviving in the long term is to figure out how to exist in cooperation with this planet, you have to admit that the odds of this happening don’t look good, and that it makes sense to have a backup plan.

Feasibility, though, is an issue. If we won’t be able to establish self-sufficient colonies anywhere, then going into space isn’t going to help us survive as a species. On the other hand, we’re going to have to start with other places in our own solar system, and consider tougher challenges later.

If a ‘peak oil’ situation is fast approaching, does that make the space effort more or less important? Should all the money be going to alternative energy sources instead? Is it possible that we’ll end up switching to some alternative energy source that will need to be brought back from other planets (e.g. harvested from gas giants)? That might not even be practical, considering the absolutely ridiculously enormous costs of transporting anything to/from another planet.

A plan that didn’t involve reliance on cheap gas—that is, cheap gas not just in the near future but more or less forever—would be better. Something like a space elevator, which would cost vast amounts to build but upon completion would cost far less per payload to ‘launch’.

There are political arguments against the move into space. If you think that the approaching resource and environmental crises are going to destroy or fundamentally alter capitalism (which is entirely possible, given that our current capitalist model is based on constant expansion), and the this destruction or alteration is a good thing, then you would presumably oppose the expansion into space as something that would more or less allow the system infinite expansion. But if humanity doesn’t try it, or it doesn’t work, the conflicts created by resource shortages and severe shocks to the worldwide economic system might result in a number of catastrophic scenarios. Furthermore, there are always entirely natural catastrophes to worry about.

Overall, getting into space would be a good thing. Alternative energy sources and space exploration seem like good things to spend money on. (And while I’m wishing for things, I might as well wish for more spending on public transport and health care, less spending on war, plastic packaging, and products with deliberately-planned obsolescence.)

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