Our greatest theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking recently declared that humans have no more than a hundred years to get off this planet to ensure the survival of our species. And when someone such as he does so, it is with an understanding not just of the science, but of both our tenuous place and our possibility in the universe.
Some have responded that settling space is not only a distraction from making our life better down here but too hard and no guarantee that we would survive an extinction level event like an asteroid strike or any other of the myriad threats we face as a species.
The skeptics are right on both counts – it will be very hard and, at first, very perilous. Just look at the first British settlers at Jamestown who came within a whisker of perishing. There are no guarantees with such dangerous gambles. But with each step outward the odds will get better and better that we can survive out there and prosper back here – and that alone beats doing nothing.
Also, what the critics don’t calculate when they speak of such an undertaking as if it somehow draws down on a limited resource of human ingenuity is the effect of the effort itself. While the first Jamestown settlers were gold diggers with bad equipment and planning, others absorbed the lessons this new world had to teach them and learned, adapted and innovated. All struggled mightily at first. And then they prospered, and so did those back in what had been their homelands.
Could they have foreseen the great nation that their children would found? Could they have foreseen that it would be the place that would lead the transformation of human civilization and technology so that anyone anywhere can have both the means and freedom to even read their words and be part of the debate? Perhaps, as many pioneers are dreamers, but even without that full understanding of the potential of this new land they adapted to both deadly challenges and bright opportunities and became more resilient, stronger and changed everything – everywhere - including eventually a society that if not perfect in its treatment of those who came before is now capable of engaging its own past and striving to build a better future for all - something unseen in all of history before.
To establish human settlements on the Moon, Mars or in the free-space between humans will have to again rapidly adapt. Like early pioneers there will be no nearby friendly merchants or supportive governments to replace that broken tool. And make no mistake, the danger off-world in inhospitable environments increases by at least an order of magnitude because it is not just a shovel that can break but the technology that allows breath itself.
Skeptics ask, why bother?
Because this is how our species advances. We are curious, horizon driven, garrulous creatures who fight tooth and nail to rise to and overcome the challenges we take on. It is not only our nature to do things as John Kennedy said, “..not because they are easy but because they are hard”, but because in doing those impossible things - out there - we change for the better - back here.
To settle space we will have to develop the ability to harvest and utilize the resources of the solar system such as ores, ice and the rays of the sun itself at levels of efficiency that will transform our relationship to our own planet Earth. We will have to develop the means to survive and thrive by recycling, reuse and re-purposing everything we take with us, including and especially the organic and living things we so take for granted today, helping us develop a new appreciation for life as we learn to reduce our footprint here on our first home, even as it allows us to go anywhere we want and make of those places new homes for generations to come. Robotics, manufacturing, medicine, farming, energy, all will be pushed to and beyond their limits and by so doing will advance at speeds far faster than without the impetus and challenge of opening a frontier - thus also raising the odds of survival in our favor.
Along the way we will learn to work together as a planet, as the challenges and opportunities exceed the capabilities of any one nation or company. Generations will eventually be born off-world and and those born here will prosper, just as those back in the old world prospered when this new world was opened.
And while we are adapting to these and many more challenges our species will inexorably move toward a permanence that survives asteroid strikes or massive solar storms or other natural disasters that can end life on this planet. With luck and the perseverance that is characteristic of our species we will not only become tougher and smarter but wiser, and as each new generation moves further away from our primitive roots perhaps a bit more compassionate and appreciative of the gift of life given us on this fragile little bubble of Earth..
Hawking is right but not just because this is the path to permanence for our species but the means for our species to adapt and grow beyond what we have ever been before and many can ever imagine. Some of us are already hard at work to make it happen, putting our lives and treasure at risk so that we can all have a better tomorrow.. The next step for humanity is not to deny the gift given us by the science of the space age and look down on the difficulty acting on that knowledge entails, but to look up and accept the challenge the future offers.