Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Escape from Earth

I read an article in the newspaper the other day that amused me greatly.  The idea of the article was simple:  Our planet is dying, and the space program must be maintained as a lifeline to abandon Earth for some other home should things get worse.  The author was lamenting the space program in the US being grounded over budgetary concerns and used the 'escape from Earth' idea as an argument.

I think that author and people that agree with that sentiment need a serious reality check.  Star Trek is not real, and fantasy books that talk about the rapid colonization of space as a way to relieve population pressure on Earth are ludicrous.  We have an awful lot of space on Earth to put people that is completely unused and yet is dramatically easier to colonize than anything beyond our atmosphere - say the north or south poles, or the middle of a lifeless sand desert.  Imagine the difficulties of setting up a colony on the South Pole.  Crushing cold, nighttime that lasts 3 months and total lack of soil for growing things are just a few issues you would encounter, and even if the South Pole was a few million kilometers away instead of a few thousand it is almost inconceivably more hospitable than *anything* else in our solar system.

Many moons or planets in our solar system that are in the 'most likely to be colonizable' category regularly have temperature swings of hundreds of degrees (Mars), impossibly crushing pressure on the surface (Jupiter, Saturn) or simply sit consistently at a few hundred degrees above (Mercury, Venus) or below (Ganymede, Io) maximum human tolerance.  Even if the surface of any planet or moon in our solar system was immediately available for colonization there is no chance that anyone would ever go there - every single place would have a lethal atmosphere, produce no food and/or be utterly uninhabitable due to temperature.

Imagine if the absolute worst were to happen and a tactical nuclear weapon were to be detonated over the 1000 most populous cities in the world and the temperature of the earth's surface went up 10 degrees due to global warming.  This new planet would be not very well suited to us compared to what we have now, and yet the idea that we would choose a different planet as our home is a joke.

We have precisely one planet to live on.  While the space program probably does have many benefits (whether they outweigh the costs I have no idea) an escape hatch should things go badly on Earth is not one of them.  We must make do with what we have as there will not be a second chance.


  1. Hmmm... we live on a planet that just HAPPENS to have the perfect temperature for us and the right gases that we need to breathe. What are the odds. Not very good I'll tell you that.

    QED all existence MUST be the product of design.

  2. Actually we don't need to worry about leaving earth until the sun blows up. I'm pretty sure that we won't be able to do anything to delay that. Wonder if we'll still be in basically the same form then. Doubt it.

  3. I believe the sun is scheduled to blow up in 5 billion years. Given that we have gone from cavemen to modern day in something like 50,000 years I think it is safe to say we have absolutely no idea what things will be like then. This is especially true because the pace of change is accelerating so rapidly, to say nothing of our ability to change ourselves with modern technology.

  4. Let me begin by saying I completely agree with Sky about the irrational argument of space colonization as a means of relieving population pressure on Earth.

    It would take quite a convincing argument for me to side with the "lifeline" argument, but there are significant arguments for going to space, setting up a base on Mars, and eventually terraforming Mars.

    The two compelling arguments for the development of extra-Terran colonization are:
    1) The continued development of spinoff technologies (click on the link); and
    2) preservation of the species (and probably other Terran species).

    The first argument should be enough to satisfy those who argue on economic, medical, or humanitarian grounds; I feel the second one is the more important one.

  5. It's not just that, there are other potential benefits too. Not just colonization eventually, but actual resource gathering. We may be a hundred or two hundred years off from it, but eventually, mining asteroids will bring a lot of valuable minerals. Mining other planets will become possible, and will allow us to greatly expand upon our maximum resources, even if we all still live on earth.

  6. While mining asteroids or other planets is possible, the distances involved make it nearly inconceivable that this would actually be efficient. The amount of minerals available in the Earth's crust is tremendous and we have barely scratched the surface. Going deeper and deeper has substantial cost but it is trivial compared to the cost of mining in space.

    That is all not to mention the idea of mining garbage dumps. There is an incredible amount of useful materials buried in garbage dumps which we can make use of as soon as the cost:benefit becomes strong enough, and clearly this will happen way, way before mining is space is possible.

    Not that I am saying that we will *never* mine as asteroid or other planet, but I don't think extrapolating 200 years into the future is reasonable, we have zero idea what our society will be like then.