Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Hawking: What if the Sky DOES Fall?

Vespucci-D at Mars with Delta Glider
I just saw this AP news item, reporting some comments made by famous British astrophysicist Steven Hawking at a news conference in Hong Kong. Hawking believes that we face grave risks from a number of directions, and says, "It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species."

This is not the first time Hawking has made such comments - he was criticized for making similar "apocalyptic" remarks in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. But basically, he's right. We really need to have a backup plan in case the current "one planet solution" doesn't work out and world-wide disaster strikes, destroying civilization or much of it. Whether such disaster might occur through relatively slow environmental effects, or through deliberate or accidental destruction by means of engineered viruses, nuclear weapons, or other as yet unknown means (even an asteroid strike), I believe it could happen. It's not certain to happen, but it could, and if it does, colonies in space (Moon, Mars, and perhaps engineered asteroids or artificial colonies built from lunar materials) would allow some people to survive to rebuild civilization.

Does this sound crazy? I would have thought so a few years ago. I'm basically an optimistic and solution-oriented person, not a hand-wringer or a Chicken Little. I was somewhat concerned in the 1980's when the US and then USSR held each other (and the world) hostage with thousands of nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan played chicken with the Soviets and won, spending them into bankruptcy, and in retrospect, while there was danger, the two main parties truly did consider "mutual assured destruction" to be MADness.

But not everybody feels this way. There are many in this world who believe that this is just a rest stop on the way to paradise (for some) and to hell (for the rest of us). Some of these people would not hesitate to pull any available trigger, even if it meant that they too would be destroyed (see my post from the other day). Just because science fiction writers have written the most about such terrible futures doesn't mean that such a terrible future is science fiction (my favorite books in this vein are the Meme Wars series by John Barnes).

This is one of the reasons I'm a space advocate - call it rational escapism. But I have some fear that Hawkins' estimate of a permanent Moon base in 20 years and a Mars colony in 40 may be optimistic unless we get really, really scared (think Manhattan Project). I've read and seen in recent days with our Mars for Less project for Orbiter how hard it is simply to enter and land a 30+ metric tonne crewed spacecraft on Mars under realistic (simulated) conditions. That Mars atmosphere is mighty thin stuff! But I remain hopeful.

N.B. (June 14) Greg Burch has an interesting post today on Hawking's remarks.

1 comment:

DarthVader said...

There is also John Young which have a similar message (for example during the STS-1 anniversary event: Single-Planet Species Don't Last)