Monday, April 21, 2008

Options in the Big, Bright Solar System

In a NYT op-ed piece titled "Running Out of Planet to Exploit," Paul Krugman wonders whether this time, with oil at $117 a barrel and Australia in its tenth year of drought, we might really be facing massive food and energy shortages that will hurt lots of people and trigger all sorts of bad side effects. It's a big world, but it's feeling noticeably finite, isn't it?

But as I and many others have written before, the sun is an immense source of energy, and the Moon and near-Earth asteroids hold immense stores of various materials. Not that we can use these next year or even in ten years, but if we can develop better access to space, we will have more options.

And speaking of more options, acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking gave a speech on the occasion of NASA's fiftieth anniversary, calling for much greater investment in space development, leading to colonies on the Moon and Mars. He argues that the world should devote about 10 times as much as NASA's current budget to space development, around 0.25% of the world's financial resources - a lot of money but a tiny fraction of our available resources, and a true investment in the future. Not that this will be easy or quick, but it would represent a real insurance policy for humankind, and we can certainly afford to do this while still working to keep things under control here. He supports NASA's plans to return people to the Moon by 2020 and to get humans to Mars soon after that - first steps in permanent settlement.

Hawking has spoken before about his concern that natural or human-made disasters could wipe out life on Earth (or at least human life). He's not the only one worried about this, but I'm afraid things will have to get a lot worse before many people will start to take seriously the need for a backup plan for humanity. I hope we will act before things get really, really bad as in John Barnes' alternate near-future SF "Kaleidescope Century" series, but I'm only vaguely optimistic that we will. I like those books, but I wouldn't want to live there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Basic problem with Hawking's approach: politicians don't get a whole lot of votes by saving some small percentage of their electorate from disaster. Not the sort of legacy they want.

Same thing with business. The White Star didn't go around talking about how it had just saved 705 people when they had just sent 1,500 to a watery grave through incompetence and greed.