Stephen Hawking says that humanity won't survive
the next thousand years unless we colonize space. I think that
Hawking is an optimist.
We've seen a certain amount of worry
about smallpox, anthrax, and various other bioweapons since 9/11. At
the moment, and over the short term - say the next five or ten years
- these worries, while not without basis, are probably exaggerated.
At present there aren't any really satisfactory biological weapons.
Anthrax is scary, but not capable of wiping out large (that is,
crippling) numbers of people. Smallpox, though a very dangerous
threat, is hard to come by and easy to vaccinate against, and the
populations whose members are the most likely to employ it as a
weapon (say, impoverished Islamic countries) are also those most
vulnerable to it if, as is almost inevitable, it gets out of hand
That will change, though. Already there are
troubling indications that far more dangerous biological weapons are
on the horizon, and the technology needed to develop them is
steadily becoming cheaper and more available.
That's not all
bad - the spread of such technology will make defenses and antidotes
easier to come up with, too. But over the long term, by which I mean
the next century, not the next millennium, disaster may hold the
edge over prevention: A nasty biological agent only has to get away
once to devastate humanity, no matter how many times other such
agents are contained previously.
Nor is biological warfare
the only thing we have to fear. Nuclear weapons are spreading, and
there are a number of ways to modify nuclear weapons so as to
produce lethal levels of fallout around the globe with surprisingly
small numbers of the devices. That's not yet a serious threat, but
it will become so within a couple of decades.
talked-about, though probably less of a threat in coming decades, is
nanotechnology. Biological weapons are likely to exceed
nanotech as a threat for some time
, but not forever. Again,
within this century it will be a danger.
scenarios? Private companies are already launching asteroid
rendezvous missions. A mission to divert a substantial asteroid to
strike Earth is probably only an order of magnitude more difficult -
within the resources, in the not too distant future, of small
nations and death-obsessed terror groups, or perhaps Luddites who
believe that smashing humanity back to the Neolithic would be a
No matter. Readers of this column are no
doubt sophisticated enough to come up with their own apocalyptic
scenarios. The real question is, what are we going to do about it?
In the short term, prevention and defense strategies make
sense. But such strategies take you only so far. As Robert Heinlein
once said, the Earth is too fragile a basket to hold all of our
eggs. We need to diversify, to create more baskets. Colonies on the
Moon, on Mars, in orbit, perhaps on asteroids and beyond, would
disperse humanity beyond the risk of just about any single
catastrophe besides a solar explosion - and type G stars such as the
sun don't do that much.
Interestingly, spreading human
settlement to outer space is already official United States policy.
Congress declared it such in the 1988 Space Settlements Act
(Congress declared "the extension of human life beyond Earth's
atmosphere, leading ultimately to the establishment of space
settlements," as a national goal, and required periodic reports from
NASA on what it was doing to promote those goals, though NASA has
dropped the ball on them). And the policy was endorsed again by
Presidents Reagan and Bush (the Clinton Administration didn't
exactly renounce this goal, but didn't emphasize it, either). But
talk is cheap; not much has been done.
What would a space
policy aimed at settling humanity throughout the solar system look
like? Well, there are some ideas
out there, and I'll be devoting some future
columns to a more detailed assessment. But the short answer is: Not
much like the one we've got, unfortunately.
important goal of such a policy has to be to lower costs. Doing
things in space is expensive - horribly so. (In fact, in many ways
it's more expensive than it was in the 1960s). This is no surprise:
it's the tendency of government programs to drive up costs over
time, and human spaceflight has so far been an exclusively
government run program.
That's why promoting the
commercialization of outer space is so important. Market forces
lower costs; government bureaucracies drive them up. Among the
cost-lowering programs that are likely to make the biggest
difference is space tourism, which is beginning to look like a
viable industry in the short term. (Just ask Dennis Tito.) We should
be promoting it any way we can, but especially through regulatory
relief and liability protections.
Government programs should
be aimed at research and development that will produce breakthroughs
in lowering costs: cheaper, more reliable engines, new technologies
like laser launch, etc. Once this technology is produced, it should
be released to the private sector as quickly as possible.
Other research should aim at long-term problems:
fully-closed life support systems capable of supporting humans for
extended periods (you might think that the International Space
Station would provide a platform for this kind of research, but it
doesn't), exploration of asteroids, the Moon, and Mars with an eye
toward discovering resources that are essential for colonization,
and so on.
Putting these policies into place would require
drastic change at NASA, which is now primarily a trucking-and-hotel
company, putting most of its resources into the space station (where
the crew spends most of its time doing maintenance) and the space
shuttle, which now exists mostly to take people to and from the
space station. But we've been stuck in that particular loop for
nearly twenty years, without much in the way of results.
It's time for that to change. Like a chick that has grown
too big for its egg, we must emerge, or die. I prefer the former.