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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Midnight Train to Georgia

Yesterday I posted about the possibility of private citizen volunteers collectively building earth's first ship to the stars, rather than waiting for governments or corporations to take the lead.

Governments are hamstrung by their electorate, and corporations are hamstrung by their shareholders. So, take the governments and corporations out of the picture completely, and turn the project over to people who care enough about it to build the ship in spite of the price-tag. This seemed to me like a reasonable solution to a reasonable problem.

Then, this morning, I saw a pretty cool video of Thursday's launch of the space shuttle Discovery, taken by a passenger on a commercial airliner. Then I read the comments on Yahoo about the video. People were actually using the internet to complain that there was no reason to spend tax dollars on the space program. If people cannot appreciate that our space program is the reason they have things like television, the internet, GPS and weather satellites, then a ship to the nearest stars which wouldn't get there in their lifetime if it were launched today is going to be a harder sell.

Especially when there are, for example, 24,000 homeless people right here in King County. Yes, there are many other important things to spend money on. Now I want to express the cold, hard reality of why building a starship is at least as important as funding for housing, health, education, welfare, energy, the environment and defense.

Nobody really likes to say this, but it still needs to be said. As a species we managed to survive the Cold War, and kudos to us for that. But as our population rushes past 7 billion on the way up, the odds of our surviving another century, as a species, continue to dwindle. In addition to the simple and eternal forces of nature which tend to stabilize exploding populations (such as famine and plague), and the ever-present possibility of a one-time mass-extinction event such as an asteroid impact or supervolcano eruption, there is the very real possibility that homo sapiens will be counted among the species driven to extinction by unmitigated global warming. Regarding this last possibility I am guardedly hopeful; as a species we do have the ability to correct this still, if we get off of our collective asses right now and correct it. I'll be posting a lot more about this later; Freeman Dyson, who first conceived of the Orion starship, has actually given us a workable solution to bring down atmospheric CO2 levels to a survivable or even comfortable level. But that is a topic for another post.

The bottom line is, if we as a species continue to keep all of our eggs in one planetary basket, sooner or later our species will become extinct. This is of course true for every species, but we have the unique perspective of becoming aware of the very real possibility of the extinction of our species within what would otherwise have been our lifetimes. Every generation, of course, has fantasized that they were the last; Jesus imagined that he and his disciples were living in the end of times, and we've succeeded in surviving another hundred generations since then. And again, we survived the Cold War, which was far from an inevitable outcome to that conflict. But every species larger than a cockroach which has lived prior to the K-T asteroid event has eventually faced extinction, and so long as we remain an earthbound species, we will as well.

Our government appears to be acutely aware of this. Even the eviscerated proposed NASA budget for 2012 includes funding for five things:

1) Maintaining the ISS as a crewed facility outside of earth's atmosphere,
2) Maintaining weather and climatological earth satellites,
3) Maintaining satellites to track Near Earth Orbit asteroids and comets,
4) Maintaining satellites searching for earth-like planets around nearby stars,
5) Developing heavy-lift capabilities to establish permanent colonies on the Moon and Mars.

Both the George W Bush and Barack H Obama administrations have ultimately made these five things their budgetary priorities for NASA. If Bush and Obama agree that these are our most important priorities, that's worth noticing.

The Moon and Mars are our best candidates for quick mass-migration, with arguments in favor of both but ultimately only Mars has enough water to sustain a very large human population. But, as has been previously discussed here, Mars and the Moon frankly suck as places for humans to live. So ultimately, for humans to survive as a species, we will need to migrate further. And we may not have the luxury of waiting a very long time to do so.

The meek shall inherit the Earth. With perseverance, the rest will inherit the stars. Between us, our species and our evolutionary descendants may survive a very long time.

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