As humanity stands right now we’re only dipping our toes into the vast and wondrous universe that we live in. Our current endeavors to survive outside of the world that gave us life have been limited to short frolics to our closest celestial neighbor as well as extended trips at high speeds through our upper atmosphere. However our attempts to establish ourselves beyond the comfort of our own home have, for the past 40 years, remained firmly in the realm of dreams. Today we bear witness to such magnificent events that are set to rekindle that adventurer spirit that has been long dormant in mankind, paving the way for us to once again brave the unknown.
Whilst my ambition to see humans turn into a true space faring race my stem from a selfish desire to have one of my most desired dreams realized I also truly believe that if humanity is to survive long into the future we must journey to other worlds. As it stands right now the human race is vulnerable to extinction events which, whilst extremely unlikely, would see the end of the human race as we know it. Establishing ourselves away from our home world would not only teach us how to live more sustainably, it would also ensure that even in the most tragic of circumstances we as humans would continue on.
So where would we go to satisfy such an ambition? There really is only one answer:
Realistically however, the answer is more complicated than that.
Officially there are 8 planets that make up our solar system with multiple other bodies that don’t quite fit our current classifications of heavenly bodies. Of these half of them are what we call giants having sizes and masses ranging from 15 to 317 times that of earth. Humans would have no chance of ever surviving on these beasts as the gravity and radiation that these planets emit are extremely deadly to us organic beings. Of the 4 remaining planets we’re already inhabiting one of them, another a scorching ball of rock, one a warning sign to how devastating green house gases can be and finally a lone ball of red dust. You’d be forgiving for thinking that all of them bar our current home wouldn’t be worth trying to settle on but as it turns out our red cousin might just have what it takes to make ourselves at home.
It’s been known for quite some time that there are reserves of water ice on Mars. In what quantities and purities isn’t so definite, but there are significant amounts tied up in permafrosts, minerals and in ice sheets under the Martian surface. Using current day technology we would be easily able to extract enough to support a permanent colony on our red sister, even without the help of earth for resupply. Granted the best locations for water are not the best locations for people (it’s rather cold at the poles) but the fact remains that one of life’s most essential ingredients is in plentiful supply. Couple that with Mars’ soil having the unusual characteristic of being good for growing asparagus and you have the potential for the beginnings of a real ecosystem, something that Mars has lacked for millions of years.
Many will tell you that before we can even think of establishing ourselves on Mars we have to first conquer the challenge of living on our closest neighbor, the Moon. It’s an interesting proposition as many of the technologies that need to be developed to colonize another planet like Mars would also be applicable. The Moon as it stands is far more inhospitable to life which means that if we could prove that we could colonize it then basically any other reasonable heavenly body is possible as well. Still if Mars and the Moon were both equal in distance and travel time I highly doubt there would be any discussion over where we would be going next, as Mars is infinitely more valuable to us than the Moon. Still the fact remains that the furthest any human has ever gone away from home is no where near the time required to get to our sister planet, and that is insurmountable task that we face.
Honestly I would be all for a Moon colony as it would make future deep space missions much more feasible and would open up all sorts of opportunities such as a 100m telescope that would be almost 2000 times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope. However most current plans to return to our celestial twin are often little more than flag planting exercises with no intention of setting up a permanent base of operations there. That is why I don’t support many of the proposals as their vision falls short of what is required to truly push humanity beyond our current comfort zone. Japan is probably the most forward thinking in this regard with their plans to build a robot base there by 2020.
I am by no means saying that this would be an easy endeavor. Cost estimates for a return mission start at a modest $55 billion which for comparison is just under half of what the International Space Station has cost. Most likely setting up a permanent colony on Mars would require dozens of such missions easily tipping the cost towards the trillions. Still we know that attempting such things spurs on many economic benefits that are many times greater than their cost to society. This would be the least of all the benefits that colonizing Mars would bring to the human race.
If that doesn’t convince you, maybe this will:
Everytime I think I’m losing my interest in space something always comes along to bring me right back into that almost dream like state I first had when I decided that leaving this blue marble was my lifetime goal. Whether it be pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, a few readings from the Mars Exploration Rovers or even a discovery that might one day lead us faster than light travel I can’t doubt myself for more than a day before I reminded of the beautiful, complex and ever changing universe that we live in. It is my fervent hope that I can one day instill such passion in a wide majority of the world, and the beginnings of that are contained in this blog.
However I understand that we don’t live in a world that is governed solely by one man’s desires and hopes. In this world that is ruled by politics, economics and raw resources we have work within these constructs in order to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. Unfortunately in the case of NASA these rules have led from it being a source of inspiration for humanity worldwide to a struggling organisation who can barely make the headlines. Whilst some might say that this is because there are bigger problems to solve here on terra firma I and many others would disagree:
Tyson echos a sentiment I’ve held for quite a while now. Born well after the initial space race and in the remote location of Australia I was cut off from the world of space for a very long time. My earliest memory of having anything to do with space was a night of astronomy when I was about 8 years old, seeing a bright red dot through a large contraption I had no understanding of. It would be another 4 years before my next brief experience of space when I saw Mission to Mir on the IMAX screen in Sydney. After then I can not think of one experience I had with space until a couple years back, when I discovered my passion for space and all things to do with it.
After the dizzying heights that were reached when NASA was formed to win the space race it has taken a slow downhill course to irrelevance. No longer are they charged with pushing the boundaries of what we are capable in space, more they are responsible for a very expensive transport business with a small dabbling of science on the side. This is why they are no longer the inspiration they once were, every they do is routine. For decades now NASA has been in a position to cast off its routine duties and begin clawing at the edges of space, just like it did so long ago. We have the chance to do so much yet such a comparatively small cost is too great for those who have the ability to pay for it.
Maybe I’m just nostalgic for a time that I didn’t live through, but after going so long not knowing about the tremendous benefits that NASA and its projects brought to our world and then finally discovering them I can’t help but feel that the everyman is in the same situation. As a species we seem so focused on the immediate problems of our world that we tend to forego looking up and seeing the direction we should be moving in, leaving us only to tread the paths we’ve been down before. It would seem that collectively we’re incapable of drastic change over a prolonged period of time.
The point remains however that should NASA axe its human space program that it will become irrelevant in the public’s eye. Whilst we have had a tremendous amount of success with robotic exploration missions they fail to grab the attention of the everyman as they can not identify with them. Whilst I lament the idea of flag planting missions they serve to inspire the generation of their time to achieve such lofty goals which, if continued over an extended period of time, leads to a feedback loop of epic proportions. Had NASA continued along the same path as it did when it was first created there’s no telling where we would be today, but there’s no use dwelling on the past.
Despite this we are on the cusp of another revolution in space which the fledgling private space industry is responsible for. We have so many companies that are now willing to do the job that only NASA was capable of just a decade ago that soon NASA will have no choice but to give way to them. Once they have done this they can refocus their efforts on pushing the limits of technology like they once did and hopefully see them return to their rightful spot as the most inspirational government organisation mankind has ever seen. Just that thought alone is enough to keep a dreamer like myself going even when NASA seems to be going through the darkest times.
My thanks go out to my friend Glen for linking the video that inspired this post.
I’d love to say that ever since I was a little boy I would lie awake at night staring at the stars and wanting to go up there, but I would be wrong. As a kid I barely knew about the wonders of space and the kinds of technology that have taken us up there. It was only after I turned 21 did I start getting interested in space, only just on a year ago that I decided I would be visiting outer space in my lifetime, by any means possible.
Anyone who knows me will tell you how passionate I am about space and how humanity must become a spacefaring civilisation. As a child born many years after our glory days of landing on the moon I’ve only been able to witness humanities various robotic accomplishments (which are great and many) and the wonder that is the International Space Station. For the next 10 years though I will be on tenterhooks as we, hopefully, plan to make our glorious return to the moon and beyond. That gives me something to look forward to, no matter what else happens along the way.
The reason I’m so passionate about space is that whenever I start talking about it most people will only know about the Apollo missions, the Shuttle and possibly the Mars rovers. Few know about the bravery of the Mercury and Gemini Astronauts, or the amazing inginuity of the Mir space station. It seems that ever since the end of the Apollo missions, humanity has found space to be boring and kids don’t grow up wanting to be Astronauts anymore.
I’ve come into the world of Aeronautics late in life, and I sometimes lie awake at night wondering what kind of life I would be leading now if I realised that my passion lied in outer space. Who knows, I might be living in the United States right now eagerly awaiting my first shuttle flight (although, history has shown youngsters like myself aren’t usually considered for another few years). What I do appreciate though is that the world in its current state is on the verge of a critical mass in terms of space for the masses. Soon we will have sub-orbital flights (a la the Mercury Program) and when that all goes well, we’ll be seeing orbital flights not too long afterwards.
I guess I just long for the days when you asked kids what they wanted to be when they grow up many of them would say Astronaut. The reason I miss those days so much is because it meant that Space exploration was so mainstream that even the children knew about it and were excited to participate in it. We’re really still in the infancy of Space flight (regular flight has really only become mainstream in the past decade) so it is with our children that the future of humanity in Space will lie.
To get you a little inspired, here are some pictures from the recent shuttle mission STS-126, which upgraded the International Space Station in order for it to handle double the crew starting next year.