Space, The Final Frontier
Posted by hyperpat on June 26, 2007
Recently Charles Stross posted an article about how we’ll never get around to colonizing the other planets in the solar system, let alone interstellar colonization, citing the extraordinary cost, technological difficulty, and very poor return on investment as reasons. He also pooh-poohs the idea that we’ll do it anyway just because it’s there. Now while his numbers are very probably correct given today’s level of technology, I think he is seriously underestimating the drive towards going where we’ve never been before, to make a new home far away from the old homestead.
Mars is the obvious logical choice out of all the sundry rocks in the solar system, as it is close enough to a human friendly environment that is fairly easy to see what steps would be necessary to make it into something where we can actually live. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red, Blue, & Green Mars set lays out these steps in admirable fashion, although it’s quite probable that the time frame he envisions is way too short to actually achieve that goal (although at least one scientist thinks we could be well down that path by the end of this century). Could we do it with today’s technology? Probably not. But the pace of progress shows no signs of slowing down, and if we can get to the point where a space elevator is a real possibility, it will remove one of the greatest impediments to this task, that of having to lift large quantities of various necessary tools and biomasses out of Earth’s deep gravity well with something as inefficient and dangerous as rocket power. Lacking such an item right now, exploration by both robot probe and manned missions is not only doable, but necessary, and we can leave the colonization for a little later.
Of course, the limiting factor here is not really technology, but money (of course, the better the technology, the less it will cost). Who is going to fund all of this? NASA’s mandate and budget will only stretch so far. And while there are always a few with visionary dreams, the average taxpayer doesn’t see much point to spending all this money to investigate a world that seems to be populated with nothing but some very uninteresting rocks. But it is precisely those who have that visionary dream, coupled with a few individuals who have some really deep money pockets who either share that dream or can be convinced of its value, that will really drive this. This is happening now, as private ventures towards developing an economical space plane have already shown.
There has always been a small segment of the human population that is just not satisfied with the status quo, who want to see what’s over that next hill, who will endure great deprivation in search of such dreams. Without such people, humanity would become stagnant and ingrown, always worrying about the local problem of the day, and missing one of the grander aspects of what it is to be human. Stross is wrong. We will colonize our solar system, as there will always be a few of us who don’t count the cost.