25 Jul Don’t mess with Space!
Is Space for Exploration, Commercialization, or Colonization? Space Musketeers must take it easy, we can't mess this up.
It was a spectacular few minutes. There is magic in watching a rocket lift off the desert floor shooting up with that thunderous power. Like it’s mocking the very concept of puny, earthy gravity, as it submits to the roar of the thrust. It’s adrenaline-pumping material.
And so it was that Jeff Bezos escaped earth for all of 10 min, and the human race got its 3 space musketeers. Bezos, Branson, Musk. BBM. And their muskets are these rockets. They twirl them around like their boyhood light-sabers.
Their space plans vary: Branson launches a pure space tourism business; Elon Musk fantasizes about making humans a multiplanetary species. And Bezos’ illusions of grandeur are still unknown and mysterious. The amazonification of space has begun.
But I am very confused and very, very conflicted.
What are we doing in space exactly? What is the problem we are trying to solve?
It’s not that I don’t get space excitement. I do! I remember July 20, 1969. Watching the moon landing as a little girl in my town on a Greek island. We had no home TV then, but we gathered outside the one luxury hotel along the waterfront, and I still remember craning my neck up to the screen to catch the moment. What a glorious, mind-bending feat that was!! I’ll never forget the feeling, I was hooked. Twelve years later, April ‘81, a group of us, young grad school engineering students – still without TVs – get up at 2am and trek to someone’s house to watch space shuttle Columbia take off. We cheer, fret, and, eventually, explode in thrill. Oh, the innocent days when space was about discovery!
What is it about today exactly? To what end?
Exploration, commercialization, colonization?
In my mind space is still about exploration for knowledge, for understanding.
It’s not about commercialization. Space is not to be exploited, mined, penetrated, like we did to earth. It’s not to be used to feed a musketeer’s need for power, or for another galactic-size fortune. It’s not about business! Because big business is about play. It’s a game. I’ve been there long enough to know, it’s not about solving anyone’s problems really, it’s about chasing fun, or power, money, status, even immortality for a needy human species. Animals don’t do this.
But space should be different. Space is a big deal. Don’t mess with space.
Didn’t we learn anything from what we did to earth? We want to transfer all this to outer space? Jeff Bezos had a moment of ‘enlightenment’ the other day: “I know what we should do in space: We need to take all our dirty, polluting industries and move them to space”. Yes, I swear to you, this is his solution to pollution. Take your trash and go trash another place with it. Your ‘next’ place, to boot! If this is not the mind of a narcissist, I don’t know what is.
Space is not about colonization either! Who do we think we are? Haven’t we learned anything from the pitiful legacy of colonization on earth? Resource grabbing, death and destruction in the service of primitive human egos. To what end? Still, Elon Musk’s language is chock-full of ‘conquering’ and ‘colonizing’. Is human psychology hopelessly stuck?
A space story
I want to tell you a story about space. A cosmic story that our massive insecurities are no match for.
See, our universe is about 14 billion years old, right? Our sun has been around for about a third of that, but did you know that it has an expiration date? (as the entire universe does too.) Our sun is now half-way through its life. In another 4-5 billion years it runs out of hydrogen fuel to burn, and it turns into a red giant.
And what happens then is a scary story best told by Clara Sousa-Silva, a quantum astro-chemist (yes, that’s a thing) at Harvard and MIT. Clara is in my personal pantheon of demi-gods – scientists and thinkers with deep knowledge and clarity of mind. Basically, the exact opposite of me, hence my inspiration.
Clara studies exoplanets in galaxies, looking for signatures of life in their atmosphere. She has also run simulations for all kinds of endings of our solar system and this is what she sees:
“It is carnage, chaos. Mercury is sucked into the sun. Venus is pulled into the sun. Planets are being hurled around in each other’s paths, they collide, they burn, evaporate, die. It is like the sun is eating its own children yet feels no guilt about it. It feels no parental responsibility, it owes us nothing. The sun does not care what happens to us.”
We are destined to be consumed by the sun. (To be precise, Earth will be burned to a crisp way before the red giant phase, so who cares if it falls into the sun). Scary enough?Wait, there is another coming bloodbath, as described by physicist journalist Jessica Orwig:
“An epic war is coming between our home galaxy and our neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, which is racing toward us. In under 4 billion years, Earth will be caught up in this epic galactic event when these two giants collide. This cosmic dance will go on for a few billion years and will birth a new galaxy”.
I know, so many ways to die!
So, you see what I am saying, don’t mess with space? We don’t know enough yet.
We are space babies playing conquerors. We need to spend our time, money, and the few genius brains we got, in observing, measuring, unlocking the secrets of the universe first. Spend money on many more space telescopes above our atmosphere to analyze stars and planets, send probes, and orbiters. Learn first. Because we are not that good at the do it first, think about it later game. Just look around: toxic food, water, air, economies. Having some fun is one thing, but long-term damage is another.
And don’t get me started on becoming an interplanetary species! Where would we go exactly? We are but one of trillions of planets scattered across hundreds of billions of galaxies, so, let’s see:
First, we can’t go live in Mars, or Venus, unless we change everything about these planets – they call it “terraforming”: There is no oxygen in their atmosphere, there is no gravity as we know it, so we need to “terraform” everything! Seriously, people! We plan to invade and change Mars. What if there is actually some form of life there?? And we destroy it? Remember Hippocrates, 400 BCE: First, do no harm? Who are we? Here come the colonizers to the new New World.
Second, as for going farther out from our solar system, are we kidding? We don’t have the technology to go even a handful of light years away to Alpha Centauri, a mere 25 trillion miles away within our own galaxy. Our fastest ever spacecraft, the New Horizons, would take 80,000 years.
The intergalactic travel know-how won’t come out of colonizing Mars: It won’t tell us about quantum tunneling, or worm holes through spacetime, or how to beat the speed of light. It may come out of fundamental physics research that we don’t spend enough money on. Plus, maybe, a number of Yuri Milners investing 100s of millions to move nanocraft probes (still not humans).
And finally, to put a nail in that coffin, we can’t be a multi-planetary species, because our carbon-based, wetware of a body can’t take it. Our chemistry is far too sensitive. We will have to create a robotic species to do that. Thats’ another can of worms. And tell me, who among you has dreams of being downloaded to a robot and send “it” to go exist in a cold, air-less, ocean-less, tree-less home?
We will probably go extinct before any of that happens, though.
Which makes me think that we are not that smart anyway. Maybe our intelligence was a fluke on the evolutionary tree and our branch will die off. After all, earth has produced 5 billion species so far, and 99% died off. We all end up leaving the planet to the microbes. How smart are they.
Don’t mess with space!
So before we sign up for an unlikely, and deeply unappealing, multiplanetary existence, maybe we can focus on saving this blue miracle we are on, while trying hard to crack the physics of what really makes the universe tick.
Mr. Bezos, next time you go up there, please take with you the politicians and business geniuses who make decisions about our futures. And if, after they float over our blue gem for a while, they still don’t get it, please leave them in orbit and stay with them.
NGC 2336 captured here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope stretches an immense 200 000 light-years across and is located approximately 100 million light years away. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, V. Antoniou Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt, https://esahubble.org/images/potw2109a/