Everyone I know is raving about this short, speculative video about the future of space exploration.

I'm not so enthused; I even find the words of Carl Sagan troubling. It's lovely and all, but…

There's nothing in those exotic landscapes as lovely and rich as mossy and majestic cedars of the Olympic Peninsula, or the rocky sea stacks of the nearby coast. The northern tundra is more alive than an icy plain on a distant moon; having Saturn's rings as a backdrop is not as glorious as an earthly sunset. If you want desert, you don't have to go to Mars, they're scattered all over our planet, and they have inhabitants…and you don't need extreme life support to walk about. Everywhere you go on Earth, there is wonder and beauty, we live in it, we breathe it in, and we take it for granted. There is grandeur in your backyard, so why look to Europa for awe?

Don't get me wrong. I support space exploration, and think it's good that we send probes out to distant places and try to learn more about this solar system where we live. But portraying these places as vacation spots, or even more unlikely, places to settle and inhabit -- that is distressing, when we can't even keep our relatively paradisial home habitable. We poison our water and air, and we dream of going to airless, waterless planets and extracting fresh air and pure liquid water? That's madness. We tear up our forests, we plow the dirt and let the rain wash it into our rivers and oceans, the soil eroding away…so we think the solution is to go to a sterile world, grow food crops with hydroponics, and all will be OK? If we can't keep this rich world productive and healthy, why would anyone have the delusion that they could start fresh on a dead planet and create a living one?

Sagan's story is that natural selection has shaped humanity, as a survival trait, with a wanderlust that encourages us to seek out new territories, for when the "long summers, mild winters, and rich harvests" end. That is the philosophy of locusts. When the resources here are used up, move on, find another place, consume it, then move on again. Only the here that Sagan is talking about is our entire planet. Rather than learning to sustain and maintain natural cycles, we'll instead plan on exploiting what we've got and leaving it behind for someplace else -- without considering that every other place in the solar system is a hellhole compared to our home.

It doesn't work. There are more than 7 billion people here. How many get to move to the self-contained underground colony on Titan? Who gets to go? I don't care how many spaceships you launch, only a minuscule minority of the population will be launched outward, and the vast majority will still be living on Earth. The greatest responsibility of humanity must be the people who live right here, not some peculiar minority that is willing to live in tin cans with an artificial environment. Even that minority aren't going to be living exotic lives of interplanetary romance -- they're going to be ants in a highly structured ant farm, working for disciplined and tightly focused institutions that will be necessary in such hostile environments.

Again, keep exploring, keep learning -- I want to know what's underneath the ice of Europa as much as anyone -- and keep advancing space technology. There will come a day when, through no fault of our own, the Earth is swallowed up by the sun, and we'll have to move outward to survive. But talk to me about colonizing other planets then, not now…it is hopelessly irrelevant now, especially when you consider that that's so far in the future that our species will almost certainly be extinct.

Distant planets are objects of curiosity, but Earth itself is an object of survival. If natural selection has actually adapted us to the life of locusts, the only way our species can survive in the future is by changing our natures, because we've filled up this habitat, and there's no where else to go. Despite the fantasies of people with nice graphical visualization tools.

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It's very easy to imagine similar opinions having been expressed by the now-extinct inhabitants of Rapa Nui.

Investing in long, expensive, dangerous voyages when society is heading off a cliff can sound like a terrible idea, just as argued here. What is missing from this calculus are the unexpected benefits.

By solving the huge problems of surviving in the incredibly hostile environments of other planets (nearby) we will be forced to develop solutions that we otherwise should not expect, and we're not just talking about velcro or rechargable batteries from the Apollo program.

I agree in-system options are all pretty dreadful, but until we crack the lightspeed barrier, going to these hell-holes offers unprecedented challenges and therefore: trite-but-true "opportunities".

As for FTL: see

By Buck Field (not verified) on 01 Dec 2014 #permalink

Simply beautiful. So is the film.

By Max Milhayser (not verified) on 01 Dec 2014 #permalink

Buck: What is missing from this calculus are the unexpected benefits.

We live on a planet about which we have thousands of years of empirical knowledge, and where we also have a pretty good idea about the "known unknowns" in our understanding of life on this planet. You're suggesting we ignore much of what's going on on Earth in exchange for "unexpected benefits". Be my guest, but the rest of us have to live here. That's why the idea of space travel is merely a handy distraction to avoid acknowledging, dealing with, or paying the price for problems down here on the planet's surface.

Maybe you're watching too much tv?
The Impact of Science Fiction Film on Student Understanding of Science

Hi Bargy,

My advocacy for including unexpected benefits is quite nearly the opposite of "suggesting we ignore much of what’s going on on Earth".

Perhaps I came across as implying we can only consider investing 100% of our research resources in space or 100% on earth, but that is very far from any opinion that I can ever, *ever* imagine holding. :)

By Buck Field (not verified) on 01 Dec 2014 #permalink

Sustainability on Earth is the necessary prerequisite for migration outward in our solar system, and for migration to other star systems.

Interplanetary and interstellar migrations are not escape hatches from, or substitutes for, achieving sustainability on Earth. They will be respectively the largest projects humanity will have undertaken to date. They will require long time-horizons for planning, development, and implementation, and they will require substantial commitments of money and physical resources. The time and resources required can only be mustered if Earth civilization is sustainable and stable.

The counterpoint that we must solve "all of" Earth's problems "before" we set our proverbial sails for Beyond, is a red herring and a straw man (a straw herring?;-). This is not either/or, it's and/both: we can and must continue our present course of space exploration while we simultaneously solve our problems here on Earth.

Then when solar expansion begins to make life on Earth untenable in a few hundred million years, the migrations will be well underway, and it will become possible to depopulate Earth over a long schedule.

As for the extinction of humanity, my crystal ball is as good or bad as yours. Homo Sapiens may mutate into another species (Homo Noeticus, anyone?), or it may continue in its present form. But in any case, we do not have the right to foreclose the future of our distant descendents by using up Earth's resources and destroying Earth's ecosystems. "Do unto the future as you would have the past do unto you."

Hello G,

I agree with each of your points except sustainability being THE "necessary prerequisite" for deep space migration.

Would we say something similar for late inhabitants of Rapa Nui? Why or why not?

By Buck Field (not verified) on 02 Dec 2014 #permalink

Hi Buck-

Thanks for catching that; I was trying to avoid a digression and ended up making a mistake.

Actually there are a number of prerequisites for interplanetary and interstellar migration:

Sustainability is the most important. If we exhaust certain vital resources, or destroy vital ecosystems on which complex societies depend, we will fall into a hole from which it is not possible to climb back out. At that point we will have condemned our distant descendents to extinction: and we will have thereby failed the cosmic Darwin test.

The other preconditions, all of which must hold for thousands of years, are:

World peace. A global nuclear or biological war will also put us down the hole into an unrecoverable position. Military readiness and neutral deterrence are still necessary to prevent aggression, but the world must shift to a system of law and justice for solving international conflicts.

Freedom of scientific inquiry and research, and technological research and development. These freedoms are essential for developing the new propulsion systems and space habitats that will be needed for migration and habitation. This does not mean that every new scientific discovery or technological innovation must be unleashed onto world markets: in fact, the proliferation of consumer goods is irrelevant to the axes of measurement of real progress.

An ethic of cooperation. Humanity must come to see itself as one people, transcending the artificial boundaries of race, nationality, ideology, and so on. The ethical system that is needed, also entails the ability to recognize that our distant descendents have moral standing in the world of today: we are obligated to give them the means to enable them to choose whether or not to migrate into space. Though, faced with the prospect of Earth annihilated during the natural life cycle of the Sun, it's clear they will choose to migrate rather than willingly go extinct. (If given the choice, would you rather die tomorrow, or decades from now? Would you allow someone who wanted your property and belongings to make that choice for you?)


Rapa Nui (Easter Island): Their unfortunate demise is a lesson for us today. Since my knowledge of anthropology is limited, I can't comment in any depth about what happened to their society and how that compares to what happened to other societies. However it is clear that they suffered from overshoot of their resource base, and the resulting collapse of population. That in turn made them more susceptible to the depredations of slave traders and the diseases they carried (smallpox, tuberculosis).

But the same comment applies here as above: Who among us would choose to die tomorrow rather than to live for decades more? And who among us would allow someone who wanted their property to make that choice for them? When we choose overpopulation and overconsumption, we are making that choice for our descendents. When we choose consumer baubles rather than resilient infrastructure, we are making that choice for them. Wen we waste resources on frivolous pursuits, we are making that choice for them. We do not have the right to do that, any more than we have the right to steal from someone who is defenseless and then kill them: in fact the analogy is isomorphic to the reality.

Just as the prospect of facing our own deaths forces each of us to take stock of our lives and our values, the prospect of facing human extinction does likewise for us as a species.

Sustainability, peace, scientific progress, and an ethic of cooperation will enable the lineage of Earth to become a cosmic civilization. And as well, these values and practices will enable our immediate descendents to have a world that's truly fit to live in. These things are convergent, just as sanitation and vaccination are convergent for health and longevity.

Buck, Rapa Nui is a very poor analogy for space travel. Yes, the people who discovered the island took huge risks to get there, but they understood the environment they lived in, they understood navigation, and they had the option of catching fish along the way. They knew they'd be able to breath the air when they got there.

Lots of people think humans are going to have some kind of manned Mars mission sometime soon. This is completely unlike the Polynesian trip to Easter Island. The distances are mind-bogglingly vast, the timelines enormous (both for a putative project and travel times), and the toll on human health caused by space travel is certain.

Sorry, but I don't have time to care about people's FTL fantasies. Maybe if we get a working fusion reactor down here on Earth. Otherwise, it's more wishful thinking.

What we do know, given our current technology and our limited knowledge of the effects of space travel, is that a manned excursion to Mars would be very expensive, very time-consuming, and that anyone who successfully made the voyage would be in very poor shape to survive a landing. Additionally, their chances of surviving in the hostile - surely an understatement - environment of Mars would seem to be very small.

Are you suggesting it would all be worth it because "unexpected benefits"? Because I have a bridge in the high Arctic you might be interested in...

The current hype about a Mars mission is just that: hype.…

Meanwhile, we have a very long list of problems here on Earth that we could be solving. For starters, we have the money, the technology and the desire to feed most of the world's hungry. Why is this such a difficult issue to address? Politics. Same with pollution, habitat loss, overfishing, climate change and a host of other issues. We're not waiting for completely new technology based on physics that doesn't exist yet.

Given that the technology for any manned space travel (except maybe to the Moon*), is going to be some way down the road, we need to take a longer view of this project. Let's say we're going to plan for a manned mission to somewhere 500 years from now. What does sustainability mean in that context? What if things don't work out? Are we going to harness all of Earth's mineral and energy resources and pollute the entire planet to support what is currently an industrial fantasy? Worse, I think it's a Libertarian fantasy, where we simply declare that the physical and biological limits of existence don't apply to us and carry on from there. Wishful thinking, in other words.

*Why don't we have any colonies on the Moon yet? Or do we????

I'm hearing "You may do this space exploration when we can think of nothing we'd rather do, when we're finished, you may have some crumbs, if we've left any.". There is enough for both, and giving the "Locusts" other worlds to bother will relieve stress on this one and you will enjoy any spin-offs resultant, as you have the previous ones.

Hello G,

I'm afraid I still can't agree with your list of prerequisites.

Sustainability: not a prereq, especially if resources from space exploration turn out to be needed for nearer-term survival.

Total world peace, freedom, and cooperation...for thousands of years? Hardly.

Deep space development seems possible with wars raging, tyrannies subjugating, and lots of people in competition. These could even provide motivations for deep spaceflight.

By Buck Field (not verified) on 06 Dec 2014 #permalink


I think you are confusing discoverers of Rapa Nui with my analogy of the late inhabitants, who were in decline.

During the decline, should they have invested some of their dwindling resources and population in striking out for the Chilean coast, or continued efforts to solve their sustainability problems?

By Buck Field (not verified) on 06 Dec 2014 #permalink