Humans are arrogant creatures. We have drawn a food chain, and pencilled ourselves in at the top. We have claimed ownership over a planet that has seen billions of species – 99.9% of which are now extinct. The dinosaurs ruled the Earth for 155 million years before experiencing a mass extinction event – such an event that we almost surely have in our future. We know it’s going to happen, in the same way that we know we’re going to die – solid in theory, but not quite congruent with reality. Everything that has a beginning must also have an end.
It could be like 28 Days Later, and a pandemic turns us all into flesh-eating fleshbags. Or it could be like Children of Men, and everyone starts shooting blanks from their baby-making guns. Or maybe like Melancholia, in which Earth plays chicken with another planet and loses. But perhaps it’s not going to be as Hollywoodesque.
The sun is around 4.5 billion years old. It still possesses a 5 billion year supply of hydrogen (the chemical reaction changing hydrogen to helium is what powers the sun). Once the sun has converted all its hydrogen into helium, the sun will enter the next phase of its evolution: the red giant phase. As a red giant, the sun will expand and its new diameter will extend somewhere between Venus and Mars (i.e. right about here). And just like that the world won’t exist anymore. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be here for it.
In 2007, Stephen Hawking said: “I believe that life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers. I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.”
Twenty years ago, scientists were arguing the existence of planets outside our solar system, but our achievements to date include: walking on the moon, landing our creations on Mercury, Venus and Mars and a satellite that is right now at the edge of our solar system. We have the ability to detect other Earth-like planets within our vicinity, and we know that we can modify a planet’s atmosphere and temperature in order to make it habitable for humans. Technology is constantly advancing – you only need to look at an original iPhone to see just how quickly. So what’s to stop us from packing up, relocating and colonising another planet?
NASA’s annual budget is $17.7 billion – which isn’t a lot, considering the full cost of a spacesuit alone is $11 million. In fact, NASA accounts for less than one percent of the US’s federal budget.
The initial cost of a project as large as planetary terraforming would be gargantuan – not to mention the political issues that would arise: who would own the new planet? Who would be in power? Would there still be different countries or would we be one big global community?
Then, of course, there is the argument that, given that there are people on Earth who are living in famine, we should spend our time and money at home fixing issues that are currently a threat instead of focusing on problems that are potentially billions of years away. My problem with that is similar to my issue with opponents of climate change: it may not happen now, but it will happen at some stage, and we are hardly prepared.
In 2005, NASA administrator Michael Griffin said: “…the goal isn’t just scientific exploration… it’s also about the range of human habitat out from Earth into the solar system as we go forward in time… In the long run a single-planet species will not survive… If we humans want to survive for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, we must ultimately
populate other planets. Now, today the technology is such that this is barely conceivable. We’re in the infancy of it… I’m talking about that one day, I don’t know when that day is, but there will be more human beings who live off Earth than on it.”
Regardless of whether we move to Gleise 667Cc or not, humans are social creatures. We will always need one another to survive. The way I see it, we can either work together on this, and make space colonisation a possibility, or we can agree to disagree on everything ever and die together. Either way, we’re all in this together and that means something.
This article will be in Issue 11 of Mayhem Magazine.