by Eszter Vlasits, GLOBUS correspondent
Wanting to understand what is beyond our reach is an innate virtue of humankind. Long before we understood anything about our planet’s place in the universe (or as a matter of fact, about what planets are), we have always looked up at the stars and created myths about their origin, we have always entertained ourselves with stories of otherworldly creatures and places of far beyond and we have always desired to explore new worlds. Throughout the centuries, with the help of scientific discoveries, these dreams turned into more tangible plans to discover space, and in the 20th century, we set foot on the Moon. At the same time, the birth of modern science fiction as a genre widely popularised this narrative of humanity ‘breaking out’ of the limits set by one planet with the help of incredible technological advancement and becoming the colonisers of entire galaxies. However, now at the start of the 21st century, when it is becoming more and more apparent that Earth is in danger of becoming uninhabitable, space exploration has gained a new implication: escape. But what prospects do scientific research and development currently have in succeeding in this endeavour? Are our dreams of space colonisation helpful or detrimental in trying to save the planet that is currently our home?
Where are we headed?
Firstly, let’s have a quick look at the current state of things in finding a new planet to live on. The top contender, as everyone knows, is Mars. Scientific research has been eyeing the red planet for a long time, but there is still no consensus on whether it could be habitable for the human species. Although no trace of carbon-based life has been found on the planet, there is strong evidence suggesting that surface conditions on Mars were once less grim (to start with, there is a significant amount of water on the surface in the form of ice sheets). This gives way to plans to terraform the planet and engineer conditions in which a colony, a settlement of humans, can be sustained. While NASA and multiple other agencies are also working towards this goal, perhaps the most famous proponent of this plan is SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who is planning to establish a city on Mars. His plan is to start sending rockets carrying materials for building the colony in the late 2020s and possibly sending the first humans in the 2030s, with the colony eventually becoming self-sustaining. (It is interesting to note that not everyone agrees with the view that space exploration should include colonising new planets: Jeff Bezos for example supports the idea of building artificial colonies orbiting Earth and outsourcing polluting industries into these colonies.)
Since it’s pretty obvious that aside from the debated potential of Mars, there is no place for us in the solar system, the search for habitable exoplanets is also afoot among astronomers. Habitability depends on numerous factors such as the size of the planet, the composition of its atmosphere and surface conditions (temperature, liquid water etc.), many of which are naturally hard to determine when we are talking about a planet lightyears from us. Depending on how we look at it, our prospects of finding one that can actually serve as a home can be promising or quite hopeless: according to NASA, there are roughly 300 million potentially habitable exoplanets in our galaxy. One of those has got to be the perfect replacement for Earth, right? However, only a fraction of those is within a distance we can ever hope to reach, and even reaching the closest ones require technology far beyond our current capabilities. Thus, this dream does not have any implications for the near future and only serves the purpose of a kind of ‘lifeline’, something that makes it possible for us to dream about the survival of our species centuries ahead. But then, how useful is it really, when we are at a turning point is securing our survival on this planet?
Space colonisation vs. planetary crisis
While probably everyone would agree that colonising space is an incredibly exciting prospect, promising numerous scientific breakthroughs, the claim that we should concentrate on it because it will help humanity survive stands on rather shaky legs.
One of the biggest factors contributing to the fact that we are unsure about when certain things will become attainable is that predicting the future rate of technological development is extremely hard. Elon Musk for example is pretty confident that his company will be able to develop fully automated robots to aid the setting up of the Mars colony even before a human sets foot on the planet, but the research going into this is highly complex and can lead in a lot of different directions in the coming years. It is entirely possible that as a consequence of some development in the field, the current trajectory of plans to reach Mars is completely changed. We often make predictions based on what we already see before us, thinking that future technological innovation is going to come from the combination and development of already existing technologies. We are unable to picture any sort of solution involving a revolutionary new approach, precisely because that breakthrough has not happened yet. (Just think of how a century ago, flying cars were imagined widely as the usual form of transportation in the 2000s. Ever seen one? But we have artificial intelligence.) Since the industrial revolution, there has been an accelerating pace of new technologies that put life into a new perspective and provided huge economic possibilities, and each one made the one before it obsolete, or at the very least outdated. If calculations are uncertain regarding when we will be able to build rockets, robots and all sorts of technology required for colonising Mars or interstellar travel, how are we to account for the possible entirely new approaches that might arise along the way?
This leads us to another problem: time. Climate change is a very urgent issue, its environmental effects are already drastic, as according to certain reports we have already passed 5 of the 9 planetary boundaries. The environmental crisis is directly influencing socio-economic processes, and the shockwaves will become bigger and bigger in the coming years. As the picture painted of the crisis will become increasingly grim in the media, the general public will adopt an apocalyptic view on the climate crisis, and the narrative that we have ‘ruined’ Earth beyond repair will become more mainstream. At this point, space programmes will inevitably start to be viewed as Plan B, a saviour to ensure a way out. But the reality is, whether we are talking about the possibility of Mars colonies, spaceship colonies or just extracting resources from space to relieve the stress on Earth’s resources (regarding this, asteroid mining is a debated topic), the timeline does not add up. There is no scenario in which any of these plans could be implemented on a large scale before our current planet becomes next to uninhabitable because of our actions. The only possible scenario in which current societal structures of humanity could live to see the dawn of space colonisation is if we concentrate on the issue right in front of us, and somehow find a way to restructure economic processes (and consequently societal ones) to re-establish a delicate balance between the planet’s biogeochemical processes and our extractive activities. Only then can we live to see the long process of gaining enough knowledge and tools to claim new planets. Trying to treat it as a race and say that if we pool more resources into space exploration then the process might be fast enough to be a solution does not work: all scientific evidence points to the fact that the climate crisis would win the race.
Although for some it might seem too banal, we should not ignore the ethical implications in choosing to abandon Earth. We have taken this planet and overburdened it to an extent where its systems are dangerously overburdened. The discourse on how to even begin to address the planetary crisis we are facing is full of conflict and various contradicting interests, as a result of which action on climate change is not nearly large-scale enough.
It can be argued that research into space colonisation does not draw resources away from other areas and is merely a useful ‘side quest’. However, this is hardly true when we think about how the millions of dollars put into research and development in the area could be shifted to solve problems of renewable energy production and to establish sustainable infrastructures. Furthermore, the picture presented to the public should not be ignored: those who have the resources to act, simultaneously have tremendous power over public opinions and are able to use this power to make people believe in various solutions. It is just a matter of what they choose to present as the solution.
We are clearly enchanted by our capacity to reach the stars. As I mentioned in the beginning, it has always been a dream of humans and now it is within reach. But the very development that is making it possible to break out of the boundaries of Earth has destroyed it in the process, and now it seems like there is a trade-off between concentrating on creating alternatives and committing to changing our ways and saving our current home. And while the exploration of space is undeniably extremely important and can help in developing new technologies and providing new solutions, the problem we have here on the ground is far more urgent.
Listen to Eszter discuss the topic further on our podcast episode “Space – The Final Frontier”