Thursday, August 12, 2010

To Boldly Go

If my string of 1v1 multiplayer matchups in StarCraft II have taught me anything - I mean, aside from the fact that I'm a weak micromanager and it's a really big risky to go reapers in the early game with only one barracks - it's that expansion is a necessity. With a limited and diminishing supply of resources, you can easily be outflanked by rivals who are more willing to take a chance and spread themselves widely. That's been the case throughout history - in the nineteenth century it was practically a way of life for the imperial powers of Europe, for whom the entire world was the field on which they jockeyed for resources, prestige, and power.

We're conditioned by our environment and our limited perspective to believe that Earth's resources are inexhaustible, and in fact economics seems to take that tacit assumption to heart - that we will always be able to increase the size of our economy without expanding the source from which that economy is fueled. Fewer than six hundred people in all of human history have ever been directly confronted with the folly of that assumption by travelling to space. Earth is only large when compared to those who ride on its back. Nevertheless, it's still possible, and quite easy, to understand - we cannot remain only on Earth forever.

Stephen Hawking knows this. Recently he made another statement regarding his opinion that "the long-term future of the human race must be in space." He points to the existential dangers we've faced in the last hundred years, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis - itself only the most well-known instance of a narrowly-averted nuclear war - and how population pressures, resource pressures, and climate pressures over the next hundred years may seriously exacerbate international tensions and again bring us to the doorstep of doom. Hawking's solution is for humanity to spread out from Earth, and within the next two centuries to settle new worlds - to break our fate from that of our homeworld.

Earth and Luna photographed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera, alone in the black.

It's a big thing to consider. Hell, I'm only moving apartments, and that's still daunting - colonizing another planet, or building workable space habitats, would be an immense project of such complexity that no other enterprise in our history would match it, with the possible exception of the Second World War. It's absolutely difficult and absolutely expensive, I agree - but that doesn't mean it's not absolutely necessary, either.

But how to do it? After only ten years, it seems as if the twenty-first century has quite thoroughly jossed all of the great expectations that eighty years of science fiction created - instead of flying cars, moon bases and robot butlers we've got a damaging dependence on oil, entire subdivisions in foreclosure, and unemployment levels that haven't been seen in decades. That it's the United States at the center of this makes it even more difficult to think about space colonization with any seriousness: if the Americans are returning paved roads to gravel, turning off streetlights and shutting down public transit systems because they cannot afford to maintain them, what does that say about the chances of a few billion dollars for Barsoom?

It is, I think, partially a problem of understanding. Space is distant from the average person, and it's simplicity itself for it to be pigeonholed as a waste of money that could be better spent on Earth - as if NASA's mandate is to stuff its rockets full of dollar bills before launching them off. It's easy to decry investment in space as a luxury - but the fact is that investment in space represents one of the few truly forward-looking, future-focused, constructive, and almost entirely peaceful investments a government can make.

Between 2000 and 2010, the world has changed. The boundless optimism of the millenium has been ground to dust by the fear of terrorism and the dislocations of poverty and recession. What we need is a means to inspire the people, for us to look up at the sky again and imagine how far we can reach - not stare at the ground and think about how we can never hold on to what we grasp.

I think it could work. I think it's worthwhile to try.

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