[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Colonizing Space: We Must Boldly Go

by Robert J. Sawyer

Op-Ed piece for The Ottawa Citizen, the largest-circulation newspaper in Canada's capital city, Tuesday, June 20, 2006.

Copyright © 2006 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

We shouldn't need a genius to tell us it's folly to keep all our eggs in one basket. But that's exactly what the world's most-famous genius recently told an audience of 2,500 in Hong Kong. Speaking with the robotic voice of his speech synthesizer, Stephen Hawking said, "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of. It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species."

To Hawking, it's a no-brainer: establish colonies on the Moon and Mars, and the people there will survive whatever calamity might befall us here on Earth — a death sentence averted thanks to science.

Hawking's the perfect spokesperson for this: he'd have died years ago were it not for technology, so it's no wonder that he believes using technology to prolong the life of our species is the right thing to do. But is it?

Not everyone thinks so. Hawking may be the most famous British scientist, but close on his heels has to be Doctor Who, the fictional boffin of the long-running BBC TV series. And, as The Doctor said recently when dismissing a plea that he step in at the last moment to save Earth from destruction: "Everything has its time, and everything dies."

Many doubtless agree with The Doctor. We've made an awful mess of this planet, and war seems to be our natural state. Perhaps we're doing the universe a favour by having all of us in one place so we can easily be dispensed with. If humanity's days are numbered, so be it.

But to Hawking — and to me — that's treasonous thinking. Yes, the mantra of the last few decades has been, "Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do it." But when the thing we can do is save our species, then we have an obligation — to our genes, or to God, take your pick — to indeed do it. We should not go gentle into that good night; we must rage against the dying of the light.

I have no doubt that we can indeed build colonies on the Moon and Mars. No breakthroughs or magical new technologies are required. Write the cheque and it'll happen.

How big a cheque, you ask? Well, the figure usually bandied about for the cost of building and maintaining the International Space Station is $100 billion — but a lot of that is because the station isn't self-sufficient; supplies have to be constantly brought up by space shuttles.

A base on Mars would have it easier, because the water already there in the permafrost could be harvested. Water is the wonder molecule: you can drink it, or split it into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for fuel. We could probably establish a self-sufficient base on Mars for ten or twenty times the cost of the Space Station — one or two trillion dollars.

Granted, that's one heck of an insurance premium, and, as always happens when the cost of manned space flight is brought up, some say we'd do better to spend the money down here. But that misses the point.

Global warming is only one inconvenient truth; there are lots of other impending disasters, both man-made and natural. Every penny spent today on eliminating poverty or cancer, or on building schools or day-care centres, is wasted if there's a massive nuclear exchange tomorrow, or if a plague sweeps across the globe, or a comet slams into the Pacific.

And Hawking's solution is the only one that deals with all those disparate threats: diplomacy doesn't stop plagues; antidotes don't deflect asteroids. Even if we could magically change human psychology so that we didn't wage war or commit acts of terrorism, we'd still be vulnerable to Mother Nature. As science-fiction writer Larry Niven famously quipped, the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program.

Still — one or two trillion dollars! Is it worth it? If you have to ask the question — if you're willing to dicker about the value of the continued survival of Homo sapiens — then you've already got your personal answer.

But maybe I can change your mind. In January, Joseph Stiglitz, the Columbia University professor who won the 2001 Nobel prize for economics, and Linda Bilmes, a Harvard expert on government spending, calculated that the total cost to the US of the Iraq war will also be one or two trillion. If we're willing to spend that much on war, maybe it's time we started spending equally big amounts on something more positive.

But will we? Humanity is almost certainly not the first intelligent race to emerge in this galaxy — after all, we're only 100,000 years old, and the universe has been around for 11 billion years. Alien races that appeared before us will have likely faced the same threats we do now: natural catastrophes, disease, and misuse of their own technology.

But when we listen with our radio telescopes for their signals, we detect nothing. This failure is sobering. Perhaps no intelligent race survives for long — for with knowledge of the atom comes the secret for building nuclear bombs; with the study of life comes the ability to make biological weapons.

In Hawking's plan, colonizing the worlds of our own solar system is only step one. Step two involves moving to the planets of other stars. After all, our own sun will die in just a few billion years, and long before then it might belch out flares that could wipe out life on Earth, the Moon, and Mars.

But time is deeper than space is vast: even at just a small fraction of the speed of light, our entire galaxy could be colonized in only a million years — a trivial span in cosmic terms. And yet most scientists agree there's no real evidence that aliens have ever visited this planet, which, with its oceans of liquid water, doubtless would be a tempting destination. That absence suggests no galactic colonization has ever actually taken place.

So, maybe the bean counters always get their way. Maybe wherever intelligent life arises, those who complain that the dangers are overstated, that somehow their race will survive without dispersing its population, win.

But, of course, they don't get to enjoy their victory for long.

[2006 bionote] Hugo Award-winner Robert J. Sawyer's latest science-fiction novel is Mindscan, published by Tor.

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