The first big step

As far as we know, we’re the only beings in this part of the cosmos that have a tendency to look up in the sky and say, “Wow, that’s pretty!” This position of being the sole appreciator of the universe fascinates me. In the utterly metaphysical realm of ‘why are we here?’ I have to think that our unique purpose is to see things and appreciate them. If we don’t do that, who will?

And there is so much in the universe left to see and cherish, but how can we see it if we don’t try to go and look? And won’t the cosmos be unutterably lonely if we don’t? If all those countless stars are out there for any reason at all they must be beacons for those that can hold them in their imaginations and wonder about them. Call me silly, but I want to know how many good restaurants there are (you know, nice restaurants — not too pricey, decent variety on the menu, pleasant ambiance) in the three largest cities on the eastern seaboard of the second largest continent on the third planet out from Proxima Centauri. At present, we don’t know if there IS a third planet or even a first, never mind continents, cities or haute cuisine. And Proxima Centauri is the nearest star to us besides the sun.

I remember 50 years ago gazing at Chesley Bonestell paintings of what it might be like in orbit around the earth, on the moon, on Mars. Up to the first Mariner flybys of Mars we thought that Mt. Everest was the tallest mountain in the universe. Looking back on what we’ve learned in the last half century it is impossible to conceive of how much there is left to learn, to see, to photograph, to write poetry and music about.

If we don’t terraform Mars and set up a permanent human civilization there, I have no idea how we will ever get to the stars. The kind of engines you’re going to need to traverse interstellar space in a reasonable amount of time are not the kind of things you’re going to want to build on Earth. We’ll need space-based resources, manufacturing and experience.

Marsward, ho!

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6 Responses to The first big step

  1. Sagramore says:

    Is it OK if I play devil’s advocate here? Now, I am atheist, so defending an entity in whose existence I do not believe will be difficult, but here I go!

    As far as as “seeing” the universe, I’m cool with that. Build all the uber scopes you need. That’s just good research, and the images of faraway space constructs should provide very interesting computer desktop backgrounds. Hell, we may even discover Azathoth slumbering in his Cosmo-throne in the middle of the Galaxy.

    But in terms of “going” to these places, is that really something into which we should pour hyper-billions of dollars? We could terraform Mars maybe possibly over long years…but why? If you’re afraid of over population, we were supposed to have maxed out Earth’s resources and land in the 18th, and then 19th centuries. Then again in the 20th. So…we tend to just find more room/stuff every once in a while. Furthermore, wouldn’t it make more practical and economic sense to try and tap new resources, and conserve what we have on Earth now, rather than build a new planet?
    Sure, terraforming Mars would me more “fun,” and “sexier,” plus there’s the added ego benefits of playing god, but I don’t know if that’s enough reason to pour a bunch of money into a project that could be spent bailing financial firms and supplying our military abroad.

    Now, in regards to visiting other stars and all that, in order to get there in any kind of reasonable time, we’d need to travel faster than even light, which I think is physically impossible (I’ve never taken a physics class, so I could be wrong). And don’t bring up wormholes or anything, which may not even exist. I could just as easily counter that argument by saying every wormhole entrance is guarded by a fire-breathing space unicorn that will not let humans pass under any condition. On a theoretical level, general relativity does not rule out the existence of these monstrous gatekeepers.

    • john says:

      Okay, first off, advocating for a being that, according to your own theology, doesn’t exist, seems kind of cheap. What if you do a bad job? What’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like the non-extant Beelzebub is going to complain.

      As to your second paragraph, there are some pretty solid physical laws that say we’re not going to be able to see how many trees there are on Glotsplak Way in the suburbs of Gronsparth on the planet Gleegsptork by looking through a local telescope. We’re going to need to get closer if we want to see what’s there.

      As to your third paragraph, we’ve developed this habit of thinking that anything we do in space is going to be something that “we” have to spend money to do. The only way that we will establish a multi-planet civilization, either contained within this solar system or oozing out into the galaxy, is if it makes sense to do so. It will be done by people who want to spend their time, energy and money doing so. Colonizing other planets will never ‘solve’ overpopulation. All through the colonization of the new world the population of Europe got larger, not smaller. The problems of Earth will have to be solved on Earth no matter where else people are living. But if there are more places for people to live there will be more people to come up with solutions. As to your idea ‘wouldn’t it make more practical and economic sense to try and tap new resources, and conserve what we have on Earth now, rather than build a new planet?’ This makes one untenable assumption and has an internal contradiction. The untenable assumption is that we will only be able to do one of two things: terraform Mars OR tap new resources on Earth. That assumption is just silly. The internal contradiction is contained in the phrase ‘tap new resources and conserve what we have on Earth now’. If you’re not going anywhere but Earth and you’re tapping new resources the resources have to come from Earth. I’m not sure how this squares with the idea of conservation.

      The fact is that right now we know of only one place in the entire universe where it’s nice to have a picnic, and that’s the place we’re building all of our smoke-spewing factories and nuclear plants, dumping all of our pcb’s and dioxin. There’s a whole universe just a couple of hundred miles up where there is solar power 24/7 and we would have to work REALLY hard to make it more radioactive than it already is. Earth should be the place where we can all relax and enjoy the view. If we terraform Mars there will be a second place in the known universe where it’s nice to have a picnic.

  2. Sagramore says:

    Last time I try trolling on your blog…

    Well, I didn’t know the word choice police was out making rounds, so let me amend “Tap new resources” to “use non-fossil-fuel energy.” And I don’t think my assumption is so untenable. Of course, nothing is stopping us from using solar/wind/nuclear/ etc power AND colonize Mars, but my point is just that if we maximize these energy sources and keep the planet from warming a few degrees and gifting us with more beachfront property, there will be no NEED to colonize Mars, save to fulfill an outdated Sci-Fi romantic desire of picnicking there. As you said, if there’s no sense in going up there, no one will.

    I also think you’re oversimplifying the issue. It will take a lot more than “people who want to spend their time, energy, and money” to colonize the solar system. The only organizations capable of amassing the resources (money, manpower, tech, etc.) necessary for something like space colonies are basically….well…the USA. Together with a healthy selection of private contractors, of course. I’ll let you decide how likely it will be for the US to invest all that’s necessary to send men to Mars and women to Venus.

    P.S- Do you think the devil’s noticed, yet? I hope I’m doing a good enough job.

    • john says:

      First and most importantly, I just got a memo from the office of the Angel of Darkness and he said that even though he doesn’t exist, he thinks this Sagramore guy is really kicking my romantic sci-fi butt. He particularly likes the semantic niggling and the creative use of ALL CAPITALS.

      But since you are being such an accomplished and well-spoken foil and all-around champion for the forces of evil I feel I need to hold up my end of the game. Thus:

      I think it might be prudent at this point to remember that we’re not ready to colonize other planets yet. To try to cost it out with current levels of technology and infrastructure is kind of like trying to figure out how much it would have cost the Continental Congress to build the Space Shuttle. In 1781 we couldn’t have built a single concrete highway. Aluminum was one of the most precious metals in the world. Electricity was not understood. Computers weren’t even a dream. Yet only 200 years later, the Space Shuttle lifted off.

      The idea that we’re going to colonize another planet by building skyscraper sized pipes, filling them with chemical propellants, sticking seven or eight people on top and blasting them into space at a hundred million bucks a pop just isn’t feasible, let alone affordable. But right now people are developing light sails, space elevators, beamed propulsion, VASIMIR engines, even positronic engines. Private corporations are developing ideas for mining water on the moon and breaking it down into hydrogen and oxygen to sell as fuel in low Earth orbit by the 2020s. Until LAST YEAR (note the creative use of all capitals) almost everyone agreed that there was NO water on the moon. If we can mine water on the moon we can certainly mine aluminum and lots of other cool stuff. Build a solar powered mass accelerator on the moon and you can launch as much raw material as you want for building anything from space ships to space colonies without spending a penny for propellant.

      And speaking of water, once we have a truly space-based infrastructure developed the icy moons of the outer solar system become available to us and they are practically nothing BUT water. More than enough to stock Mars with an oxygen-rich atmosphere, rivers, lakes and an ocean. And don’t whine to me about ruining the pristine environments of places like Callisto, Ganymede, Dione and Iapetus until you can at least point up to the sky at any given moment and show me where they are.

      We who are alive now may never see these things come to pass, but there’s lots of work we can do to assure that our descendants have an infinite universe to explore, live in and cherish.

  3. Pat Duigon says:

    I think sagramore’s handle should be sophomore.

    • john says:

      Ah, but you don’t know him like I do. The guy’s an experienced debater and can take any position on any topic. He was doing me a favor by giving me every argument he could think of against anything that I was for, just to keep the conversation going.

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