Friday, November 18, 2011

The argument for space: Why we must reach other planets.

Astronomers have given us a lot of good news lately about planets.  Apparently, there are plenty of planets out there among the stars, we just couldn't see them because of the stars themselves.  And with the privatization of space, it appears we'll soon have new options for blasting into orbit and up to the International Space Station.

This is all good in the short term, but humanity's long term outlook worries me.

There are various arguments for exploring beyond our solar system and visiting distant stars and their planets.  A popular theme in science fiction stories and sometimes in present-day politics is that Earth will soon be overcrowded, so we'll have to find other planets to colonize.  I don't agree.

Every time a country raises its level of education and inexpensive birth control becomes available, population growth levels off and often turns downward.  For instance, Europe and the United States would probably have shrinking populations if not for immigration.  So while the Earth's total population may continue to grow for another generation or two, eventually it will level out and then probably decline. 

Another argument is that climate change will render our world uninhabitable and force us to find a new home.  Certainly a major change in our climate could kill many or all of us off.  Meteor impacts probably didn't help the dinosaurs.  If climate change is caused by humans, we may be able to act to save ourselves.  If it's a natural cycle or the Sun, we're probably in trouble.  Either way, it's a good idea to do what we can to clean this place up.  And if the worst happens, humans are resilient creatures.  Maybe we'll retreat from the coastlines and have to deal with a different way of life.

I think the real impetus for reaching other planets is economics. 

The Earth's economy is all about trade.  Individuals trade money or goods or services.  Banks and corporations trade.  Counties, states, and provinces trade.  Countries trade as individuals, and also form trading organizations and blocs.  We're always looking for ways to open up new markets. 

For instance, the United States wants to export more goods to China.  And as incomes in China rise, Chinese people will want to buy more cellular telephones and computers and game consoles and cars.  So the system works, for a while. 

The problem is that the Earth is a closed system.  It is finite.  Once everyone on the planet has an iPhone, who else are you going to sell one to? Now it's true that new products come out all the time, and there will always be people who can afford more, and people who can afford less.  But is it possible that at a certain point we'll have no new markets to open up?

If we build a colony on another planet, then suddenly we'll have new markets.  Colonies traditionally produce raw materials to send back to their founders, while the founders send manufactured goods out to the colonies.  I think it could work like that in space.

The problem is getting there, and back again.  The distances are so vast they can sprain your brain thinking about them.  I don't believe we'll get there by building bigger, faster rockets.  In fact, I don't think the initial solution will come from a machine shop or an aircraft hanger.  It will come from a chalkboard.

We need a basic scientific breakthrough in our understanding of physics.  Something that will allow for either light speed or faster than light speed travel.  And it has to be something we can do with reasonably safety.  So hopefully there is a team of physicists somewhere drinking coffee and drawing on a chalkboard and kicking around ideas.  And maybe one of those ideas will be what we need to spread out from this majestic little rock we live on.

In the meantime, we're stuck here, so we need to learn to get along and to clean up after ourselves.

(The pic is of the M81 galaxy, and is from


  1. Interesting take on why we need to get to other planets. We are in the true golden age of cosmic exploration. So much information is coming in, so many planets on so many stars.

  2. We are reaching out (at least with instruments) into space in greater detail than ever before. Without computers, I don't see how we'd ever be able to process all the data flowing in.

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. Mark, another thoughtful blog. I agree with the closed system idea. The fact is, we'll eventually use up all the natural resources on this rock, and if we haven't found new sources elsewhere, we will be up a creek without a tree from which we can make a paddle (or the metals to smelt one). Also, we reach the all-your-eggs/one basket dilemma in the event of a cataclysm. The human race needs to spread itself out so in order to survive longterm.

  4. Tony, thanks for reading and commenting. I keep hoping for a scientific breakthrough that will allow economical space travel in our lifetimes.