Question 3: Would you be willing to settle in space?

I couldn’t sleep last night. I tossed and turned until 4:15 a.m., when I finally climbed out of bed, went out onto the deck, and looked up at the sky. Why? I couldn’t stop thinking about space.

I blame my insomnia on a lively conversation with a prominent scientist over dinner at the home of one of my favorite people last night. According to the evening’s honored guest, the most significant rationale for space exploration is so that “we can colonize space.” He believes that settlements on Mars, the lunar poles, or in free space are inevitable, and may come sooner than most of us think. He also says that setting up a colony on Mars could cost as little as one billion dollars. (Visit NASA’s Mars exploration page.) The science to get the colonizers to Mars, or the moon, is there. The problem is in bringing them home.

When I asked what such a settlement would look like, he said it would likely involve about a dozen people, who would probably live in caves. As it turns out, Mars has a lot of caves, and it also has a lot of radiation. Life in caves could protect the settlers against radiation. Mars has been in the news quite a bit lately, on account of water. Without water, there is no life as we know it. With water, one has one essential ingredient of a habitable planet. From Wikipedia:

There are a number of direct and indirect proofs of water’s presence either on or under the surface, e.g. stream beds, polar caps, spectroscopic measurement, eroded craters or minerals directly connected to the existence of liquid water (such as goethite)…scientists say that if water had existed before the polar ice caps on Mars, it is likely that there is still liquid water below the ice caps.

The question quickly arose among the dinner guests: who would go? The Australia solution was proposed–a colony of prisoners who had little to lose. One guest asked, “Who would go except the most desperate people?”One guest made the argument that colonization would arise from conviction–possibly religious conviction. Like the pilgrims who came to America to shake off the bonds of Britain, he said, there are many zealots who would welcome the opportunity to establish a new society far from the reach of current world governments.

As it turns out, the Mormons are big into space exploration. The LDS scripture holds that God lives on a distant planet called KOLOB (read all about Kolob and the Mormon belief in alien life and mulitple worlds here). Find Kolob, and you find God. While fundamentalist Christians are rushing headlong toward the Apocalypse in order to unite all Christians with their maker, the Mormons want to build a spaceship that will take them straight to God.

While the Mormon interest in space is perhaps the best documented, it is easy to imagine other religious convictions that might drive people to settle the moon, Mars, or elsewhere. But religion isn’t the only impetus. An attraction to risk, and to the benefits that arise from well-calculated and successfully executed risks, is deeply embedded in our psychology as human beings. While many avoid risk at all costs, many others embrace it passionately. The West Coast of the United States, for instance, is a hotbed of risk takers. In addition to those who have come West in recent years and decades seeking the opportunities of Silicon Valley, there are those who descended from the survivors of the Donner Party and other dangerous migrations. I imagine the great explorers of the future will be motivated by many of the same factors as the great explorers of the past: people push into unknown regions for money, and for fame, and for the deep personal satisfaction of going, in the terminology of one of the classic sci-fi stories, “where no man has gone before.”

And, let’s not forget, there is a darker directive pushing us toward space. The grey clouds over Fukushima, the coming global water crisis, the depletion of other resources, the extinction of species, the certainty of catastrophic natural and manmade disasters, are all part of a larger problem: our own world will one day become uninhabitable. Stephen Hawking believes that space colonization is essential to human survival. This Reuters article provides a succinct explanation of Hawking’s thoughts on the matter of colonization:

“Sooner or later disasters such as an asteroid collision or a nuclear war could wipe us all out,” said Professor Hawking…”But once we spread out into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe.”

So the question (or series of questions) to you is: Would you be willing to be one of the early settlers in space? If you were offered a coveted spot in an early mission, would you take it? What conditions would have to be met for you to go? Would you be willing to bring your family? Given the likelihood that you could not return home, and you would face unforeseen hardships and dangers, what rewards would make the mission worth the risk?

For further reading:
The Journal of Cosmology recently published a special issue, all about the colonization of Mars. Read it here.

Listen to Stephen Hawking describe space colonization in the clip below:

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