Space Travel: The Path to Human Immortality?
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On December 31st, 1999, National Public Radio interviewed the futurist and science fiction genius Arthur C. Clarke. Since the author had forecast so many of the 20th Century's most fundamental developments, the NPR correspondent asked Clarke if anything had happened in the preceding 100 years that he never could have anticipated. "Yes, absolutely," Clarke replied, without a moment's hesitation. "The one thing I never would have expected is that, after centuries of wonder and imagination and aspiration, we would have gone to the moon ... and then stopped."
Were Clarke alive today, he undoubtedly would have added, "and then lost so much interest that we erased the tapes of our epochal voyage because of a shortage of blank cassettes."
This month, the 40th anniversary of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong's first footsteps on the moon, you will hear many rationales for sending humans into space, many noble goals that the challenge of space can help humanity to fulfill. However, in cosmological consequence, one, and only one, stands paramount above all others -- human immortality. Space is the only place where we can ensure ourselves against extinction.
Jonathan Schell, our great chronicler of the dilemmas of the nuclear age, has written often about the ascending gradations of extermination that human beings might commit. Genocide is an act aimed at annihilating all members of a particular human group - defined by ethnicity or religion or some other perceived collective hatred - Hitler's attempt to obliterate the Jews the most famous but hardly the only historical example. Specicide would be an act eliminating the whole of the human race. Ecocide, or perhaps biocide, or perhaps omnicide, would be an act exterminating not just all humans, but the entire circle of life on planet earth itself.
An asteroid impact, or certain kinds of disruptions of our sun, or perhaps other cosmological cataclysms could probably pull all those off without even breaking a sweat. And our sun in any case has an expiration date, some 4 or 5 billion years down the road. A quarter century before the voyages of Apollo, the invention of the nuclear weapon gave life on Earth, for the first time, the capacity to bring about its own extinction by its own hands. It will not be long before biotech and nanotech and god-knows-what-other techs obtain the same capacity. And it is far from impossible to suppose that human-induced climate change may unfold so badly in the decades to come that it too could threaten to bring about the same result.
This period, where we hold this capability to destroy ourselves but before we have found a way to save ourselves, might be called the human race's ultimate "window of vulnerability." But we also now possess a "window of opportunity," to endeavor, in, oh, the next five or ten centuries or so, to establish the human race permanently beyond the cradle of its birth -- first perhaps on our moon, then perhaps on Mars and in the asteroid belt and on some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and then beyond the bounds of our solar system itself. We have it within our grasp to venture slowly but inexorably outward, in tiny lifeboats afloat on an infinite sea, to explore and then to colonize and then to live our lives among the stars. Imagine our galaxy, a mere thousand years hence, with millions of homo sapiens who are born, who live, and who die without ever setting foot on planet earth. Once we achieve that, once we have indeed established an enduring and self-sustaining human presence off the planet of our origin, it becomes very difficult to envision any comprehensive catastrophe that could eliminate completely the progeny of Mother Earth. Then, it would seem, we would be as close to immortality as the universe itself.