Published: December 11, 2008
Imagine a bucket of sand, just plain, lifeless sand. Then imagine a flower bed, a bee hive, a flock of birds, a cat, a dog or a human child. Compare these two things, the lifeless and the living; measure them and weigh them. Imagine that the child and the sand weigh exactly the same, contain the same number of atoms. Now, given the choice, which one would you save, and which one would you see destroyed?
I hope that most of us would care more about flowers, bees, animals or people than about a plain bucket of sand or concrete or air. It is hard to put your finger on exactly why, but there is simply something compelling about life, something that we find valuable and meaningful. Life is a complex and delicate dance of matter and energy, a positive feedback loop, a pattern or process that develops ever more surprising emergent behavior as more and more matter and energy is pumped into it. It is beautiful and fascinating and worthwhile to us in ways that the same matter and energy without any such process or pattern never is.
This being the case, shouldn’t we protect life? Shouldn’t we want it to thrive and survive for a long time? And if we find living matter more worthwhile than lifeless matter, wouldn’t the universe be that much more beautiful and worthwhile if more of it was alive?
At the moment, however, we have all our eggs in one basket: Earth. All the life that we know of exists only here, on this tiny planet, and this is a fragile basket indeed. There are any number of catastrophes that could end all life on Earth: unstoppable cosmic events like asteroid impact or man-made ones like nuclear war. Even if such a cataclysm does not destroy every bit of life, it would surely wipe out most of it, including our own civilization. Disastrous mass extinctions like the one that killed the dinosaurs have happened several times in our planet’s history and will almost certainly happen again before the universe dies.
In order for life—plant life, animal life, human civilization—to survive into the long term of millions and billions of years, it needs to spread, to sow seeds on other planets and celestial bodies throughout the solar system and universe. If you have enough life and people on two or more planets, a catastrophe on one would not be deadly to the whole of the living community.
How could life spread like this, beyond the irresistible gravity well of its home planet? Well, through us, of course. Human beings are in a unique position. As far as we know, we are the first species to ever evolve the very particular set of traits and capabilities required to create and use the complex tools, materials and technologies needed to escape Earth’s atmosphere and gravity well and survive in space and on other, less habitable planets. If we are the only ones, perhaps in the entire universe, that can possibly spread life to other planets and places—ensuring its survival and making the universe a better, more beautiful thing—shouldn’t we do everything in our power to do so? Isn’t it, in some ways, our duty?
There are a thousand reasons for human beings to go to space: to gather vast mineral and chemical resources and tap into solar energy, to facilitate scientific experimentation and learning, to explore the unknown and discover secret places and wonder at them. For me, however, this is the most compelling. We should go because life deserves to survive, thrive and spread, and we are the only ones who can make that happen.
Human beings are far from perfect. We can be petty and cruel and short sighted. But despite that, we have the opportunity to serve as the instrument of life’s greater destiny in the universe. In all of man’s religions and philosophies and ideologies, can there be a greater calling?
Every moment we waste, however, our civilization’s collapse or destruction at the hands of celestial disaster or our own imprudence becomes slightly more likely, and with it the eventual extinction of all life. Here in America, our space program has been stalled and set back for decades by public disinterest, government bureaucracy and NASA’s own lack of ambition. The rest of the world’s spacefaring nations have hardly been better.
In this time of global crisis, don’t we need a cause to rally around? What better way to mobilize our better natures than to turn our attention as a species upward, towards other stars and planets and towards a mission that is both noble and necessary: space migration.
I don’t think we should leave the Earth because I hate it. I think we should leave because I love it. I wish every bit of the universe could be as lush and beautiful and filled with human civilization, and the effort we put into space technology and off-world development today may mean the difference between extinction and making that wish a reality. After all, we have no idea when catastrophe will strike. All we know is that it probably will, sooner or later. The faster we spread to celestial bodies besides Earth, the more likely we are to be prepared before our mystery deadline arrives. Space is our last, best and only hope for long-term survival.
So when we look for ways to save our economy, to provide jobs and resources and to mobilize a national spirit of hard work, let’s look up to the stars and remember the duty we have to the living community and to our own survival.