Quotes of Stephen Hawking’s recent commentary on the importance of space colonization to the survival of the human race has been making the rounds in the news, in the thousands of weblogs that have taken notice, and in pseudo-intellectual coffee shop banter. The Associated Press wire first carried news of this back on 14 June 2006, almost 1.5 weeks ago. Here’s the surprise inside the box: I had a conversation about this very idea over Chinese food with one of a dozen or so Linux geeks the day before that.
Talking to Alan Silverstein is in some ways like talking to a mirror that reflects me, but a decade or two hence. I have on occasion engaged in conversations that get into abstruse discussions of philosophical and wide-ranging interest such as from that Tuesday evening without doing most of the talking myself. However, it is a point of note, and something of a rarity, for the reason someone else is doing most of the talking to be that they have more of interest to say than I have, especially on more than one narrowly defined subject. He had a lot to say about a lot of things, all of it interesting, and none of it plagued by the common shortcomings of people who pursue discussion topics where they’re out of their depth. It was our only face-to-face meeting thus far, though we’ve corresponded by email since then.
One of the topics of discussion was the likely necessity of what science fiction writers and genre fans have for decades called the “diaspora” — an outpouring of humanity into space, finding new world to colonize and new places to live, grow, and thrive. In the mid-eighties, it turns out, he wrote an essay on the subject that was published in the Coloradoan, entitled Humanity’s Launch Window. With discussion, we decided between us that I should perhaps post it to the Web, on one of my domains, and make it available for broad distribution and reading. Imagine my surprise when the very next day, Stephen Hawking was saying much the same thing as Alan Silverstein.
Hawking is more optimistic than Silverstein. He may not be taking the peak oil crisis into account yet. He may believe that humanity will be able to extend its launch window with further technological advances and wiser management of resources in years to come. He may also be trying to galvanize humanity into action, and feels that laying out in bitter, unrelenting detail the severity of the crisis would only generate despair and lead to listlessness and hopelessness rather than an improvement in the current state of affairs. He also may simply be taking a conservative approach to spreading his message.
We face some sizable obstacles. The first is obvious: we must overcome the inertia of the human species. Petty politics and other more immediate concerns, such as where we’ll have our next lunch meeting with our coworkers, create procrastination on issues like this. The second is also fairly clear: we must meet the challenge of advancement, both scientific and concrete engineering.
I believe the third to be a matter that will be counterintuitive to many. We need a free market economy that allows private sector advances that can lead to offworld migration.
The peak oil crisis will end, with us as the losers, long before we’ve irreparably destroyed the environment here on Earth. Failure to migrate off-world will ensure a longer period of continued, and ultimately more damaging, man-made environmental disaster. Living a “green” existence will not only be effectively impossible to achieve during humanity’s launch window, but will simultaneously obstruct our ability to advance the technologies necessary to get off this rock. Of course, barring world-scouring disasters that wipe out the human race, we will like roaches probably survive another four point five billion years on Spaceship Earth, until we’re swallowed by an expanding red giant star, but unless we do something soon it seem our fate is sealed.
Our only hope is to get private industry involved effectively, and the only way to do that is to limit the ability of proponents of the economic status quo (I speak, of course, of market-dominating corporations who rely upon governmental interference in economic affairs for their power) to stand in the way of innovation. If it was ever true, it is no longer the case that only government can reach the stars. Eliminating monopolistic limits on scientific and engineering advancement by the government, eliminating economic barriers to commercial space exploration efforts, and de-incentivizing the consolidation of economic power in command-by-committee legal entities would make pushing outward not only feasible, but financially tasty.
At the very least, we need to deregulate those industries that bear directly on developing advances pertinent to space exploration. More likely, we need economy-wide deregulation in a libertarian sense, but I’m hoping we don’t need that much because short of a worldwide overthrow of the current state of affairs we won’t get it in the next forty years. It’s possible we might be able to approximate deregulation for niche markets that can do the early work we need by way of clever business practices, but to make it work we need to stop trying to impose new market-strangling rules and regulations in State and Federal legislatures — since the United States is the nation in the best position to do something about the problem of getting into space. Our second place best hope, unfortunately, seems to be China: for that reason, I’m rooting for them as well as for the American entrepreneur. Sure, they’re using some pretty grim methods in China to get things done (tax and spend, authoritarian rule, et cetera) and probably doing it for all the wrong reasons, but if they weren’t they’d be doing something else by the same methods and for the same reasons, so I’ll take the lesser evil where I can get it in this case, all while working on the greater good closer to home.
Here’s a surprise for you: George Bush was right. We need to go to Mars. We’ve been to the Moon, and we need to turn that into a stepping stone to the next goal. We need to do it sooner, rather than later. I am, to put it mildly, profoundly skeptical of his administration’s (or anyone else’s for that matter) ability to carry through, but they may just have put enough of an idea in the heads of some of the citizenry of the United States and the world at large to provide somewhere to stand while we reach for the next rung. Linux is on Mars: can humanity be far behind?
A couple years ago, I started discussions with a friend about starting a project to focus some of the open source spirit of innovation on the goal of getting off this ball of rock. It fell by the wayside, to some extent, but I’m getting that itch again. This time, I’ll do something about it.
Go read Mr. Silverstein’s essay, Humanity’s Launch Window. Think about it. Come back for more, as I think of more to say.
Don’t vote for anyone that would stand in the way of entrepreneurship, while you’re at it — and that includes anyone that approves of corporate subsidies or governmental appropriation of market forces.