Saturday, June 2, 2007

Overview: Space Exploration

I have been interested in astronomy and space exploration since I was a child at the beginning of the U.S. manned space program. This interest led to my college degree in physics and active participation in organizations dedicated to promoting public education about the Universe and humanity’s place in it. In the late 1990s I became a founding member of the Mars Society, focusing on the immediate steps necessary to spread our civilization to other planets.

My motivation was more than just a desire for growth and a fascination with the unknown. During my examination of beliefs following my father’s death, I seized on the fact that the settlement of other worlds is critical to the long-term survival of life born on Earth. The Sun is growing warmer, and a few hundred million years from now it will make our planet uninhabitable. To most people, this is far too long a period of time to be concerned about; but I understood that the extremely slow pace of evolution (yes, another reason to “believe in” evolution) did not guarantee that another species capable of leaving our planet would ever appear here. If someone was going to help life escape certain extermination, like Noah contemplating the great flood, it was going to have to be us.

I also became fascinated with the threats to our survival that could come from space. The most prominent and likely of these threats is from asteroids and comets that could lay waste to cities, nations, or our entire planet. These threats can be met by technology, and once again we are the only species capable of ensuring life’s future.

As a project for the Mars Society, I mathematically explored just how large our population could grow and how far we could reach if we choose to settle space. I also considered what might happen if we limited ourselves to this planet or the Solar System. One surprising outcome of this and my consumption studies is that the world’s population probably reached its highest growth rate (two percent) in the mid-1970s, which may only be surpassed if we can sustain a consumption growth rate of more than 3.6 percent until we reach our maximum speed. For me, the bottom line is that humanity will be forced to deal with rates of growth in consumption and population that are rapidly decreasing; and only long term choice is between sustainability and death.

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