Emerging from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space capsule in late 2021, actor William Shatner was immediately overcome by the ‘Overview Effect’ —- a state of awe at the fragility and wonder of Earth’s beautiful biosphere juxtaposed against the unwelcoming deep blackness of space. His post flight descriptions also struck a chord with me.
As someone who has covered space and astronomy for nearly three decades now, it seems that the answers to many of our philosophical questions about our origin and existence are out there. It’s just that as yet we humans don’t belong to the stars in the same way that Shatner’s fictional ‘Star Trek’ alter ego ‘Captain James T. Kirk’ might have us believe.
The very billionaires responsible for opening low-Earth orbit to private astronauts, ironically, are operating on a different tier than what will be required to take us beyond our Moon. Apparently, our planet is both rare in the solar system and in this part of the galaxy. It’s too soon to say how frequently planets like ours truly evolve, but they don’t seem to come along that often.
But before we can colonize the solar system and venture out to an Earth 2.0, we first have to clean up the mess we’ve made here.
The very idea that any one leader or any one group could threaten this celestial wonder we call Earth —- the product of 4.5 billion years of spectacular cosmic evolution —- should be enough to raise the hackles of every soul on the planet.
As I pointed out here previously, even a limited regional nuclear conflict would have catastrophic global impact, as detailed in new atmospheric and climate models in a 2014 paper in the journal Earth’s Future. As I noted, a hypothetical exchange of one hundred 15-kiloton warheads would release enough black carbon to temporarily destroy much of our atmosphere’s protective ozone.
Thus, for me, the threat of nuclear Armageddon is more worrisome than the vagaries of climate change or being hit by a catastrophic near-earth impactor. But all three need mitigation. Yet it will require a sea change in geopolitical diplomacy and how we treat this planet’s climate and natural resources.
As for threats from potential near-Earth impactors?
Technology used in NASA’s Dart: Double Asteroid Redirection Test, the successful recent asteroid deflection demonstration mission, will help protect us from unexpected Earth impactors.
Even though we have work to do on Earth, we shouldn’t forget that virtual exploration of the cosmos helps us better understand our planet, solar system and how we stack up in the cosmos. And it also inspires young people to study physics, astronomy, astrobiology, and rocket science to eventually take us to the stars.
Even so, not enough effort is being spent to research breakthrough propulsion technologies that bend the laws of physics enough to lower cruise phase times for journeys beyond our solar system. At this stage, such research basically only requires blackboard technology and endless supplies of coffee. That’s a small price to pay for technologies that might someday save our species.
But Shatner is also right. Everything we need is here on Earth. Our desire to wander may have to wait a bit longer. At present, we have few options for moving off world.
The moon is a dead body that at best will become an exotic scientific station and an adventure tourism attraction in the next two decades. Mars is a desert that probably never harbored complex life. And Venus is an absolute hell hole with unfathomably high temperatures and surface pressure. That’s all the more reason we should manage our natural resources wisely, so that generations to come will be able to walk through the planet’s remaining old growth forests and swim in its seas.
Then we can fully focus on our virtual exploration of the universe, which is probably all most of us are going to be able to experience in the foreseeable future. Our distant progeny may indeed live Star Trek-type lives. But no one can say for sure that interstellar travel will be humanity’s destiny. That’s certainly disappointing to a generation that grew up with Apollo. But unless there’s a major shift in our approach to propulsion technology, we’re going to have to learn to be thankful for the Earth beneath our feet.