Space Colonization Must Become More Than Science Fiction

Years ago I read an inspiring book called The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps by Marshall T. Savage originally published in 1992. The title wasn’t frivolous—the second edition, in 1994, included an introduction by science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke. In great detail, Savage laid out eight practical steps for humanity to take to reach the stars, beginning with ocean surface colonies that would produce enough edible algae and other food products to end world hunger while they also used temperature differentials in the deep ocean to generate the electricity required for spacecraft launchers. The launcher he envisioned would use a long track and catapult system to fling transports into the sky, while giant ground-based lasers would power them the rest of the way to space (eliminating the need for the transports to have their own engines—reducing the cost of launching materials from Earth’s surface into space is probably the largest hurdle of all in space exploration). The remaining steps involved bubble colonies in Earth orbit, domed cities on the Moon, Mars terraformed to become habitable, asteroids mined and transformed to not only provide raw materials but also harness the power of the sun much more efficiently, and finally an expansion into interstellar space. Savage wasn’t just dreaming—in 1987 he’d formed something called the First Millennial Foundation to get the ball rolling, first with baby steps like a test aquatic colony/theme park in the Caribbean. Progress was slow.

Jump ahead to 2011: the First Millennial Foundation is now called the “Living Universe Foundation” and Marshall Savage has apparently permanently retired from any association with the concepts he originated. But the dream lives on. Many other possible technologies have been proposed to carry out Savage’s basic eight steps, and discussions continue (though, perhaps, not much concrete progress). On other fronts, there is an International Space Station in orbit, involving multi-national cooperation. The United States government has made announcements about returning to the Moon and then going to Mars—no longer stunts motivated by a political space race, but hopefully true research-based missions. This past Saturday NASA space probe Dawn entered into orbit around the asteroid Vesta, the first man-made object to orbit a body in the asteroid belt. But within the past decade NASA’s NEAR Shoemaker probe landed on the asteroid Eros, and the Hayabusa probe from Japan collected samples from the asteroid Itokawa. NASA has plans for a mission in 2016 to another near-Earth asteroid that has a small chance of one day threatening the Earth. These aren’t stunt missions either, but have to be considered as first steps toward someday making use of the asteroids in practical ways.

For now, human space travel remains horrendously expensive and dangerous, so we need pretty strong motivation to make it happen. If population pressure on one hand, and the benefits of space research on the other aren’t collectively enough, we should look at Marshall Savage’s original argument:

All intelligent life on Earth could be wiped out in a single cosmic catastrophe, whether by a mammoth asteroid strike, a genetic experiment gone-wrong, or any number of doomsday scenarios that are no less plausible because of their dire consequences. We know it can happen—there have been half-a-dozen mass extinction events in Earth’s history. And, for all our wishes, we still have no evidence that intelligent life exists anywhere else in the universe. Humankind may be all there is—all of the universe’s “eggs” in one “basket”. Until we know otherwise, we have a responsibility to preserve sentient life by taking it beyond this fragile place where it could be annihilated at one stroke.

Maybe that’s still too abstract for most people looking over their tax statements. Maybe the idea of cheaper materials or medicines is more appealing. Either way, space colonization can’t remain the stuff of science fiction. We dare not let it.