Alan Zendell, January 28, 2018
If you believe Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the late Carl Sagan, and countless other scientists, space exploration may be the only thing that guarantees the survival of the human race. Two events coming up in the next couple of weeks bring the dire predictions that led to that conclusion to mind.
Next Sunday, during Super Bowl 52, an asteroid large enough to cause a total extinction event, were it to collide with our planet, will pass by the Earth’s orbit. It won’t come closer than 2.5 million miles, more than ten times further than the Moon – not a near miss even in astronomical terms – but the next one might be a lot closer. The astrophysics and astronomy communities consider such an extinction event a statistical certainty. The only uncertainty is when it will happen.
It has happened before, after all. Sixty-five million years ago, a six mile diameter asteroid impacted Earth and caused catastrophic changes, altering the angle of the Earth’s axis and drastically modifying our planet’s climate. That’s why there are no dinosaurs today and why we were able to evolve. The next one might well cause humans to suffer the same fate.
Fifty thousand years ago, a much smaller object, only 160 feet (half a football field) in diameter caused a ten megaton explosion which left a 550-foot deep crater nearly three-quarters of a mile wide in the Arizona desert. But don’t let those large time intervals fool you. In 2018, seven known asteroids large enough to cause massive devastation will pass within less than a million miles of Earth. At least 10,000 asteroids are known to exist in near-Earth orbits around the sun. They are all routinely tracked by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System in Hawaii, but the key word in the above is “known.”
Most near-Earth asteroids are discovered accidentally, by amateur astronomers. No one really knows how many there are, but the number is surely staggering, and an object can’t be tracked until it’s identified. That’s why scientists consider an eventual impact a near certainty, and they believe the only way to assure the long-term survival of humanity is to establish viable, self-sustaining habitats in outer space. These could be settlements on the Moon or Mars, space stations, hollowed out asteroids, or generation ships built to carry thousands of passengers for hundreds of years toward other solar systems.
When I was a kid reading science fiction in the 1950s, conventional wisdom said we’d have bases on the Moon and Mars by the end of the century. But once it became clear that those bases offered no military advantage, most of the funding for researching such space ventures quickly dried up. The decline of our manned space program since the Moon landings, the last of which occurred forty-five years ago, was based on economics. Manned exploration is risky and expensive, and without an obvious payoff there was no political support for continuing it as a government program.
Fortunately, private sector visionaries like Elon Musk believed that space exploration could be profitable, and companies like his SpaceX have proved them right. They’ve been quite successful launching satellites for business and military ventures, and have innovated ways of dramatically reducing costs. But while space has become a profitable industry, the most important benefits may lie in the future. The private sector may well become the salvation of the human race.
On February 6th, SpaceX is scheduled to launch what will be the most powerful rocket booster in the world. It won’t generate as much thrust as the Saturn V booster that sent the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon, but it’s far more efficient. To prove the point, Musk will use February’s test launch to send a Tesla automobile into orbit. It’s obviously a publicity stunt, but the underlying subtext is real. Musk says the rocket known as “Falcon Heavy” is capable of sending a manned mission to Mars.
That’s the real goal, and there are plans to have a viable base there by 2030. This is no longer science fiction. It’s the beginning of the next stage of the evolution of humanity. The odds of a cataclysmic impact of an asteroid destroying our civilization this year or next are very small, but projected ten, twenty, or hundreds of years into the future they grow significant. We will put future generations at risk of annihilation if we don’t provide them a safe place to live.