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Steve Likes to Curse
Writing, comics and random thoughts from really a rather vulgar man
Where Do We Go From Here? 
Thursday, March 10th, 2011 | 12:11 pm [astronomy, commentary, science]
Steve's New Userpic
Yesterday I received an email from a reader. He noticed I occasionally write about astronomy and wondered what I thought would happen to the human race when the Sun died, an event he expected in another thousand or so years. Would we have colonized other planets, other solar systems by then? Could enough of humanity survive the loss of its home to continue on as a species?
 
Questions like these have been on my mind a lot lately. Over the last few months I had the privilege of volunteering with a local library, guiding tours through a traveling exhibit titled Visions of the Universe. I led hundreds of people of all ages, in groups large and small, through this wonderful exhibit that first began to make its rounds from library to library in 2009, the International Year of Astronomy. Most of my tour groups consisted of second graders from Title One schools. Talking to them about the Moon and the Sun, the dry river deltas on Mars and the billions of tiny particles that comprise the rings of Saturn, and showing them the inconceivable scale of the universe through photographs like the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, was one of the great joys of my life. 
 
Most of the kids really seemed to take to the subject. The tours often ran long because they had so many questions. Some were unnervingly astute — one girl noticed a parallel between how the particles form rings around Saturn, and how the stars gather in rings or discs around the centers of galaxies. Some were heartbreakingly innocent — several of the children asked whether wishes wished on shooting stars actually came true. One question that came up over and over was “What happens to the Earth when the Sun explodes?” 
 
The kids weren’t morbid enough to bring that up all by themselves. (Most of them, anyway.) They were just putting two and two together. An early panel of the exhibit is devoted to the Sun, which, I explained to them, is a star just like those tiny points of light we see in the night sky. We see the Sun as big and bright because we are so close by it, whereas the other stars are all very far away. Later in the tour, I took them through a trio of panels showing different stages in the life cycle of a star — first the relatively young blue stars of the Pleiades, then back a step to the stellar nursery of the Orion Nebula, then back another step to the supernova remnant Crab Nebula, which could be viewed as both the end and the beginning of the stellar cycle. 
 
Talk of exploding stars would invariably compel someone in the group to ask about the death of the Sun, and what it means for us. The Sun isn’t big enough to explode, I would tell them, though it will swell up into a red giant, swallowing the inner planets, including the Earth, before shedding its outer layers and collapsing into a dense, slowly cooling white dwarf. “But,” I was careful to add, “that all takes a very, very long time, and none of it even starts to happen for another five billion years, so we’re good.” The kids seemed okay with that.
 
My reader got the Sun’s projected death date wrong by a few orders of magnitude. Whether it’s a thousand years or a few billion years makes no practical difference to anyone reading this — we’re long dead either way — but it does make a difference as far as humanity is concerned. It’s entirely possible — barring a natural extinction event or some far more likely form of self-annihilation — that there will still be humans living on Earth in a thousand years. But in five billion years? By then we’ll be long gone — so long, in fact, that if there happens to be anyone else living on Earth at the time, they probably won’t even know we were ever here.
 
That’s the most sobering thing about studying astronomy. You realize that permanence is an illusion. The stars in the sky look fixed to us, but ten thousand years ago those stars were in an entirely different configuration. The earliest humans saw most of the same stars we see, but not in the same places in the sky. The Sun is growing gradually brighter. The Moon is slowly slipping further away from the Earth. The elements of the Crab Nebula are diffusing bit by bit into the interstellar medium. Nothing lasts forever — not us, not our species, not our planet, not our star, not any star. 
 
In his email my reader writes, “Global warming aside, humanity on earth is dead when our sun dies. How will we as a race survive that catastrophe?” The simple answer is, we won’t survive it because we won’t be around to see it. Five billion years is a long time, longer than the Earth has existed. Whether we have been driven to extinction by some natural catastrophe, killed ourselves, or gone the way of the Australopithecines, having been out-competed by better adapted descendants, one thing seems certain: if there are eyes on Earth to witness the death of the Sun, they will not be human eyes.
 
This is inevitable, and completely natural, and for that reason I don’t find it so depressing. That eventually every trace of human existence will be obliterated isn’t the most cheerful thought, sure, but there are ways of looking at it that make it oddly reassuring. I like to think of it as a reminder that we are more than mere tenants here. We are not in the universe — we are of the universe. We’re made of the same stuff as the stars, and we’re headed in the same direction. The atoms in our bodies were once inside of stars, and perhaps will be again someday. Not so bad, as fates go.
 
The impending death of our species, planet, star, galaxy, and eventually universe doesn’t depress me nearly as much as the answer to the second question in my reader’s email. After “how will we survive?” he asks, “Can we develop space travel, and colonization before it’s too late?”
 
Thinking about it yesterday morning, I realized that to fully explore the question I had to split it into two questions. The first is easily answered. Can we develop space travel and colonization before our species goes extinct? Yes.
 
Will we?
 
Now that’s a kick in the ribs.
 
The Visions of the Universe exhibit is mostly silent on the topic of manned spaceflight. The only astronauts pictured on any of the twelve full-color panels are Dave Scott and James Irwin of Apollo 15, shown standing close by their Lunar Module Falcon and the Lunar Rover. Telling the second-graders about the Apollo program stirred conflicting emotions in me — pride at the accomplishment of landing on the Moon, and embarrassment at having to tell the kids that we left the Moon in 1972 and have never gone back. A few times, kids asked about the prospect of a manned mission to Mars. I explained that it would be a three-year round trip, and perhaps that was one reason why no humans had yet landed on Mars. But I always felt like I was making excuses.
 
Considering the question yesterday I had a depressing thought — way more depressing than the coming heat death of the universe. What if humanity somehow does cheat evolution and survive the next five billion years? What if there are men and women living on Earth when the Sun swells to a red giant? And what if, even after all that time, they still have not left this planet? The oceans boil away, the atmosphere burns off into space, the swollen Sun swallows the Earth and humanity dies, with no colonies on distant extrasolar planets to carry on. 
 
Having improbably survived to this point, humanity dies with the Sun because it was too lazy and cowardly to ever truly reach for the stars. There was the technology. There was the suggestion by some — the demand, even — that we look beyond the Earth, beyond the Moon, beyond even our own solar system — that we follow our adventuresome spirit (not to mention our ever-increasing needs for resources and living space) out into the galaxy. But we never made use of that technology. We never listened to those voices. There was always an excuse — too expensive, too dangerous, too many more important things to worry about. There were always a million reasons not to do it. So we never did.
 
That’s depressing. To die as a species isn’t depressing, since that’s going to happen eventually, one way or another, no matter what we do. But to die as a species having willfully chosen not to make the most of our existence, having chosen to stay home and argue about taxes and arbitrarily drawn national boundaries rather than put our differences aside and explore the universe — I don’t think I can summon a more depressing thought.
 
That’s the road we’re on. No human being has traveled beyond low Earth orbit since 1972. The current space policy of the United States has the vague goal of a manned Mars flight by the mid-2030s. Barack Obama’s speech announcing the policy last year was not one of his best, a far cry from John Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” address at Rice University in 1962. In the meantime, NASA is a few months away from retiring the space shuttle fleet, with no vehicle ready to replace it.
 
Forty years ago astronauts landed on the Moon in spacecraft not too far up the technological ladder from tin cans. Today, when advanced technology and international cooperation have made manned spaceflight as safe and inexpensive as it has ever been, the best we can do is “Mars in about twenty years, maybe.”
 
Our vision narrows and our nerve diminishes, and those points of light in the night sky grow more distant by the day. It has been this way for forty years. It will be this way as long as we continue to choose the least imaginative and the least courageous members of our species to lead us. We are not just bureaucrats and lawyers and priests. We are scientists and explorers and poets. We’re all going to die someday. Nothing lasts forever. We can continue trudging along behind the bureaucrats, lawyers and priests as they lead us nowhere, bleeding our spirit dry along the way. Or we can finally allow the scientists, explorers and poets to set our course, and strive to make the most of this epoch we have been given, however long it may endure.

Comments 
Thursday, March 10th, 2011 | 06:22 pm (UTC)
Anonymous
Very nice piece, Steve. Lovely, really.
It is sad, our state of space exploration right now.

My thought on this though is, who gives a crap about resources and over-population (two things, in my humble, humble opinion that a.) have a way of working themselves out on their own and b.) can be worked around) let's shoot for the stars, not because we have to do it to save our own skins, but because we can. Let's do it, just because we can. Do we really need a reason?

While our current lack of interest in space travel is pitiful, I have a little more faith (sorry, lack of a better word)that we'll get there again. Throughout history progress has always come in fits and false starts. One step forward two steps back. Its never been a constant march ever forward and that won't change. So, cheer up, the spark of curiosity and adventure will strike again, and when it does, humans will do amazing things in space.

In the meantime, keep that candle burning, Steve.

Good job.
Thursday, March 10th, 2011 | 08:02 pm (UTC)
I agree with you 100% that we should pursue the space program for its own sake, and not just to find more natural resources to plunder. Even if the Earth were somehow able to sustain us 100% forever, no matter how many of us there were, manned space exploration would still be the worthiest of all human ventures.

"Because it is there" has always been the best reason to climb the mountain.
Friday, March 11th, 2011 | 09:11 am (UTC)
I learned a few things today by reading this, and reading more about them elsewhere afterward. This is why I love to go here and read this blog. Great stuff, Steve, and thank you.

I am writing this reply as I watch a tsunami wave rush over Japan's countryside. Cars are on a freeway, slowing down to gawk at the incoming wave that is about to take their car and toss it around. Someone on TV said that this might be the biggest event in our lifetime. 5th stongest quake in the world since 1900. I live in California, and I'm not entirely convinced that is going to be true for me. There are multiple fault lines running through the Bay Area, and the running joke is that my state is going to be under water at any time. Like you said, we will probably all be dead in several billion years, and natural disasters could very well take us all before our sun ever collapses. Or how about a large meteor smacking us into some ice age? There is plenty of time for us to be wiped out.

We're supposed to be on alert early this morning for an incoming wave. Cool, I really hate coming in to work on a Friday anyway!

I think we are more prone to kill off our own species before get to the point when we actually have to worry about nature doing it for us. Over 100 KGB-made "suitcase nukes" are missing. North Korea is willing to use ICBM's against anyone that they can possibly reach. Barium chemtrails or incompetent people running oil rigs that can contaminate a massive area of the ocean scare the hell out of me. As a species, we know better than to poison ourselves, but we continue to do it anyway.

There is this 40-year impotence in our space travel out of our own orbit. NASA needs viagra. I love looking at satellite pictures of the earth, but we should be on missions elsewhere. There was so much inspiration before we got to the moon. Imagine the excitement of discovering merely a few new species of plants from another solar system, and bringing them back to earth. The whole world would be buzzing on that. Or what if we made contact? Holy shit! It's so much bigger than anything we have or will do on our own planet. Merely observing other species could teach us so much about ourselves.

At my job, we sometimes have meetings about some new technology that we are leveraging/developing. Sometimes they're about new features we put into our software. After years of working here, I often skip these meetings as they might not be interesting to me. One day, it was announced that some speakers were coming in for a quite different topic - Colonizing Mars. Of course, I went. The speaker represented a group that is studying this topic extensively. Basically, they came up with a model for this to happen. They acknowledged the turn-around time that it takes to get their and back. Their model suggests a 3-way triangle, between mining our moon for minerals, earth, and back to Mars. We would be leveraging the moon and Mars at the same time, in an effort to move resources for use or sale (to fund everything in a symbiotic relationship). I'm not doing this justice, but please bear with me. They claimed that a space station on mars surface would require an air-tight building which you never leave, outside shielding against solar flares, minimum 130 employees that are cross-trained in ALL fields of science. Hydroponic indoor gardens, nuclear power plant, and other functional departments, much like what you would expect on a Star Trek ship. The supply line to Earth would be slow, so everything would need to be rationed perfectly. Could we really find that many folks cross-trained in all disciplines of science?

Emergency broadcast warning just came on tv here. A tsunami is going to him my area at 8:05 am... I still need to get some sleep too. Surely, it's going to be mild by the time it gets here, right?
Friday, March 11th, 2011 | 09:21 am (UTC)
"Some people will go to the beach to watch the tsunami wave come in. We hope that people will not be that stupid."
Friday, March 11th, 2011 | 02:29 pm (UTC)
There were people at NASA who wanted to start a Mars program in the '70s after the Apollo program. Mars was the next logical step. But after the Moon landings, there was little support in Congress or the Nixon administration for a manned mission to Mars, so the program never got off the ground and we got 30 years of the space shuttle instead. And I've said many times, the space shuttle is nothing to be ashamed of. It's a marvelous vehicle and everyone involved with that program is a hero as far as I'm concerned. It's just a shame we've not gone any further than low Earth orbit in 40 years, after flying to the Moon in the fucking 60s!

It seems like private space travel is the best hope for progress these days, at least in the U.S. Other nations are still gearing up their space programs, while we're constantly scaling ours back. Projects like that Martian colony you had the meeting about used to be serious goals of NASA. Now it looks like it will have to be private companies doing most of the work, if it gets done at all. Apparently we'd rather our tax dollars be spent on wars and tax subsidies to already profitable companies than the exploration of space.

There is still a lot to be excited about. This piece came out pretty pessimistic, but I do still hope to see a human walking on Mars in my lifetime. I just doubt it will be an American. It'll hurt my national pride a bit, I guess. But human footprints are human footprints.

Thanks for reading this blog of mine, and commenting, and for the impetus to write this one! I appreciate it all around.
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