Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Do we really need to leave Earth?

Just over 110 years ago, the Wright Brothers took flight for the first time. Just over 45 years ago, people walked on the moon. It took just over 60 years for us to go from the first powered flight to the first moon landing.

Back then the possibilities seemed endless. We ended up going to the moon just a handful of times before abandoning it. The space race ended when the Cold War ended.

Now the NASA budget is scrutinized by people looking for ways to cut it. Going into space is great, but what do we really learn by going there? It turns out that we can learn a lot by doing experiments in space. But does that knowledge have any practical application?

That’s the great thing about discovery. When Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he hadn’t set out to cure disease. New knowledge comes to us and we get to use imagination to put it to practical use later.

There is another reason for us to continue our space exploration. Earth is 4.5 billion years old. For most of that time it was inhospitable to life. Today life flourishes but that isn’t always the case. There have been several mass extinctions in Earth’s history. The dinosaurs used to rule the Earth. They ruled it for millions of years but they’re gone now. Humanity hasn’t been around for that long but in that short time we have become smarter than any species on Earth.

For the first time a species on Earth has the ability to destroy itself. Our nuclear weapons are an impressive feat and in any given year there is a very small risk of any of them being used. But when that risk exists, every year we have to roll that die again and again. Over the course of 100 years that chance grows higher.

Nuclear weapons aren’t our only threat. The Earth is hit by rocks all the time. Meteors enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up almost every day. Sometimes those meteors are quite a bit larger and when they hit the Earth they cause massive destruction. There will be a time at which Earth is less hospitable to life than it is now. When that time comes, humanity might go the way of the dinosaurs. In order for us to have the best chance of surviving we need to leave the Earth. NASA recently tested a rocket that will help us toward that end.

A few years ago NASA discontinued the use of the space shuttle. The space shuttle weighs 150,000 pounds empty. That much weight requires an enormous amount of fuel to escape Earth’s gravity. The shuttle is not a cost-effective way to get people to space. On Dec. 5, NASA launched the replacement to test its safety systems. The Orion weighs just 20,000 pounds so it requires much less fuel to launch. The eventual purpose of Orion is to take people to Mars and return them safely back to earth. Orion was launched on top of a Delta IV rocket. The rocket is old technology but Orion is state of the art new.

If testing goes well, Orion could take people to Mars as soon as 2020, but 2030 is more likely. Who knows, before the end of the century we might have people permanently living on Mars. For humanity to survive we need to put our eggs in more than one basket.