Space: The Necessary Frontier

Nothing lasts forever. Nothing we know of now, anyway. Our favorite athletes retire and move on from the sports stage they once starred on. Shows like Mad Men inevitably arrive at their series finale and conclude the stories they began years ago in their pilots. Jazzercise is no longer a trendy way to work out; the popularity of CrossFit today will likely fade in much the same way over the next decade or two. Young siblings grow up and move out—the days of everyone coming home from school and work every night for dinner together can never return. As difficult as it is to fathom the length of time, the universe is just under 14 billion years old, which means it hasn’t been around forever—and it won’t be around forever in the future. It’s hard to anticipate the forthcoming end of something when you’re right in the middle. It seems too far off, or too unlikely to happen. That’s just getting started. There are lots of seasons left. It’s cemented its place in society. That’s at least several years away. I just can’t ever see it changing from the way it is. Change of home is probably the hardest to process. You grow deep roots with the friends you make, the schools you attend, arts and cultural centers you frequent for entertainment, neighbors, favorite places to eat and drink, annual celebrations, the recognizable contours of local topography, seasonal transitions, and overall way of life—then uproot everything to go try to settle in elsewhere. Will the roots go as deep there? What do you do with the trauma of the severed, irreplaceable roots from where you left? Whether you’ve called a place home for one year or twenty, it’s difficult and disorienting to come to the end of something that was such a constituent part of who you are. The reality is that even if we’ve built a sturdy, comfortable home to pass on to our family for generations to come, one day home will have to change for all of us. Our planet, Earth, will no longer sustain the lives of people—whether we’re trying to live out of a cabin near one of the Poles, a hut close to the Equator, or anywhere in between. Eventually, our sun will run out hydrogen to burn and turn into a white dwarf. Before that, the sun will gradually get hotter and hotter as it turns into a red giant. In a little over a billion years, much of the earth will be completely uninhabitable: no plants, no animals, boiling bodies of water. This, of course, assumes that we won’t first completely wreck the planet through more anthropogenic climate change over the next several years. But whether we’re looking at 100 years or 1 billion, it’s become increasingly clear that Earth will not be our sustaining home forever. Space is not only the final frontier, as Star Trek has spiritedly suggested: it is the necessary frontier. We have to find somewhere else to journey to and make home. To do that, we obviously need a place to go and a means to get there. NBD. That colossal project is only in its infancy. We haven’t truly identified any proper earthlike planets. Mars is sort of a half-option: it’s in our own solar system, and with the right kind of engineering we could probably survive there in smaller colonies for a while. But even beyond the difficulties of radiation, bone loss, lack of indigenous oxygen, cramped living space, limited water sources, and the rest, it will succumb to the same fate as Earth with the decay and death of the sun. And though Mars is relatively close, we do not yet have an existing transportation structure to even make a one-way trip. SpaceX, the most innovative space technology company at the moment, recently had viewers around the world on a seat’s edge as they nearly landed a rocket stage for the first time, which would make it reusable—cheapening the costs of space travel and quickening the rate at which missions and innovation could take place. But comparably, that’s like someone being able to only mispronounce “bonjour” and “merci” in relation to free-flowing fluency of the entire French language. It’s stages prior to baby steps. Even infancy may be a bit of a stretch—cosmic exploration is prenatal right now. It’s all kind of a real life, race-against-time drama. Maybe we have several million years, but if we cannot reduce our negative impact on the planet and stabilize the global warming trends, maybe we only have a handful of decades. We can’t count on millions. Can we find a new home in time? Can we develop the complex, powerful technology to get to wherever that is and survive—even flourish—on it? The reality of this urgency and necessity is part of what made the underappreciated film Interstellar so compelling. It’s not merely fiction. Even if you have artistic critiques of Christopher Nolan’s film as a film, its story is solidly founded on one possible version of our future as human beings and the challenges we face to endure (as well as why we should endure). Whether it’s from blight, unmanageable global warming, the death of the sun, or something else that makes earth inhospitable in the end, we need to adventure well beyond the frontiers of the place we call home now if we want to ensure that our own story continues. Like all things, it will not be home forever.

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