DARPA seems to have its priorities straight when it comes to space exploration. The agency is funding what it calls the “100 Year Starship” program to study novel propulsion systems with the eventual goal of colonizing space. Pete Worden, Director of NASA’s Ames Center, suggests that Mars might be colonized by 2030 via one-way missions. It’s an obvious choice, really. There’s little point in sending humans to Mars unless they’re going to stay there, and, at least from my point of view, establishing a permanent presence on the red planet is a good idea. My point of view is based on the conclusion that, if there’s really anything that we “ought” to do, it’s survive. Everything about us that makes us what we are evolved because it promoted our survival, so it seems that survival is a reasonable goal. There’s no absolutely legitimate reason why we should survive, but, if we don’t, it would seem to indicate that we are a dysfunctional species, and I find that thought unpleasant. There, in a nutshell, is my rationale for making human survival my number one priority.
If we seek to survive then, when it comes to planets, it would be unwise to put all of our eggs in one basket. Steven Hawking apparently agrees with me on this, as can be seen here and here. In his words,
It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.
Not unexpectedly in this hypermoralistic age, morality is being dragged into the debate. The usual “ethics experts” are ringing their hands about how and under what circumstances we have a “right” to colonize space, and what we must do to avoid being “immoral” in the process. Related discussions can be found here and here. Apparently it never occurs to people who raise such issues that human beings make moral judgments and are able to conceive of such things as “rights” only because of the existence of emotional wiring in our brains that evolved because it promoted our survival and that of our prehuman ancestors. Since it evolved at times and under circumstances that were apparently uninfluenced by what was happening on other planets, morality and “rights” are relevant to the issue only to the extent that they muddy the waters.
Assuming that others agree with me and Dr. Hawking that survival is a desirable goal, then ultimately we must seek to move beyond our own solar system. Unfortunately there are severe constraints on our ability to send human beings on such long voyages owing to the vast amounts of energy that would be necessary to make interstellar journey’s within human lifetimes. For the time being, at least, we must rely on very small vessels that may take a very long time to reach their goals. Nanotechnology is certainly part of the answer. Tiny probes might survey the earth-like planets we discover to determine their capacity to support life. Those found suitable should be seeded with life as soon as possible. Again, because of energy constraints, it may only be possible to send one-celled or very simple life forms at first. They can survive indefinitely long voyages in space, and would be the logical choice to begin seeding other planets. Self-replicating nano-robots might then be sent capable of building a suitable environment for more complex life forms, including incubators and surrogate parents. At that point, it would become possible to send more complex life forms, including human beings, in the form of frozen fertilized eggs. These are some of the things we might consider doing if we consider our survival important.
Of course, any number of the pathologically pious among us might find what I’ve written above grossly immoral. The fact remains that there is no legitimate basis for such a judgment. Morality exists because it promoted our survival. There can be nothing more immoral than failing to survive.