Before “Star Trek” becomes a reality, we first have to protect planet Earth
Emerging from Jeff Bezos’ blue space capsule in late 2021, actor William Shatner was instantly overcome by the “overview effect” — awe at the fragility and wonder of Earth’s beautiful biosphere combined with the unwelcome blackness of deep space. The post-cruise recipes also struck a chord with me.
As someone who has covered space and astronomy for nearly three decades now, the answers to many of our philosophical questions about our origin and existence seem to be out there. It’s just that yet we humans don’t belong to the stars in the same way that Shatner’s fictional ‘Star Trek’ alter ego ‘Captain James T. Kirk’ might have us.
Ironically, the billionaires responsible for opening low-Earth orbit to private astronauts operate on a different scale than what is needed to take us beyond the Moon. Apparently, our planet is rare in the solar system and in this part of the galaxy. It’s too early to tell how often planets like ours really evolve, but it doesn’t seem like they come along that often.
But before we can colonize the solar system and venture out to Earth 2.0, we first have to clean up the mess we’ve made here.
The idea that any leader or any group could threaten this heavenly wonder we call Earth – the product of 4.5 billion years of astounding cosmic evolution – should be enough to piss off every soul on the planet.
As I noted here earlier, even a limited regional nuclear conflict would have a catastrophic global impact, as detailed in new atmospheric and climate models in a 2014 paper in the journal Nature. Earth’s future. As you point out, a hypothetical exchange of one hundred 15-kiloton warheads would release enough black carbon to temporarily destroy much of the ozone layer that protects our atmosphere.
Thus, to me, the threat of nuclear Armageddon is more worrisome than the vagaries of climate change or experiencing a catastrophic shock near Earth. But all three need to be mitigated. However, it will require a fundamental change in geopolitical diplomacy and how we engage with the planet’s climate and natural resources.
As for the threats from near-Earth collisions?
The technology used in the Dart: Double Asteroid Redirection Test, the recent successful demonstration mission of an asteroid deflection, will help protect us from unexpected ground collisions.
Although we have work to do on Earth, we must not forget that virtual exploration of the universe helps us better understand our own planet and solar system and how we stack up in the universe. It also inspires young people to study physics, astronomy, astrobiology, and rocket science to eventually take us to the stars.
However, not enough effort is being done to research breakthrough propulsion technologies that bend the laws of physics enough to reduce flight stage times for trips outside our solar system. At this point, such a search would essentially require nothing but blackboard technology and an endless supply of coffee. That’s a small price to pay for the technologies that might one day save our species.
But Shatner is also right. Everything we need is right here on earth. Our desire to wander may have to wait a little longer. Nowadays, we have few options to get out of the world.
The moon is a dead corpse that will at best become an exotic science station and adventure tourist attraction in the next two decades. Mars is a desert that may never have harbored complex life. And Venus is an absolute hell hole with unfathomably high temperatures and surface pressures. This is why we must manage our natural resources wisely, so that future generations can walk through the planet’s remaining ancient forests and swim in its seas.
Then we can focus fully on our hypothetical exploration of the universe, which most of us will likely be able to experience in the foreseeable future. Our distant descendants may indeed live a Star Trek-like life. But no one can say for sure that interstellar travel will be the destiny of mankind. This is definitely disappointing for a generation that grew up with Apollo. But unless there’s a major shift in our approach to propulsion technology, we’ll have to learn to be thankful for the ground beneath our feet.