Space colonies. That’s the latest thing you hear, from the heralds of the future. President Gingrich is going to set up a state on the moon. The Dutch company Mars One intends to establish a settlement on the Red Planet by 2023. We’re heading towards a “multi-planetary civilization,” says Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX. Our future lies in the stars, we’re even told.
As a species of megalomania, this is hard to top. As an image of technological salvation, it is more plausible than the one where we upload our brains onto our computers, surviving forever in a paradise of circuitry. But not a lot more plausible. The resources required to maintain a colony in space would be, well, astronomical. People would have to be kept alive, indefinitely, in incredibly inhospitable conditions. There may be planets with earthlike conditions, but the nearest ones we know about, as of now, are 20 light years away. That means that a round trip at 10 percent the speed of light, an inconceivable rate (it is several hundred times faster than anything we’ve yet achieved), would take 400 years.
But never mind the logistics. If we live long enough as a species, we might overcome them, or at least some of them: energy from fusion (which always seems to be about 50 years away) and so forth. Think about what life in a space colony would be like: a hermetically sealed, climate-controlled little nothing of a place. Refrigerated air, synthetic materials, and no exit. It would be like living in an airport. An airport in Antarctica. Forever. When I hear someone talking about space colonies, I think, that’s a person who has never studied the humanities. That’s a person who has never stopped to think about what it feels like to go through an average day—what life is about, what makes it worth living, what makes it endurable. A person blessed with a technological imagination and the absence of any other kind.
The only way we’re going to end up living in space is if we’re forced to. “In the long run,” said the head of NASA in 2005, “a single-planet species will not survive.” His agency also conducts research into climate change, so he ought to know. This is not exactly a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it’s certainly one we’re doing everything we can to realize. It is not hard to foresee a time when living in a giant refrigerator on Mars is better than the alternative, and we abandon the Earth altogether.
Except that “we” won’t abandon the Earth. Who do you think will get to go, when the time comes? The ones who can pay their way. Elon Musk will go, and former President Romney, and a bunch of their friends. It’s going to be like the last helicopter out of Saigon. The rest of us will get to stay behind and watch each other slowly die. Neil Young foresaw it all a long time ago, in “After the Gold Rush”:
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun.
They were flying Mother Nature’s silver seed
To a new home in the sun.
By “silver” he probably meant more than he realized. Our future lies in the stars? Their future, buddy. Not yours or mine.
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