As long as humans have graced the earth, they have looked to the stars. In earlier days we gazed to the sky in wonder and fear. We weaved stories around the patterns of stars, naming them after our gods and heroes. Later, we developed telescopes and other instruments in which to categorize the stars, measured the distance and space between planets, and gained even more knowledge about the universe in which we live. We now know much more about the universe than we ever have before. And yet we still have only began to graze the tip of the iceberg in terms of the vastness of the universe in which we inhabit. Furthermore, the more we learn, the more questions are raised. But perhaps the most important question relates to our own place within the universe. With growing technology and the knowledge of the Earth’s eventual demise, we must ask ourselves; should we stay on this planet? Or seek a new home among the stars?
The famous astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan said in his book Cosmos that, “exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars”. But is there any reason to leave our planet aside from the simple desire to travel? I believe there is. This beautiful planet is not going to last forever, unfortunately. When the Sun is about twelve billion years old, it will expand into the red giant stage of its life. At this point it is very probable that it will engulf Venus and Mercury, growing even more in size. The Earth’s orbit will be decreased due to the drag from the Sun’s chromosphere and the Earth’s orbital radius will also be reduced due to the tidal reaction caused by the Sun’s outer atmosphere. What does this mean? It means that in all likelihood, in the future, the Earth will be engulfed by the Sun, eliminating all life. If the Sun doesn’t engulf the Earth, another likely future is that the Moon’s orbit will decay. This means that the Moon will break apart, and the resulting debris will impact the Earth. If left moonless, the tides will be affected considerably, and humans will lose a prominent food source. So either way, life on Earth will be eliminated when the Sun reaches the end of its life.
Now this will obviously not happen during our lifetimes. So does it matter? Of course it does! Just because it won’t affect us directly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for the most positive outcome available to us! And one possible outcome is for humanity to leave Earth in search of a new planet. In Pale Blue Dot Carl Sagan said that, “when I look at the evidence, it seems to me that planetary exploration is of the most practical and urgent utility for us here on Earth. Even if we were not roused by the prospect of exploring other worlds, even if we didn’t have a nanogram of adventuresome spirit in us, even if we were only concerned for ourselves and in the narrowest sense, planetary exploration would still constitute a superb investment”. This is easier said than done, however. Space exploration requires funding and technology. The money required to put together this sort of research to even get started in this direction is unfathomable. For the most part, the government is hesitant to provide the investment into such an enterprise. And they would much rather develop technology that will assist them in war and peace efforts than in the space program. Besides, shouldn’t we use this money to help end poverty or try and solve any number of the problems that we are already dealing with? Is it selfish to work so hard for the future while ignoring the present?
In my humble opinion, I do think it is vastly important to try and fix what is already going on with the planet. Unfortunately, judging by the way the most recent election turned out I have lost a lot of faith in my fellow Americans to make the right choice about important matters. We need to fix problems like poverty and terrorism before we can work on going to the stars in search of a new home. But we will never be able to accomplish this as a species until we learn to put aside our petty differences of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. and realize that we are all a part of the human experience. We need to band together and learn to work together so that we can achieve a future in which we will all be provided for. After all, “global cooperation is the essential precondition for our survival”.
I’ll admit that my personal opinion on this matter is a result of a love of science fiction and space exposure. I absolutely love Star Trek and Doctor Who. I’ve devoured so many things that Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Neil Degrasse Tyson have written, and count Contact and Interstellar among my favorite movies. Every time I look to the sky at night I imagine what it would be like to live on another planet. And I’m not alone in this dream. As Carl Sagan said, "in the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”
And yet, as much as I would love to see this become a reality, I do also believe that we need to not focus all our attention on this endeavor. There are so many problems that already exist on Earth, and I believe that we won’t progress as a species unless we learn to solve the difficulties here that already plague us. Leaving Earth and finding another planet to establish a colony is most certainly a viable option, but it is not the only option. We have much work to do.