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Argument: Colonizing the Moon is critical for human survival

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William Burrows. "Colonize the Moon." Wall Street Journal. February 2, 2007: "The overriding reason to establish a colony on the moon is humanity's survival: Darwin achieves liftoff.

Osepok had it right. It is abidingly dangerous out there. Science-fiction writers from Jules Verne to Gene Roddenberry and his associates have peddled the notion that space travel is user-friendly. It emphatically is not. But we have to establish a foothold there anyway, or risk extinction. Stephen Hawking, the eminent British cosmologist, has made precisely the same point.

Earth has been pummeled by asteroids and probably comets, large and small, throughout its existence. The dinosaurs are thought to have met their end because of a huge asteroid that hit roughly 65 million years ago. But they also may have owed their existence to another huge impactor that killed off their competitors millions of years earlier. As the old saw has it, the giant beasts would still be around if they had had a space program."

Carl Sagan: "All civilizations become either spacefaring or extinct."[1]

"Why Go Back to the Moon?" NASA. January 14, 2008: "First, and most fundamental: the last few decades of space exploration and astronomy have shown that the universe is violent and dangerous, at least with respect to human life. To give a pertinent example: in 1908 an object of unknown nature – probably a comet – hit Siberia with a force equivalent to a hydrogen bomb. Had this impact happened a few hours later, allowing for the Earth’s rotation, this object would have destroyed St. Petersburg and probably much else. Going back some 65 million years, it is now essentially proven that an even greater impact wiped out not only the dinosaurs but most species living on Earth at the time. The importance of catastrophic impacts has only been demonstrated in recent decades, and space exploration has played a key role.

[...] Returning to the most important reason for a new lunar program, dispersal of the human species, the most promising site for such dispersal is obviously Mars, now known to have an atmosphere and water. Mars itself is obviously a fascinating object for exploration. But it may even now be marginally habitable for astronaut visits, and in the very long view, might be 'terraformed,' or engineered to have a more Earth-like atmosphere and climate. This was described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy, Red Mars and its successors Green and Blue Mars. A second Earth, so to speak, would greatly improve our chances of surviving cosmic catastrophes.

[...] Where does the Moon fit into this possibility? First, it would continue to give us experience with short interplanetary trips, which is what the Apollo missions were. These would demonstrably be relatively short and safe compared to Mars voyages, but would provide invaluable test flights, so to speak. More important, shelters, vehicles, and other equipment built for the Moon could be over-designed, and with modification could be used on Mars after being demonstrated at a lunar outpost.

Robert Shapiro. "Why the Moon? Human survival!" The Space Review. March 19, 2007: "I am not writing here to add my voice to the chorus of Moon-bashers, but to express my astonishment that NASA, and most supporters of space, have overlooked the one goal that, even if taken alone, would justify the massive cost of a permanent lunar base: insuring the survival of our species, and of the civilization that sustains us.

Each year I insure my home for perhaps one percent of its value, and use a smaller amount to rent a safe deposit box to store valuable documents. What value do we place on our entire scientific, medical, and technical literature, together with our literary, artistic, and musical heritage? To raise the stakes, let me add the value of our own lives and those of all of our unborn descendents. This possibility was described eloquently more than two decades ago by Johnathan Schell in his anti-nuclear was treatise The Fate of the Earth. In his words: “But although the untimely death of everyone in the world would in itself constitute an unimaginably huge loss, it would bring with it a separate, distinct loss that would be in a sense even huger-the cancellation of all future generations of human beings.”

Of course, we have been hearing predictions of Doomsday for years, and we are still here. According to geologists, the eruption of Mt. Toba in Indonesia 71,000 years ago darkened the sky for years. The event caused killed much of plant life on the planet. The famine that resulted caused a severe drop in the human population of that time. The Black Death of the 14th century killed perhaps one-third of the population of Europe and the great flu epidemic of 1918 claimed an estimated 40 million victims. Despite these disasters, and others such as global wars, humanity has muddled through and even prospered. Why should things be different now? The answer is simple. Our prospects have worsened because we have come to a unique place in human history.

Suppose we wanted to conjure up a recipe for human disaster. Here is my suggestion about steps that we might take:

(1) Let the population swell up to seven billion or more. Then we will need vast and complex systems to ensure the production of food, materials, and energy sources, as well as transportation to deliver the goods. By increasing our numbers, we will also increase the playing field in which new viruses can develop, increase pollution and the probability of dramatic climate change, and hasten the day when important natural resources are exhausted.

(2) Computerize the operation of the food, energy, and transportation systems, and store all of the instruction manuals and needed references within the computers. Similarly, place all of our scientific, technical and medical knowledge within computers. Make the computers more and more complicated, so that only a handful of experts are prepared to deal with a massive failure.

(3) Arrange to have the computers, and most other functions of society, dependent upon the operations of an intricate power grid that is subject to massive and unexplained failure. We have already had a rehearsal of such an event. For example, on August 14, 2003, 50 million people in the northeast United States were deprived of power for many hours. The main cause of the blackout, according to the task force charged with its investigation, was the failure of an Ohio power company to trim trees in part of its service area. In September of that year, a similar blackout shut off power to almost all of Italy and part of Switzerland. Unintended causes might of course be eclipsed by the deliberate actions of terrorists. Gregory McNeal estimated in the New York Times that “a coordinated attack on four or five critical sites could send much of the nation into darkness for weeks.”

(4) Streamline the production of nuclear and biological weapons so that they become available not only to most heads of state, but also to groups of religious zealots and of extreme nationalists. Encourage both the exchange of information about such weapons, and their availability on the international black market. Individuals who are technically competent but mentally unbalanced will then also have access to such weapons, enriching their current arsenal of computer viruses, bombs, and hijacked airplanes.

[...] Considerations of this type led Dr. Martin Rees, Professor of Cosmology at Cambridge and President of the Royal Society, to publish a gloomy estimate. In his 2003 book, Our Final Hour, he gave civilization only a 50-percent chance of surviving until the year 2100.

When we face a brand new situation, such probabilities are impossible to calculate. Countermeasures against each individual threat can of course be taken, but we would also be prudent to back up our civilization and our species. We need to place a self-sufficient fragment of society out of harm’s way, which for practical purposes means off the Earth. A buffer of empty space would protect that sanctuary from virtually all of the catastrophes named above.

Physicist Stephen Hawking, and a number of others, have called for humanity to spread out to distant planets of our Solar System. But there is no need to go so far to protect ourselves. After a few decades—centuries at worst—dust and ash will settle, radioactive materials will decay, and viruses will perish. Earth will once again become the best home for humanity in the Solar System. Return would be easiest if a safe sanctuary were nearby. In the more probable instance that only a limited disaster took place, that nearby sanctuary could also play a valuable role in restoring lost data and cultural materials, and coordinating the recovery. And of course, construction of the rescue base will be much easier if it is only days, rather than months or years, away."

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