Return to the Heavens, for the Sake of the Earth

By Kim Stanley Robinson
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Does the notion of sending humans to space still make sense in the age of climate change?

Of course, some of it didn't make sense in the first place. I never cease to cringe when space advocates say that the Earth is but our cradle, that our destiny is in the stars. Such reasoning is a fantasy of transcendence. But more literally, it implies that we can transcend simply by leaving the Earth and living elsewhere -- and there's no evidence that this is possible.

Our bodies are communities, fully integrated with the rest of the biosphere; only 10 percent of our DNA is human, the rest belonging to fellow travelers, often symbiotic creatures, that share this space with us. Our co-evolution with them and with the rest of the Earth -- from its gravity and electromagnetic fields to its thick web of life -- may be so extensive that we can never live away from our home planet.

And why would we want to leave Earth, anyway? "Not keeping all our eggs in one basket," as some argue, is a weak reason, as if destroying the biosphere could be made right by sending a few colonists to other planets. You'd think Peter Sellers's hilarious turn at the end of "Dr. Strangelove," rhapsodizing about the reproductive possibilities of a post-apocalyptic world, would have put an end to such stuff, but prominent scientists, from Stephen Hawking to the great Russian astronomer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, keep making my case. (And my chosen genre of science fiction has not helped, constantly invoking faster-than-light travel to get us around, making the universe seem smaller than it really is.)

The creation of a cosmic diaspora is just one argument for putting humans in space -- a bad one. But now, as human-made climate change has thrust us into the role of stewards of the global biosphere, new reasons, good ones, have emerged. Indeed, keeping our space ambitions relatively local -- within our own solar system -- can help us find solutions for the climate crisis.

It has been said that space science is an Earth science, and that is no paradox. Our climate crisis is very much a matter of interactions between our planet and our sun. That being the case, our understanding is vastly enhanced by going into space and looking down at the Earth, learning things we cannot learn when we stay on the ground.

Studying other planets helps as well. The two closest planets have very different histories, with a runaway greenhouse effect on Venus and the freezing of an atmosphere on Mars. Beyond them spin planets and moons of various kinds, including several that might harbor life. Comparative planetology is useful in our role as Earth's stewards; we discovered the holes in our ozone layer by studying similar chemical interactions in the atmosphere of Venus. This kind of unexpected insight could easily happen again.

Another good reason for a vigorous space program is the immense potential of space-based solar power. This would entail infrastructure-building with a vengeance, but investing in a system of orbiting solar power collectors -- and ground stations to receive that power -- could stimulate the economy, much like building interstate freeways did in the 1950s. And gathering the sun's energy in space and beaming it down maximizes the harvest while minimizing the effects on the Earth.

Of course, constructing this system would require a reliable fleet of heavy lifters, but we have built such spacecraft before, and the Russians are especially skilled at it. That might add an international element to this enterprise, which would be another plus: To the extent that we cooperate in demilitarized space, we practice and model cooperative solutions for our shared home.

When I consider the solar system as our working neighborhood, I am reminded not of "the final frontier," but of Antarctica. Our Antarctic stations are a bit like moon bases that we can reach with airplanes. We staff them with rotating crews, and carry out interesting and useful research, but fully inhabiting the ice is not crucial to progress in history. It may never happen. The solar system might be like that to us for a long time.

Eventually, if things go well on Earth, we may begin to inhabit the moons and planets of the solar system more completely, with populations living their entire lives off Earth. At this stage, Mars will always loom as the best candidate for a viable second home. If we alter that planet by importing Earth's organisms into a rehydrated Martian landscape, that would make it safer for us to live there long-term. These big possibilities, described at length in my Mars novels, will make the planet one of the best 22nd century answers to the question, "Why space?"

And later, if things are still going well on Earth -- always the necessary condition -- we might live throughout our solar system. This civilization would be a great thing, as a healthy Earth would have to exist at its heart. But given all we have to do first, the full flourishing of such a civilization is surely centuries away.

So why even talk about this? Because it is useful to take the long view from time to time. This is what science fiction does, and though science fiction has been bad about space, it has been good about time. Taking that long view, we no longer seem like the most sophisticated culture ever; indeed, much that we do now will look silly or even criminal in the future. The long view also reminds us that we are a species only about 100,000 years old, evolving on a planet where the average lifetime of a species is 10 million years. Unless we blow it, humans are going to be around in 1,000 years -- and if we make it that far, it's likely that we'll last much longer than that.

So, what actions, taken today, will help our children, and theirs, and theirs? From that perspective, decarbonizing our technology and creating a sustainable civilization emerge as the overriding goals of our age. If going into space helps achieve those goals, we should go; if going into space is premature, or falls into the category of "a good idea if Earth is healthy," it should be put on the science fiction shelf, where I hope our descendants will be free to choose it if they want it.

Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of the "Mars" trilogy and "Science in the Capital," a series on climate change.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company