Let's look away from earthly death and destruction for a moment and turn our gaze to the stars. When China sent two astronauts into orbit this week in a Chinese space capsule atop a Chinese rocket -- demonstrating once again that manned space flight is the defining status symbol elevating superpowers above wannabes -- I thought of Michael D. Griffin, NASA's eager administrator. And I thought of Buzz Lightyear.
Buzz was the spaceman character in the computer-animated movie "Toy Story," you'll recall, and he had a signature line: "To infinity -- and beyond!" That's pretty much where Griffin expects the U.S. space program to take the human race -- back to the moon, on to Mars, then perhaps to the moons of Jupiter and finally out into the limitless "beyond" of interstellar space, visiting faraway, undiscovered solar systems in our latter-day Santa Marias, Ninas and Pintas.
It sounds like the kind of vision that leads people to wriggle into velour jumpsuits, put on made-in-China pointy ears, gather in ballrooms at Holiday Inns and greet each other with "Live long and prosper." But Griffin's is no true "Star Trek" scenario, because he sees this as America's destiny, not humankind's, with Americans getting there first. Wherever "there" might be.
Griffin recently explained to reporters and editors of The Post that if the humans who inevitably "colonize the solar system and one day go beyond" do not carry "Western values," we could end up with "a gulag on Mars."
(I guess that means no seat on the bridge for Chekov, Sulu or Uhura. Scotty, all right, maybe. But the ultra-serious Spock, with his alien Vulcan values, is out of the question. He might even be a candidate for extraordinary rendition to the Klingons.) Griffin went on to say that "in the long run" -- the very long run, I hope -- the human species will face mass extinction. "If we humans want to survive for hundreds of thousands or millions of years," he said, "we must ultimately populate other planets. . . . [One] day, I don't know when that day is . . . there will be more human beings who live off the Earth than on it."
Some would say the hard-right leadership in Congress left our planet long ago, but I digress.
Griffin is not a nut. He's a smart, genial engineer who needs to enunciate a mission for his agency and justify its $16.2 billion budget. At a time when the government is hemorrhaging money on Iraq, Afghanistan and Gulf Coast reconstruction while also cutting taxes for the wealthy, manned space travel is a tough sell. Robotic probes are much cheaper and have proved spectacularly effective. But NASA wants to send astronauts.
If the goal is really to colonize other worlds, Griffin is right that only humans can do the job. There's a slight problem, though, one that Albert Einstein explained 100 years ago in the process of forever changing our understanding of time and space.
A century is long enough for the fact to sink in that nothing can be made to travel faster than the speed of light. You can't go zooming to and fro across the galaxy at "warp speed" as they did on the "Star Trek" series. All you can do, really, is poke around the neighborhood. It would take years to get to the nearest star, maybe decades to get to the nearest star with planets, maybe centuries to the nearest star with a planet that looked anything like Earth. So much for going "beyond."
In a sense, the probes that NASA, the Russians, the Europeans and the Japanese have sent to other planets and moons in the solar system have been too successful, in that they proved that we already live in the best house in the neighborhood -- indeed, the only house in the neighborhood. Griffin said, for example, that the absence of breathable oxygen in the thin Martian atmosphere would be one of the lesser obstacles to colonizing Mars. That gives you some idea of how difficult the greater obstacles might be.
Maybe some looming cataclysm will change the cost-benefit equation of sending people to live on one of the cold, rocky, airless, lifeless planets in our solar system. Maybe Einstein was wrong and we'll find some secret shortcut through the Milky Way. But at this point, robotic space probes are a better, cheaper, safer alternative. Surely the Chinese understand this as well. If Beijing eventually sends astronauts to the moon, it will be for prestige here on Earth -- not to establish some sort of lunar gulag.
Spock would see the logic in that conclusion, if we asked his advice.