Stephen Hawking recently gave a speech in which he advocated the near-future colonization of space to ensure the survival of humanity in the face of looming disasters such as global warming, nuclear war, and genetically engineered disease. His comments have drawn scathing criticism across the blogosphere, most notably among the contributors on ScienceBlogs. These critics deride Hawking's suggestion primarily on three counts: we are nowhere near the level of technology sufficient to survive off Earth indefinitely; only a small elite could possibly escape one of these disasters, should one arise; and we should clean up our mess on Earth before we think of spreading it elsewhere.
Hawking's specific urging of space colonization in the next few decades is quite possibly technologically impossible. The question is: what role, if any, should space exploration and settlement play in a technoprogressive society?
It seems clear that the basic premise from which Hawking starts is correct. We could easily exterminate ourselves in a variety of ways, or nature could handily do the job for us. If there is a reasonable prospect for success, certainly having some humans alive is better than none, and the only way to ensure this survival is to get some humans off Earth. The more, the farther away, the better. Unfortunately, until we can create self-sustaining artificial biospheres, any off-Earth settlement is doomed.
But that doesn't mean that we should ignore these prospects. Earth's ecosystem is being damaged by human activity on Earth, particularly through global warming. If we haven't reached it yet, we are soon approaching the point at which merely halting our activities is no longer enough. We will have to actively manage at least some of our environment if we are to recover what we are losing. We will find ourselves re-terraforming Terra itself. Where will we learn? Our track record thus far is fairly abysmal.
I submit that space settlement -- both in self-contained orbital habitats and on the surface of Mars and other bodies -- and the restoration of Earth's ecosystem are projects best achieved symbiotically with one another. Lessons learned as we examine the damage we have wreaked here will find applications as we strive to build better environments elsewhere. And as we learn about building environments from the ground up, we will learn what can be done to return from damage that might otherwise be irreversible. As both projects proceed, we will eventually reach a point at which we have recovered from our terrestrial foibles and spread pockets of survival away from the dangers that threaten us.
There is another, more indirectly progressive reason to encourage the settlement of space: diversity. Until such time as the world has been rid of totalitarianism, there will always be forces of homogeneity and oppression. Societies independent of Earth entirely, separated from Earthly concerns by millions of miles, will be free to establish myriad experiments in liberal and social democracy. Some will be anarchies, some will be communes, others will be republics, and so on. Cultures will diverge, new art and music and food will be created. The human experience will be richer for the diaspora.
But this is something that cannot flourish until centuries hence. Progressivism is pragmatic, interested in finding solutions to problems that achieve the best outcomes for the most people. I suggest that a technoprogressive space exploration program would be focused in the near-term on planetology, learning about the similarities and differences between Earth and its neighbors with continuing space-based Earth observation and environmental research.
However, human spaceflight is a capacity that we cannot afford to ignore, despite the risks. But rather than a flags-and-footprints program of nationalistic pride -- another Apollo, or President Bush's current Moon-Mars masturbation -- human spaceflight should be about something. It should be about science and exploration and survival, furthering the goals outlined above as they become feasible. It is not a choice between a crumbling Earth and the fantasy of space. We should not shy away from grand dreams, but harness them for the good of all.