I’ve always thought that Star Trek was kind of cheating when it called space "the final frontier." "Space" is everything except the planet we live on, so it’s like calling infinity the final frontier. Maybe the phrase was intended to indicate a subtle imperialist manifest destiny in the Federation as it saw everything that wasn’t Earth a frontier to be won and settled. (If any undergrads out there were looking for a seemingly deep, but actually inane topic for a term paper this fall, you can have that.)
I’m thinking about space as both NASA and Tony Stark stand-in Elon Musk have been talking about Mars colonies recently. NASA has said they are looking at having a manned mission there by 2035. Musk topped that by saying his company, Space X, could get an astronaut there by 2026. (Both estimates are still more conservative than Newt Gingrich’s 2012 boast of a moon colony by 2020 that would be the 51st state.)
I am terribly excited about this timetable as I believe that mankind’s future lies among the stars (I guess technically, we already do lie among the stars, but that’s not the point). Last fall I was able to watch the Minotaur V rocket head into space from my apartment window. It made me realize that we could be on the verge of a whole new age of exploration, though without all the genocide this time. Instead of two piddling little continents, we have an entire planet to explore.
The first age of exploration went a bit faster than this one. Given that the atmosphere of the Americas was breathable to Europeans, any jerk with a boat could sail across the ocean. Six years from Columbus’s first voyage the first permanent European settlement in the New World was founded. (Which at the time they thought was in Asia and thus must have been confused about why Emperor of Japan hadn’t executed them for founding a city in his backyard.) For comparison, it has been more than 40 years since a human even stood on the moon. And while we can’t breathe on Mars yet, the current strategies for terraforming it consist of covering it in greenhouse gases, which, fortunately, is a skill we’ve been perfecting for decades.
Space exploration has been slowed by a push back from people who think it’s not a valuable investment. I’m kind of mystified by this viewpoint that we shouldn’t be exploring and settling other worlds. I’m sure there were people in the 15th century who thought there wasn’t anything useful out in this New World. And I’m equally sure that 20 years later these same people were knifing one another over a sack of nutmeg from the Spice Islands. We don’t yet know what’s waiting out there to be discovered, what vital element of life we have been missing but now desperately need. Consider that Richard the Third died never knowing that his lunch of bacon and lettuce was missing a third crucial ingredient.
I think part of the problem with kicking off the colonization of new planets comes from how accustomed to immediacy we’ve become in the last century. The old explorers were perfectly willing to sit on a boat for two months to get to the new world because that’s how long it took to get anywhere. But now that a complete circumnavigation of the globe can be accomplished in less than two days, we don’t have the stomach for a longer voyage. One would think that it would be easier to commit to spending the better part of a year on a ship when the in-flight entertainment consists of every season of every television show ever made instead of watching your teeth fall out from scurvy, but I guess entertainment value is relative.
Lastly, we eventually have to either get off this planet or go the way of the dinosaurs in the most literal sense of the expression. If an asteroid wipes out our species, that’s not just apocalyptic, it’s also embarrassing. Think of how humiliating it would be to have all the alien races that discover our ruins judging us for keeping our whole civilization in one basket when we had a perfectly serviceable backup next door that we never bothered to fix up.