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Canada Space Television Science

Human Survival Depends On Space Exploration, Says Hawking 438

Posted by timothy
from the what's-he-hawking? dept.
thomst writes "The Winnipeg Free Press posts a story by Cassandra Szklarski of the Canadian Press about an email interview with Stephen Hawking in which the astrophysicist and geek hero opines, 'Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.' The story also covers the upcoming Canadian debut of Hawking's new TV series 'Brave New World With Stephen Hawking,' and his excitement about ongoing work at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ont. investigating quantum theory and gravity."
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Human Survival Depends On Space Exploration, Says Hawking

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  • by wisebabo (638845) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @06:44PM (#38111388) Journal

    Is it just the transmission of DNA?

    Then if it is, then transmitting our DNA via high powered radio telescopes would be far cheaper than a space program. Next would be including DNA samples on anything leaving the solar system (pioneer, voyager, new horizon).

    If it's our cultural heritage, we've been beaming a (lopsided) collection out into space for the last 100 years. We've even sent some physical artifacts.

    If it's the survival of our MINDS that we're concerned with, well rather than build space ships capable of crossing the interstellar void (which'll likely take centuries) maybe it would be faster to figure out how to convert them into code and beam THAT.

    Of course this assumes that there is someone out there on the receiving end. I don't think that's too unlikely a hypothesis but reasonable people might disagree. So let's get listening! (And maybe we'll figure out the answer to the Fermi Paradox).

    (By the way, I'm all for a VERY aggressive space program, it's just that maybe we shouldn't think survival is the best reason for it!)

  • Re:This Just In (Score:5, Interesting)

    by geekpowa (916089) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @06:45PM (#38111402)

    And here's me thinking it is because cost per Kg to LEO is between $5,000-$10,000 : and that is for non man-rated cargo. So the cost to get someone into LEO in their birthday suit, let alone anywhere interesting like an established moon base, currently exceeds the average total asset holdings of most first world citizens.

    But it's the politicians fault; its their fault the planet is dying and Armageddon is nearly upon us, it's their fault that we have not colonized space. Rabble rabble rabble.

    Q: Guess who killed the Apollo programme? A: US citizenry not the politicians. The programme was deeply unpopular. Tom Lehrer's sentiment represented broad public opinion at the time:

    "what is it that will make it possible to spend 20 billion dollars of your money to put some clown on the moon? well, S good old american know-how, that's what. as provided by good old americans like dr. wernher von braun."

  • by Todd Knarr (15451) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @06:55PM (#38111478) Homepage

    Counterpoint:

    "The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that thereâ(TM)s no good reason to go into space â" each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision."

  • by 0123456 (636235) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @07:07PM (#38111566)

    Sorry, but independently sustainable settlement on other planets is impossible for the foreseeable future.

    Settling on other planets would be silly, because they suffer all the same problems as Earth. Any long-term human settlement will be in free-flying habitats, because building them is much easier than terraforming Mars, they can move on if resources become scare and they're much more difficult targets for people who want to kill you.

  • by Hentes (2461350) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @07:10PM (#38111588)

    Apparently Hawking is worried of our resources running out, but mining other celesatial bodies can be done without colonizing them. And even if we did colonize them, exponential growth would not be feasible indefinitely. I believe it's much easier to change our ways than to colonize space.

  • by 0123456 (636235) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @07:23PM (#38111664)

    In the other hand, terraforming/colonizing other planets in our solar system, or managing to build self sustained space stations is more probable, and doing what is needed to get that goal could make things better here, or at least better prepared for some potential disasters.

    If you can build self-sustaining habitats, you just point one in the direction of another star and fire the engines. Then who cares whether you take 500 years to get there? Life will be little different to floating in an orbit around the sun here.

  • by saibot834 (1061528) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @07:26PM (#38111684) Homepage

    "Go west" doesn't work anymore. You can't just rest all your hopes on being able to continue life on another planet. It's a romantic idea, but actually doing so would require efforts that are by far much larger than ending world poverty or convincing people to care about the environment. A manned mission to mars would cost $40-$80 billion [newscientist.com]. Here are some problems, each enough to explain why we won't be anything near this in the next 50 years (just some examples, I'm sure there are more):

    Space expenses don't scale well. While development costs do scale, things like transport, fuel, assembly of rockets, etc. does not scale very well.

    Full Autonomy is extremely hard. If earth goes down the toilet, you can't rely on yearly shipments of equipment and technology. You'd have to build *everything* in your colony, which would require a huge colony indeed (so that you have a factory that makes the robots that manufacturers your mp3 players and *everything else you rely on nowadays*) and thus an even greater effort.

    Humans just love earth. Even mild changes to our environment can have extreme consequences on our health. Thinking about going to Europa, that trendy Jupiter moon? Well, it only has 0.134 g, so you need to put *everything* in giant centrifuges. And that's just one factor. Building a huge shell that keeps the pressure of 1 bar earth atmosphere and 10^-12 bar Europa atmosphere separate is another one...

  • by camperdave (969942) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @07:34PM (#38111724) Journal
    Nothing short of zero population growth is going to do anything but slow down the inevitable. Suppose we discover a means of building colony starships capable of moving ten billion people at the speed of light. Further, suppose there is an empty, habitable "class M" planet around every star.

    Now, the human race has been expanding exponentially at the historic average of 2% per year. That means that, on average, the number of people doubles every 35 years. It's crowded here, and we've got a starship and an empty planet only 4 light years away. So we load half the population and take them to Alpha Centauri. It took (according to some estimates) 20,000 years for homo sapiens to get where we are today. Do you know how long it will take us to populate Alpha Centauri to today's levels? Only 35 years.

    Okay, it's 39 years later (Four years transit time plus 35 years of growth), 2050, and now you have two crowded planets. No problem, Barnard's Star is only 6 years away from Earth, and Wolf 359 is 8 years from Alpha Centari. So we pack up half the population of Earth and send them to Barnard's Star, and we take half the population of Alpha Centauri and send them to Wolf 359. Again, it will only take 35 years to fill each of the planets. By 2093 we will need to find 8 more planets. We now have a colony on each of the stars within ten light years. 35 years after that, and we will need 16 planets, 70 years and we'll need 32, then 64. By 2200 we will have colonized all the stars within 20 light years.

    By 2360ish we'll hit a snag. We will have populated all of the stars within 35 light years of Earth. Colony ships leaving Earth at this point will not arrive at their destination before it is time to send out another colony ship. Of course, all the other colonies will be sending out their colony ships as well. We'll need another 512 planets. At the end of another 35 year cycle, we'll need 1024, another cycle and we'll have used up all the stars within 50 light years.

    Scientists estimate that there is about one star per 280 cubic light years. In 800 years or so, our empire will need 34 million new planets. However there are only some 19 million stars within 800 light years. In other words, we will have outgrown our ability to travel.

    Today we have 7 billion people on the planet. By 2150, your target date, we will have 36 billion people. Your 50/50 by 2150 plan would result in each person having only half an acre of land on which to live and support themself. This [netdna-cdn.com] suggests 2 acres per person are needed. 50/50 by 2150 would result in 3/4 of the population starving to death.

    It's basic mathematics. A fixed resource cannot supply an ever increasing population. Any plan that does not include zero population growth and 100% recycling will eventually fail.
  • by Hentes (2461350) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @07:35PM (#38111744)

    For example, if Bill Gates finishes designing his reactor [wikipedia.org] then we could build one on the Moon, and use the uranium [space.com] there to fuel it. The reactor would power the station and also generate enriched plutonium in the process, wich then could be shot down to Earth using mass driver [wikipedia.org] system to shoot it back to Earth, thus having no need for fuel. Current railguns can already reach the lunar escape velocity, so that shouldn't be a problem.

  • by xtal (49134) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @07:47PM (#38111844)

    Our bodies are not adapted, evolved, or designed for space.

    We are vastly better off concentrating resources into robotics, AI, and technologies that will allow for the imaging and transfer of brain state. Those next creations - or evolution of intelligence - will be free to explore the universe.

    Alternatively, mastering genetic engineering may allow us to create organic lifeforms that ARE adapted to those environments, and have or exceed our own intelligence. That is also possible within a short timeframe.

    As the Dr. already indicated, it's not likely we are going to make it the next few hundred years as-is. That'll be ok, we'll all be at the feet of (insert deity here) in eternal paradise, right? *laughs*

  • Re:not any time soon (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 32771 (906153) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @07:53PM (#38111908) Journal

    "... we will exhaust our planet's resources long before we're actually able to permanently survive somewhere else."
    Precisely.

    An interesting aspect is though that if we solve this resource exhaustion problem here on earth, i.e. find a better nearly inexhaustible and dense energy source, we would be able to extract resources on other planets. The do the math blog mentions that we have to stop growing then, otherwise we would heat up the planet too much.

    Here is a link about resource concentrations:
    http://www.nss.org/settlement/nasa/spaceresvol3/pmofld1a.htm [nss.org]

    Here is a quote:
    "This discussion of geochemical availability and extractive metallurgy implies that extraction of minor elements in space is questionable unless specific natural concentrations are discovered or energy becomes very inexpensive."

    This is so silly, why did no one tell me about this, people know about this issue since the seventies.

  • Re:This Just In (Score:4, Interesting)

    by the gnat (153162) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @09:36PM (#38112584)

    It's a matter of having say 5% of the world population dedicated to getting off this planet... and not be real-estate brokers, or financial analysts, etc. There are plenty of industries that can and should decrease in size---and there are industries that can and should grow---governments can just make it easier for aerospace industry to grow a bit faster than say "creative financial instruments" industry.

    Even if governments were to eliminate taxes for companies dedicated to manned space exploration and exploitation, it wouldn't even employ a fraction of 5% of the world's population. You're talking about something that would require (at least) tens of billions in startup capital per company - realistically, you'd need a massive government subsidy. Don't lecture me about asteroid mining; even if it could be made profitable in the long term (and I'm not convinced of that), we are decades away from the technology we need to do it. No (sane) company is going to sink tens of billions into something that will take decades to pay off. That's why we have government investment in basic sciences anyway. So, ultimately, it comes down to spending tax dollars on a massive extraterrestrial colonization effort.

    And I already know about Elon Musk and Space-X - and I wish him the best of luck. It would be fantastic if someone could come up with a sustainable business model for orbital spaceflight (other than getting your local Congresspeople to legislate your product into the NASA budget). But even if they succeed on all counts, manned space flight is still going to be too expensive for anyone except the government and the mega-rich, and colonization is still out of the question. Elon says he wants to retire on Mars, which is a nice fantasy if you don't mind spending your old age being sealed in a bubble and recycling your waste products, but he's going to need to make a shitload of money off satellite launches if he wants to afford it. Right now, I don't think even Bill Gates could afford this. I can maybe see them making a manned flyby in a couple of decades, but even that is going to take a huge chunk out of their revenues and yield no short-term return.

  • by Kjella (173770) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @10:03PM (#38112728) Homepage

    Full Autonomy is extremely hard. If earth goes down the toilet, you can't rely on yearly shipments of equipment and technology. You'd have to build *everything* in your colony, which would require a huge colony indeed (so that you have a factory that makes the robots that manufacturers your mp3 players and *everything else you rely on nowadays*) and thus an even greater effort.

    F*ck MP3 players, how about the fact that the only reason a space colony could function at all is because of high tech. This isn't Earth were you can have some sort of cataclysmic event and practically go back to a primitive agrarian society. You want that space suit to function? That airlock to work? The solar panels to produce heat so you don't freeze to death? If they break down and you can't fix them or replace them you're dead.

    Full autonomy is so far outside the scope of anything that's even been considered, we can send a radiation hardened CPU to Mars but a factory to build one? And all the tools required to maintain and repair that factory? And everything required to build those tools? It's easy to forget how extremely specialized we've become and how many steps there are between raw ore in the ground and working product. We'd need either an army of robots or many, many thousand people to be anything like autonomous.

    And that's one of the issues here, the more people you add the bigger the resource demands will be. I don't know exactly at what size the tide will turn and each person makes the colony more self-sufficient, but I'm thinking big. Like, really really big.

  • Re:This Just In (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Prof.Phreak (584152) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @10:06PM (#38112746) Homepage

    governments of the world can spend significantly more than 5% of GDP on military (vast majority of which is... a completely waste), and you're saying they can't (if they were actually interested in the idea) spend that much on doing something about "getting off this rock"?

  • Re:This Just In (Score:3, Interesting)

    by daath93 (1356187) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @10:51PM (#38113078)
    NASA Langley Research Center charges 2% to 8% of the profits from licensing their technology. Where do you get free? My source is NASA [nasa.gov].
  • by ortholattice (175065) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @10:58PM (#38113140)
    I would guess that from a callous, purely economical point of view, smoking has a net benefit to society.

    Smokers typically die around retirement age, after their productive life is over. Nonsmokers, on the other hand, may linger on unproductively for decades in nursing homes with around-the-clock care, or requiring family members to leave the work force to care for them. Sure lung cancer is costly, but it is a one-time expense.

    The "cost of smoking" numbers you see are not offset with the cost of not smoking due to longer unproductive lives that burden society. It would be interesting to see some unbiased calculations.

  • Re:This Just In (Score:2, Interesting)

    by master_p (608214) on Sunday November 20, 2011 @05:36AM (#38115068)

    Doing five super expensive missions to the outer planets is extremely stupid when, with the same money, you can build a big spaceship that has artificial gravity, hydroponics, science labs and a huge nuclear reactor to power it for eons. You can then travel to any planet, or even the nearest stars, assuming you can get to relativistic speeds.

    It can also have smaller spaceships inside it so as that people land on planets.

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