Since the start of 2017, things have not looked good for continued life on Earth.
The nuclear war-related chest-thumping by U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis on Feb. 2 was a low point. So was the revelation that Arctic temperatures this winter are as much as 50 degrees (F) above normal, which may explain some of the destructive weather events in the “midlatitudes”: forest fires and droughts in California, where most people and animals live.
In fact, it’s so bad on the planet that the frigid vacuum of space looks positively welcoming. In his recent Observer piece, “In Awe of the Cosmos,” Kevin Spurgaitis takes us there through the lens of recent science fiction films. And a quote from the 2014 film, Intergalactic, seems particularly poignant now: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars,” Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), the protagonist, tells his father-in-law (John Lithgow) early on in the film. “Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
Still, while most of us are concerned about current events, others remain transfixed by the call of outer space and — more particularly — on how not to screw it up like we’ve done with Earth.
Here are five intergalactic ambitions humans probably shouldn’t be trusted with.
1. Colonizing Mars
The plan: In September 2016, Tesla founder Elon Musk announced a plan to invest in new technology and build an alternate civilization on Mars.
The problem: Is Mars ours? Who gets to go, and who is left behind? And “will it help earthbound humans to address disease, climate change, war, social and economic inequality? Will it undercut efforts to address these issues?”
The likelihood: Possible. Musk seems committed.
2. Contacting extraterrestrials
The plan: In summer 2015, famed physicist Stephen Hawking announced Breakthrough Listen, a $100 million academic survey of stars and galaxies that’s looking for signs of intelligent life.
The problem: It’s likely that a more advanced species will extinguish human life, Hawking says. So we should listen, but then resist the urge to answer back. As if.
The likelihood: In 2016, Russian scientists announced they had received a deep space signal. But they later acknowledged that the signal was probably coming from Earth. So who knows.
3. Interplanetary resource extraction
The plan: In 2012, the U.S. billionaires-driven Planetary Resources formed with the intention of developing an infrastructure to mine asteroids and small planets close to Earth. Other companies have since emerged with similar plans.
The problem: The 2015 Space Act, which is an American law, allows companies to keep the resources that they mine. Other countries have not agreed to this, however, which leads one to wonder, “Who owns what’s out there?” It’s an important question as Earth may run out of phosphorus, antimony, zinc, tin, lead, indium, silver, gold and copper within a few decades.
The likelihood: The technology isn’t there yet to make this practice economical. But knowing humans, it’s coming.
4. Launching our nuclear waste and other garbage into space
The plan: In Superman IV (1987), the hero defeats Nuclear Man and disposes of Earth’s nuclear weapons by shooting them into the sun. So why not garbage?
The problem: As Popular Mechanics points out, at current space travel prices, launching Earth’s 2.6 trillion pounds of garbage into space would cost about $33 quadrillion dollars (Editor’s note: this is a real number).
The likelihood: While debris from Earth’s satellites and other missions circulates above us without maid service, our garbage probably won’t get there. Humans are cheap, after all.
5. Space tourism
The Plan: Commercial space flight operators, such as SpaceAdventures, have brought wealthy citizens into space for about a decade.
The problem: With a Virgin Galactic ticket costing $250,000, this is an activity that attracts the very wealthy. Who cares? Well, read this chilling blip dropped into a 2015 article: “More a hundred years ago, wealthy moguls of the Gilded Age, including John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, spent their money on universities and libraries, but many of today’s moguls support technologies that will eventually propel humanity into the solar system.” It’s the .00001 percent helping the one percent.
The likelihood: Been there and done that.