Half a century has elapsed since the launch of the television series “Star Trek,” when its iconic opening phrase was inscribed upon our national psyche: “space: the final frontier...”
Just a few years prior, President John F. Kennedy had issued a challenge to attain the goal, within a decade, of sending a man to the moon and returning him safely home. Just a couple years later, Walter Cronkite would rub his hands together and exclaim, “Oh, boy!” as Neil Armstrong took those first momentous steps on a world other than Earth.
In those heady days of ambitious achievements, NASA’s expenditures represented approximately 4 percent of governmental spending. Today, however, our commitment to the manned exploration of space has waned, as reflected by public expenditures on such endeavors that have shrunk to 0.4 percent of our budget. The privatization of space exploration for “profit” has slowed advances to a crawl since making the colonization of space a profitable enterprise remains a distant dream. Establishing a permanent human presence in space is not about profit; ultimately, it is about the survival of our progeny.
As awe-inspiring as Earth can be, from space, our planet appears as little more than a mote in what Carl Sagan called the vast cosmic ocean. Until we accept that the resources of this planet are finite, until we recognize that the thin veneer of biosphere enveloping our planet could quite suddenly become inhospitable to our species, until we embrace the idea that our collective future depends on establishing footholds off-world, our survival as a species remains perilous.
It is time – if not too late – to go forth, be fruitful and multiply.
The potential threats to our existence may not be “imminent,” but they are nonetheless “inevitable.” Change is the one constant of the observable universe.
A modest strike of interplanetary debris could become a proverbial “Extinction Level Event;” the sun will eventually expend all its fuel; our galaxy appears certain to collide with another in the local group. Our best chance of long-term survival involves, as soon as possible, venturing off the third rock from the sun and seeking alternative worlds to inhabit.
Such enterprises will involve unprecedented commitments to education in every scientific discipline from astrophysics to zoology.
In order to remain genetically viable, each interstellar ark will require a sampling of at least 10,000 human genomes – perhaps more – and, lest we forget, adequate samples of the flora and fauna required to sustain life. The challenges are daunting but foreseeable.
Lone among the species of Earth, human beings demonstrate the capacity to choose a courageous path toward self-preservation instead of passively accepting our eventual extinction. However, it is disquieting that, having done little more than dip our toes in the cosmic ocean, humanity appears reticent to take the plunge.