Feb 01 2009
The International Year of Astronomy issue of Science (16 January 2009) features a compelling column by Astronomer Royal Martin Rees in which he underlines one of his favorite themes: the intersection of astronomy and biology.
Within the last decade, according to Rees, “we’ve realized that most stars are orbited by retinues of planets.” Although most currently known planets are “hot Jupiters,” the planned 2009 launch of the Kepler spacecraft opens the door for the potential discovery of an Earth-size planet. Also, noting the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, Rees can’t resist speculating that although “life’s origin on Earth is still a mystery,” in the next few decades we may discover whether life “is unique to the pale blue dot in the cosmos that is our home” or not.
Although not explicitly identified as such, Professor Rees has stunningly sketched the long-term agenda for space colonization — discover and explore earthlike worlds and search for extraterrestrial life. His comments and others’ are setting the stage for what the last 200 years of human exploration and technology booms indicate should be the greatest decade of space spectaculars ever: the 2015 Maslow Window.
Also interesting but slightly less visionary is the recent column by former Shuttle astronaut Thomas D. Jones (Aerospace America, January, 2009). Although I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him, Jones is someone I certainly admire — US Air Force Academy graduate, strategic bomber (B-52D) pilot, Shuttle astronaut (4 flights),….and one of my favorite things about him is that we both got our PhD’s at the same place (University of Arizona in planetary sciences)!
However, although Jones starts off brilliantly with the title, “Planetology and the Future of Our Species,” he anticlimactically limps into the finish line with this, “This is why we pioneer the solar system — we study other worlds so that in the end, we will come to understand our own.” While certainly true, that’s a quaint, old-fashioned 20th century adage that’s been repeated for at least 40 years!
It’s been the 21st Century for a while now. Shouldn’t we expect a celebrated astronaut/planetary scientist to conclude that in addition to understanding the Earth, our robotic planetary emissaries are the precursors…the pathfinders… for human expansion into the cosmos and true space colonization?
Yes we should…
…Because in fact, NASA-led discussions of space colonization (as opposed to merely missions) are not new. In support of President Bush’s 1989 proposal for the Space Exploration Initiative, NASA organized a few meetings around the country to identify rationales for humans on the Moon and Mars. I attended one such meeting in Aspen, CO near Halloween of 1989; there were no ties, everyone dressed like they were headed for the ski slopes! In addition to the Mars scientists (e.g. USGS’s Mike Carr), almost everyone imaginable was there, from Apollo 17 Moonwalker Jack Schmitt and Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (I hadn’t realized he liked space!), to former Alaska Governor Wally Hickel (he would become Alaska governor for a second time in 1990).
After the meeting American University astronomer Richard Berendzen sent me his draft of the 1989 Aspen meeting summary. Plentiful water on Mars “creates the distinct possibility that we can establish there…a permanently occupied base — a precursor to genuine human settlement.” Significantly, the Aspen group wasn’t just fantasizing about brief forays to Mars, but instead “the dawn of a new era of accelerating contact…and an enormous extension in the range of the human species.” Berendzen compared the challenge of calculating costs and benefits of Mars colonization with a similar task “on the eve of the first voyage of Columbus.”
Of course, with perfect Monday-morning quarterback-style hindsight, it’s clear now that long-term economic trends would summarily preclude any major, human space initiatives near 1989; e.g. this was only 2 years after the Crash of 1987 (Black Monday) — now observed to be a standard feature 16-18 years after energy cycle peaks over the last 200 years. Likewise, my remarks about Professor Rees’ and Dr. Jones’ columns should include that the 2015 Maslow Window is still 6 years away — and the tone of their columns is completely consistent with that forecast.