Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Lifeboat Theory Of Space Settlement And The Tragedy Of Human Nature.

Spacedaily has this story about Astrobiology magazine's publication of their latest thought experiment. (Here.) In this one, scientist Bernard Foing proposes putting a "Noah's Ark" on the Moon to preserve humanity and life as we know it in the event disaster befalls the Earth.

The lifeboat theory of space settlement is a fairly common justification for human colonization of other planets. That theory holds that other worlds could be a refuge for humanity in the event the Earth is destroyed by war or environmental destruction or a big giant asteroid or comet striking our world.

Not a bad idea but you've got to wonder how practical it is. If it's war that destroys the Earth the conflict is likely to sweep the colonies in space. As a refuge in case of environmental disaster, well that's a better idea, although if we can't save our own planet from ecological catastrophe, one wonders how we'll do making other planets habitable for humanity.

But as havens against asteroid or comet collision, Earth is at least as safe as anywhere else. With apologies to the followers of Gerard K. O'Neill, the two most commonly suggested homes for humanity in space are the Moon and Mars. The common characteristic of those two worlds is how heavily cratered they are.

Unlike the Moon, the Earth has an atmosphere to protect it from collisions. It's true that Earth's atmosphere won't protect us from a large asteroid but there is even less protection on the Moon. On the Moon, even the tiniest of meteors has a clear shot at the surface because of the lack of a true Lunar atmosphere.

As for Mars, one look at all the craters tells the story about that planet's history with asteroid collisions. Its two moons are asteroids for that matter. And just look at its location in the Solar System: one orbital position in from the Asteroid Belt.

We've always been a bit depressed at the lifeboat theory of space settlement. We prefer more glorious reasons for settling space. Spreading life to other planets, preparing other worlds for new branches of human civilization, opening frontiers, fulfilling American manifest destiny --- humanity's too, and making tons of money. O yeah, and learning things about the universe we live in. That's also important. But settling other planets so we can preserve humans in case Earth is destroyed; that's just depressing.

On the other hand, we have to admit that humans are a sorry lot who, although they learn from their mistakes, can really make a mess of things before they get it right. We also have to admit that we subscribe to a tragic view of humanity in which human nature is fixed throughout time and in which the future is likely to see the same sort of problems as the past and the present, just played out in different ways and magnified, thanks to how advanced our science and technology have become. In other words, with humans, what you see is what you get, and the best we can hope for is to preserve civilization to keep our worst instincts in check.

So, by all means lets put lifeboats on other planets. Humanity will certainly be better off when we spread our eggs among many baskets. Yet one could describe space settlement as the easy way out. The hard way would be learning to get along with each other, learning how our ecology can be protected, tracking the solar bodies that can do our planet in, and learning how to divert or destroy them before they do. Given human nature, however, our best bet for long-term survival is to do settlement and the rest. There's no good reason why we shouldn't.




Well said. On one hand, we like to believe that we all want space, it's a universal human drive, inevitable evolutionary step, etc.

On the other, we keep grasping at more immediate motivations: the lifeboat argument, or space as military high ground, or SPSats or helium-3 to solve energy/CO2 problems, or maybe China will kick us into another prestige race, or...
The lifeboat idea always seemed clueless to me.

Mars isn't a Island in the pacific where you can live of the land. Without a major industrial infastructure suplying you spare parts and suplies, your colony dies. (Hint: most NATIONS on earth are not self suficent.) Secound the high radiation and low gravity on the Moon or Mars (as apossed to a O'Neil colony) will kill you, or at least give you a very short lifespan.

Effectivly your Mars lifeboat, is little better then a very big underground shelter on earth, until Mars becomes a nation of millions.
Consider the flip side to your Lifeboat theory: Assume we all live on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean and there are crazy people, of varying degrees, aboard the lifeboat with us.

Only a very crazy person would start bashing holes in the bottom of the boat and almost everyone else, crazy or not, would rush to stop him. But what happens if another, empty lifeboat happens to drift by?

- The crazies leap into the other lifeboat and start paddling madly away, after having thrown a Molotov into the old lifeboat

- when crazy people start chopping holes in the bottom of the boat fewer people try to stop him, as most reason they can move to the other lifeboat and risk getting wounded or killed trying to save the old lifeboat

- All the sane people move to the new lifeboat for a "fresh start", but the crazies in the old boat raise the Jolly Rodger and come after them to board and take their lifeboat and/or supplies.

While having a 2nd lifeboat may help guard against "natural" disasters it does little against man-made disasters and in some instances makes these more likely. About the only scenario where having a 2nd lifeboat handy is beneficial is if the sane people are somehow able to keep it secret from the crazies, in fact.
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