The consequences of human activity on the environment are clear. Global temperatures are rising, ecosystems are being destroyed, and species are going extinct. Despite the efforts of world leaders and mega-corporations to “go green”, our planet may soon be unable to sustain human life as we know it unless we find a solution. Enter space – the vast unknown, the final frontier, and perhaps, the last hope for humanity.
At least this is the thought process of SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, who has worked for almost 20 years to prophylactically prevent mankind’s extinction via extensive research on space travel and exploration. Through SpaceX, Musk has made remarkable breakthroughs in the design of spaceflight rockets that have dramatically reduced manufacturing and launch costs. This includes the production of reusable rockets, such as the Falcon 9 and the upcoming fully reusable “Starship” spacecraft. In light of a global catastrophic event, such as one induced by global warming, Elon Musk believes that humans will need a backup plan to survive. In his eyes, the answer lies upward in the dark expanses of space.
Clearly, the founder of SpaceX has planetary colonization on his mind, especially considering one of his bolder claims consists of the idea that humans could colonize Mars by as early as 2050. This ambitious claim has contributed to the popularization of Martian colonization in modern media, which has spawned several movies, TV shows, and even video games on the topic. The Martian craze has only been exacerbated by scientists and space enthusiasts who point to the tantalizing possibility of “terraforming” the red planet as a potential route towards colonizing Mars.
The concept of terraforming refers to the transformation of an inhabitable environment into a place conducive for human habitation. Scientists hypothesize this would require the introduction of water, oxygen, and appropriate temperatures, all of which would need to be manually generated or released from natural reservoirs in the local environment. Not surprisingly, the feasibility of this transformative process has been called into question by independent scientists and NASA alike. Experts cite insufficient atmospheric pressure and temperatures as major reasons why Mars will never be terraformed – at least with the technology currently available. Reduced gravity and increased space radiation present additional physiological hurdles that need to be overcome if living on Mars is to be taken seriously.
Even if terraformation is impossible, hope is certainly not lost for eager spacefarers. A popular alternative to planetary colonization is the creation of habitable space stations or biospheres, often termed “O’Neill space colonies”. This concept originates from the late physicist, Gerard K. O’Neill, who proposed the idea of massive free-floating cylinders housing large-scale human colonies. A space colony, as envisioned by O’Neill, would consist of exterior solar panels to generate energy for human cities and environments decorating the interior. Everything would be held in place by centrifugal force akin to Earth’s gravity generated by rotation of the cylindrical structure of the colony. To sustain these colonies, resources would be mined by robotic harvesters on nearby asteroids or moons. Unfortunately, our current technology limits the practicality of this idea, but advances in robotics represent steps in the right direction towards planet-less space living.
Even with futuristic technology, the logistics and planning behind hauling resources across space combined with the ethics and regulations involved with monitoring space activity leaves us currently far short of the mark. It’s likely that none of us will become space or Martian citizens by 2050 – but that won’t stop Elon Musk and other space enthusiasts from trying. Until our future generations fully unlock the mysteries of space exploration, the real solution behind saving humanity from extinction likely doesn’t hinge on farfetched dreams of living on redder pastures. Rather, taking care of the planet we call home should be our top priority. With the real threat of global warming looming over our shoulders, reducing our carbon footprint and preserving Earth’s natural ecosystems will be our best bet in saving this planet and preventing global extinction.
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