Inside the Capitol

Monday, July 03, 2006

7-7 Our Species Needs an Exit Strategy

FRI, 7-07-06

SANTA FE -- It is said that disasters come in threes. Maybe the same can be said about planning for disasters. We're not talking about life's little disasters here. We're talking major disasters that wipe out civilizations or even the entire planet.
Recently this column poked fun at efforts of a Waste Isolation Pilot Project team to declare the WIPP site off limits to future generations 10,000 years from now. The scenarios developed all involved a major disaster, which I dismissed as a product of watching too many horror movies.
But then came a report from another scientific panel making similar predictions for a special produced by a major television network. And now Dr. Stephen Hawking, the most famous scientist on the planet wants us to hurry and develop colonies on other planets in order to prepare for the same kinds of disasters envisioned by the two panels.
Are we witnessing group hysteria, kicked off by the WIPP panel's dire predictions? Or is our fate so real that these were independent events?
Hawking is a very serious scientist, with the striking ability to consider the most complex notions of our physical universe and bring some sense to them. He has attained rock star status among his colleagues, who will follow him anywhere on the globe to see and hear him pass on his knowledge.
Thus, it is significant that Hawking chose his most recent appearance, at a Hong Kong seminar, to advocate colonizing space as soon as possible. He wants a permanent base on the moon in 20 years, a self-sustaining colony on Mars in 40 years and, if we can avoid killing ourselves in the next 100 years, space settlements in another star system.
All this is for the survival of our species, Hawking says. "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of."
Now that the War in Iraq has made all of us geniuses for knowing that from the beginning we should have had an exit strategy, Hawking is pointing out that our species has no exit strategy in case we foul our nest so badly we can't survive here anymore.
Although Hawking's colleagues tend to hang on his every word, there hasn't been a rush from the astrophysics community to lend support. Hawking is swimming upstream on this one. Most physicists downplay the role of man in space.
Former U.S. Sen. Joe Montoya made a fateful, although perhaps accurate, campaign statement during his 1976 challenge by former astronaut Harrison Schmitt. Speaking in Spanish to a northern New Mexico rally, Montoya observed that NASA had sent a monkey into space. "That worked, so they sent my opponent," Montoya chortled.
Montoya got a big laugh out of that one, but the "chango joke" helped paint the senator as an outdated politician. The nation was big on manned exploration in those days. Astronauts were heroes and everyone knew their names.
But scientists knew all along that it doesn't even take monkeys to explore space. Humans just get in the way. If the money spent on sending humans into space could be saved, we'd be a lot further with space exploration, most scientists say.
That may or may not be true. Humans sex up space travel and in the process, likely get more money out of Congress than would unmanned exploration.
Nevertheless, it is revealing that if the space shuttle has to be left at the International Space Station, it can fly back by itself. Astronauts just go along for the publicity pictures.
So Hawking has the second biggest battle of his life to get the scientific community behind his effort to focus on human space colonies.
Physics newsletter editor Bob Park suggests that some of the projected catastrophes, such as massive solar flares or gamma ray bursts from collapsing or colliding stars, would wipe out our solar system and some of its neighbors, so Hawking's solutions wouldn't help.
Park suggests we work on those possibilities we can prevent, such as nuclear war, global warming and global pandemics.



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