The High Frontier: some uneducated thoughts on space colonies [for Chapbook]

So, last week three random occurrences correlated in my life and (at the risk of sounding like Carrie Bradshaw) I got wondering…what the hell is going on with our obsession with leaving this planet, full in the knowledge we have basically environmentally bankrupted it, in order to start over elsewhere with the same mentality?

The three occurrences were these:

A friend bought me a ticket for Interstellar (not so random, I know).
Due to the nature of my part-time job I managed to witness CaSE’s (Campaign for Science and Engineering) 24th annual Distinguished Lecture by Dr. Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist, entitled ‘Journey to Mars’.
An artist and blogger friend of mine – who also happens to be a third of a creative trio – introduced me to Gerard O’Neill’s 1976 book The High Frontier: Human Colonisation in Space. Guess where I got the tile of this post from…

You, dear reader (keep looking out for the journalistic cliches), will probably learn nothing from this post other than just how simple it is to get me to stop in my tracks faced with three very normal day-to-day happenings. But I digress.

Scientists here on Earth have, since the early 1960s, always been no more than 15 to 20 years away from human colonies in space by their own estimations. O’Neill, 38 years ago, outlined for the US a post-Apollo plan which included simulated gravity and human-friendly ecosystems made from raw materials mined from the moon’s surface. The illustrations to O’Neill’s book are amazing – they show a very human-centric and forward thinking approach to space travel – but they look like they have been snatched from one of Christopher Nolan’s story boards. What was once a matter of national and human pride has been converted, almost, to a matter of urgency through impending feelings of apocalypse and irrecoverable doom. Part of the issue is we understand our basic human needs all to well and have the determination, regardless of whether have the technological apparatus or faith in the current systems, to head off and adapt any other planet to be just like Earth. We have evolved here and we are convinced somewhere like this exists elsewhere as well. It just must. Because we are far too important for it not to.

We have orbited entirely and based governmental programmes on science fiction’s concepts. We used this experience to launch award-winning books on where this would lead humans and now these (at the time graspable) concepts are being reabsorbed into moving images as ludicrous time-altering, mind-mending and morally ambiguous Hollywood epics as soon as they seem outdated or overambitious.

Not only this but the recognition, as superficial as it may be, films such as Interstellar (not to mention wonderfully brash, boobie-laden shirts) bring to the public domain is being used a springboard for real space exploration programmes – most realistically the planned missions to Mars outline by Dr. Stofan at the Science Museum last week.

Yes, NASA only accounts for just over 0.5% of the US’s annual budget but it is a huge enterprise and one that is taking off (sorry) in a huge way in the global public’s consciousness. What Interstellar should really be teaching us, based as it is on current environmental and social trends, is not to neglect our broken machines, our failed national programmes and our wasted planets: we should be aiming at fixing where we are now with the same rigour with which we are trying to escape it. You know, just in case…

So, we have may have made a round trip but I doubt we will end up back where we started because it was too good to be true in the first place.

Links:

http://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/insight/2014/11/19/a-journey-to-mars/
http://www.interstellarmovie.net
http://www.nss.org/resources/books/non_fiction/review_008_highfrontier.html

This post originally appeared on the Chapbook Magazine website, November 2014

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