Last week, something took place in space – in near earth orbit, to be precise – that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. That event had to do with the docking of Space X’s Dragon rocket at the International Space Station. Why was this considered so revolutionary? Why was such a fuss made of it in all the media? I believe it was because it represents the handing over of the dream of space exploration to private hands.
Prior to this event, virtually all attempts to reach out to the worlds beyond our planet were initiated, funded, and set in motion either by a government or by a group of governments. Now, for the first time, it was in the hands of one man and his crew of scientists and engineers.
There is, of course, some precedent for this. During the so-called Age of Discovery here on earth, when Europeans were sending ships to all parts of the globe, such organizations as the British and the Dutch East India Companies either explored on their own, or were contracted to do so by their respective governments. This is not so different from what happened just last week, inasmuch as Space X was given some $400 million by NASA to send its rocket up.
But the crux of the question, to my mind, really is not so much who pays, as it is who will eventually “own space.” I say this because I believe that men like Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Space X, have it in mind to exploit as well as to explore. Not that anyone should be surprised that this might be the case. After all, governments have always done the same thing, too, as the native inhabitants of Africa, North and South America, and Oceania all found out – to their grave detriment.
And in the case which we are discussing here, it seems clear that Musk is not really all that interested in the simple delivery of goods to the Space Station. He does not wish to become the owner of the first inter-orbital trucking company. No, indeed! He has made it clear that his sights are set much higher, or at least farther off. Musk, in fact, is making for Mars.
He believes that it is possible in his lifetime to establish a human colony on the Red Planet. And a good friend of mine, who happens to be a respected aerospace engineer with a lot of experience with rockets, tells me that the technology to do so for all intents and purposes already exists. It is mostly a matter of will power, determination, and of course – as always – money.
So, what happens when Elon Musk gets his wish? Science fiction scenarios spring immediately to mind. The earth suffocates, for example, in its own greed, ignorance, and detritus, and all that’s left of the human race are those who have escaped the (formerly) Blue Planet for the Red One. Or, to imagine another, Earth continues to limp along, with the quality of life for its people growing worse and worse as the years go by and things get warmer and warmer. Meanwhile, a country – or perhaps a group of vigilantes, if governments have already disintegrated – attack the Mars base and try to take over in hopes of leading a better life there. Too far fetched? OK, let’s just say then that both Earth and Mars go on to sustain human life, but that life begins to change on Mars, so far from its point of origin. This is what happens, after all, on isolated islands in the middle of the ocean right now, according to Darwinian laws of evolution and natural selection. On Mars, for example, it is almost certain that humans will grow much taller and probably lankier because the weaker gravity there allows for and even fosters such growth. And if this one physical change happens, who knows how humans will change otherwise, mentally or socially, sociologically, psychologically, emotionally, governmentally, or even perhaps spiritually, in such a different environment? And we human beings do not have such a great history of well tolerating difference. Could we imagine someday a war between Earth-Humans and Martian-Humans, because either thought the other to be somehow unnatural and unfit? It does not seem so far fetched to me.
So, who gets to make decisions about how future colonies on Mars will be formed and governed? Personally, I would rather put my money many times over on some kind of democratic processes, however flawed, rather than on the Elon Musks of the world – or of Mars, I guess! But there is no guarantee of that, now that governments seem poised to hand over space exploration to him and his ilk.
Fortunately, I suppose, I am already too old to have to worry about this for myself, or for anyone close to me. But babies born in 2012 will probably get to weigh in on such questions when they’re old enough to run the show. What will they decide ? What will their values be? Will a human-inhabited Mars eventually come to look anything like Mother Earth? We’ll have to wait and see. All I can say for the moment, I guess, is that it’s lucky for Mars that it has no indigenous inhabitants to exploit or kill off, no animals to push into extinction, and not even much of an atmosphere to pollute – at least not yet!