When the topic of exploring Mars or discovering inhabitable planets arises, a common assumption is that rather than taking responsibility for the damage that we have done to our own planet, humans will simply hop from planet to planet using up all of the resources. In reality, the more we learn about other planets, the more we really appreciate our homes here on Earth. The idea of creating colonies on other habitable worlds and mining asteroids, among many reasons, is to help save our own world. It is also to ensure the survival of humanity, in the event that a threat of human extinction were to occur.
Algorithms are pretty good at booking travel, providing friend suggestions, determining what ads should pop up in our feed, and even predicting human reactions. But what about more profound questions, such as the longevity of our species?
Researchers from biologists to astrophysicists use sophisticated computer models to predict the eventual extinction of the human race. Many of these models indicate that our species may survive for another century or two—a thousand years, possibly. Beyond that, however, the outlook seems grim. Name your poison:
- Climate change dries up much of the planet, ruins our food crops, makes the oceans rise, and triggers a refugee crisis and global wars.
- Nuclear war or terrorism causes a breakdown of civilization and mass starvation.
- An epidemic decimates the population too fast for a cure.
- An asteroid or comet smashes into the planet, causing a cataclysm of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, and a pall of ash that destroys almost all crops.
- Cosmic rays from a quasar silently kill all living things on Earth.
Most may have forgotten a real-life doomsday scenario that is missing on the list: the hole in the ozone layer. During the 1970s, scientists speculated that chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, posed a risk to Earth’s atmospheric sunscreen, a layer of oxygen molecules that shield the planet from deadly ultraviolet rays. Research confirmed that a hole in the layer had opened up over Antarctica. NASA sent up satellites during the mid-Eighties to measure the extent of the problem. From the vantage point of space, they proved that the hole not only existed, but it was also expanding rapidly. Eventually, the ozone would disappear altogether. The research was so conclusive that, in 1987, every member of the United Nations signed a protocol to phase out the use of CFCs in aerosol sprays and refrigeration. Scientists now predict that the ozone layer will fully recover by 2070. In short, we are not going to die from hairspray.
But what about the problems that remain? NASA satellites look back at Earth more thoroughly than any other nation’s satellites, public or private. We happen to be very good at taking selfies of our own planet. These satellites show the amazingly complex relationships among the atmosphere, the oceans and land ecosystems—all the systems we have to know to correct those factors that tend to make our planet inhabitable to humans.
Learning about the hole in the ozone layer enabled us to do something about it, thus reversing the damage. How might examining the threat of human extinction and doomsday scenarios help prevent such a disaster from occurring?
What are the risks and rewards of a renewed interest in human space exploration?
What can individuals do to ensure that leaders are making space a priority?