Why Space Matters, Part 2 / by Josh Guess

Depending on who you ask, the Earth is either fine, potentially in trouble, probably in trouble, or definitely fucked.

This is why space really matters to us as a species. Let's pretend for a moment that climate change isn't a problem, though it absolutely is. There's a titanic volume of rigorously checked and repeatably provable evidence supporting it, but even if there weren't space would still be our best means of survival.

I don't mean in the next ten, fifty, or even a hundred years. I mean long-term. Centuries. Millennia.

Let's please remember that the Solar system, our happy little home, plays host to many asteroids. The Oort cloud, a collection of debris orbiting the Solar system itself, is the leftover material from its formation. Estimates indicate the matter there is at a minimum three times the mass of Earth, spread out over at least a trillion objects each more than a kilometer in diameter.

That's a lot of potential death. One interstellar object smashing into one orbiting piece of flotsam at just the right angle, and we could be facing an extinction-level event. Or a star goes supernova within the galactic neighborhood: the resulting gamma ray burst, if pointed at our planet, would scour all life from it in a blast of radiation.

These are but two ways our species could die. They're big, unlikely examples. But think of how obsessed we are with global pandemics, war, the slow erosion of the ecosystem. Earth is, for the moment, all we have. It's our only home.

Space can and should change that.

Colonizing beyond the borders of our atmosphere shouldn't be considered an extravagance, but a necessity. We have to bend ourselves into thinking in new ways. One interesting branch of technology Nasa and other space agencies and companies have long considered vital to this effort is in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU.

The idea is to design technologies that can take advantage of the raw materials encountered off of Earth for use in everything from solar cells to rocket fuel. SpaceX revolutionizing rocketry means serious efforts in this direction, and that's good. Because ISRU is how we'll build long-term colonies.

I know, I know, all of this sounds crazy and so far out of what we can manage now that it might as well be magic. But it really, really isn't. Along with being able to manufacture technology from junk we mine from asteroids or the surface of a planetary body, people have also been working on emerging technologies like vat-grown food, which would be a powerful solution to one of the larger problems for colonies.

Cost is always the concern, but the great irony in all of this is that with even a marginal increase in the investment we as a country (and we as a species) already put in, we could easily see huge advancements in very short periods of time. I should also clarify that these budding technologies, should they be given the nutrients they need to grow, wouldn't just be for space exploration. Imagine a world where a small indoor factory can produce several tons of edible, nutritious food without the need for months of growth and huge tracts of land. That's not even the tip of the iceberg, really, as much as just the top few molecules of its potential.

Science fiction has long predicted these things, and that's because science fiction has historically been pushed forward by men and women who were actual scientists and engineers. This stuff has been in the works for a long time, unfunded ideas tinkered with by people as educated as they are passionate.

We need to spread out. There's no way around it. Colonizing Mars, or the moon, or the moons of other planets--even floating cities in the Venusian atmosphere!--isn't something we could do, it's something we must do. In the long run, we have to leave this lovely rock to ensure the human race continues. To do that, we need to make investments right now.

If we don't, we're playing a long game of Russian roulette, and no one wins.