Last week astronomers have discovered a planet with about the mass of the Earth orbiting a star in the Alpha Centauri system — the star system nearest Earth. It is also the lightest exoplanet ever discovered around a star like the Sun. The planet is too hot to be hospitable to life as we know it, but the fact that it exists at all raises hopes of finding another, more human-friendly planet within the same star system. io9 reviews possible ways to get there someday.
There are a few “slow” (in the sense of slower than light) ways to get to Alpha Centauri. We could get there with generation ships, much slower than light, which would take centuries (many generations). To achieve a respectable fraction of light speed, and get there in only a few decades, we would have to develop new and much more efficient propulsion methods. The challenge is huge, but not so huge to make it impossible. If we really wanted to, we could launch a crewed starship to Alpha Centauri well before the end of this century.
Of course, thinking of today’s crisis economy and the political situation, it is difficult to imagine a mission to the stars in this century. But it would have been as difficult in 1929, at the time of the great depression, to imagine a mission to the Moon in 40 years.
It may seem that it makes more sense to wait for the development of mind uploading technology, and then go to the stars. Ultimately, I think space will not be colonized by squishy, frail and short-lived flesh-and-blood humans, but by uploads. Our post-biological mind children, implemented as pure software based on human uploads and AI subsystems, will colonize the universe. As Sir Arthur C. Clarke said, they will not build spaceships, because they will be spaceships. Eventually, post-biological humans will travel between the stars as radiation and light beams.
Similarly, it may seem that it makes more sense to wait for the development of really weird physics and “magic” space transportation technologies before trying to go to the stars. As io9 says, faster than light travel and warp drives “may not be as unrealistic as once thought.”
I guess weird physics and exotic technologies to be developed by future generations may take us to Alpha Centauri at the speed of light or even faster. But this will not happen for a long time, if ever. In the meantime, for our mental health as a species we need to know that there are people en route to the stars. I vote to go as soon as we can, even if we have to swim.
The space program of the 60s has given our generation the motivation and drive that we needed. If we want to have a chance to escape biology and become immortal post-humans roaming the universe as uploads we need to go back to space now, in our squishy human bodies, for our mental health as a species, to inspire younger persons and incite them to study science and engineering.
So, we must support crewed space missions, going back to the Moon, planetary missions, and visionary projects like the 100-year Starship, an independent, non-governmental, long-term initiative which will ensure that the capabilities for human interstellar flight exist as soon as possible, and definitely within the next 100 years.
We need to go to the stars, for the mental health of the zeitgeist. Not everyone can be a space explorer, but we are all partners and stakeholders in the cosmic future of our species and its “manifest destiny” among the stars. This is a powerful meme that could result not only in much more support for space, but also in a more positive and proactive attitude on other pressing issues, at a moment of our history where we need positive thinking, confidence and optimism.
Artist’s impression of the planet around Alpha Centauri B (credit: ESO)
We need to go to the stars because they are there, and they represent our destiny as a species. Hugo de Garis, author of The Artilect War, agrees that our cosmic destiny is to transcend biology and build/become “Artilects”, but thinks that flesh-and-blood humans (the “Terrans”) will resist and wage bloody wars against those who want to move on (the “Cosmists”). De Garis fears that “species dominance” wars may result in billions of deaths, and perhaps he is right. If so, I think we Cosmists should move to the stars and continue there our cosmic journey of self-directed evolution, leaving the Earth and the solar system to the Terrans.
I have the impression that the zeitgeist, our Jungian collective consciousness, is sensing that a big wave of radical change is coming, and is beginning to mobilize its immune system. If so, the first shots cannot be far. In fact, some shots have already been fired: Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber who killed three people and injured 23 others, was the first Terran, and luddites are launching violent attacks on scientists.
Surveying the web, I see a growing wave of verbal attacks from bioluddites, bigoted and hostile to the point of hatred, against the future. Even some smart people, who only a few years ago were positively excited about the future, now seem rabidly protective of the old boring “human condition” (vulnerable squishy bodies, stupid brains, two genders, only a few decades to enjoy life, cancer, Alzheimer, and then death) and react aggressively at the first mention of mind uploading and post-biological life. They don’t simply wish to remain old-style humans with meat bodies (which is, of course, a perfectly legitimate preference), but they want to force everyone else to remain old-style humans with meat bodies. I am afraid that bioluddite Terrans may become violent at some point, and that’s another reason why we should move to the stars.
In a new episode of his clown act against imagination, Dale Carrico replies to the io9 article proclaiming that “Humans Aren’t Going To Alpha Centauri.” The rude, aggressive and self-righteous tone that he uses in the text and the comments (as usual) shows that this is not a prediction but a rabid Thou-Shalt-Not in pure taliban style.
Carrico is especially aggressive against one commenter, one who is always very tolerant of Carrico’s views and tries to engage him in debate (I have given up). Read Carrico’s undeserved and gratuitous insults against Summerspeaker, who tries to calmly argue common sense with a raging bull. As far as I can extract some relevant bits from ad-hominem and non-sequitur noise, Carrico’s point seems to be that “there are literally countless environmental and support problems of actually existing human beings in the actually existing world that would be infinitely better served as the focus of such energies and creativity.”
My answer: Of course there are more pressing issues that should be given higher priority than visionary space colonization dreams, and they are given higher priority. Many more people dedicate their energy, creativity, and resources to environmental and social problems, and only a very little part of public funds is given to visionary exploratory projects. But this does not mean that those who choose to walk other paths have no value. They can still give some useful support to solving today’s problems (for example by voting in democratic elections), and perhaps they will find something useful in their explorations. As far as my own energy and creativity are concerned, sorry to disappoint you Dale but I will do whatever the fuck I want with them.
In history, anarchists like Summerspeaker and socialists like Carrico have often been allied against common enemies, and this continues today. But there is a fundamental tension between anarchists, who want people to be free to do what they (the people) want, and socialists who want people to be free to do what they (the socialists) want. I don’t think this tension will go away anytime soon.
While I respect, and often find value in, opinions different from mine, I think we all need much more elbow room. We will all go crazy if we are always forced to negotiate everything with others whose values are too different. Ultimately, we need to find more living space among the stars.
The bright star Alpha Centauri and its surroundings (credit: ESO)