Back in November 2016, Stephen Hawking said that humans need to find a new planet to inhabit or risk extinction, and gave a daunting but manageable deadline of 1000 years. A millennium is but a blip in the ripple of time and the universe, but we are a durable race, and a millennium is enough time for us to find a new home.
A Century to Live: Stephen Hawking
Barely half a year later, in a BBC documentary “Expedition New Earth”, Professor Stephen Hawking drastically revised his earlier deadline from 1000 years to just 100! A millennium is a doable deadline, but the thought that humanity will only survive a mere century on earth is extremely disturbing. Hawking cited the possible causes of the imminent mass destruction as “climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, population growth and epidemics”.
The “Obvious Next Target”
According to Stephen Hawking, Mars is the obvious planet to colonise, but it’s not exactly a habitable one at the moment. It is doubtful that the planet, though closest to the earth in terms of distance as well as habitability, will ever be as good a place as our enduring home. Oxygen, food and shelter can perhaps be made available on the planet, but the fact remains that Mars does not have an atmosphere or the convenient protection against radiation that the earth provides us with. Also, Mars as a planet is far from self-sufficient, and the earth may not exist to support life on Mars if Stephen Hawking’s words are anything to go by.
The only other option is to look further away in the galaxy, and given time, we will probably succeed in finding a habitable planet in some corner of the Milky Way. Finding a place, however, is not the only thing to consider, though it is obviously the first step. Our telescopes only give us a glimpse of what’s out there, and we haven’t yet succeeded in devising a satellite fast enough to travel light years away in a short time.
Even when or if we find a place with favourable conditions to survive, the problem of transport arises. How will we get humans across such great distances? The present situation in this regard is bleak. The best ships we have now can transport up to six people to Mars, completely useless for the goal we have in mind. SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport Systems, which are being designed with the intention of carrying about a 100 people each to Mars, are our best bet, but still nowhere near the scale needed to inhabit a planet.
The logistics of transporting a large number of humans across light years are horrendous. Even if a ship large enough to carry several people and durable enough to travel the distance required is somehow built, there are other looming challenges. Will humans survive in space for so long? What will the travellers do for food and other needs during the travel? What if someone falls sick during the journey? All these factors need to be meticulously thought through before sending people out there.
Of course, all the logistics we could ever consider will be useless if we can’t decide who gets to go. Firstly, the number of people necessary to make a colony sustainable is large, to say the least. Small populations would suffer from inbreeding, not to mention the inevitable deaths and loss of numbers during the travel. Nonetheless, this number will be but a fraction when we look at the entire population, which brings us to the moral implications of deciding who gets to go and who doesn’t. If the rich get to go, should the poor be left to die? Should the smartest be sent, or the toughest, because they have the most chances of survival in an alien planet? That said, who should be chosen from among these? These will be the toughest questions to answer because no one would wish to rot while a select few survive.
The probability of humanity being its own destruction is far more than an asteroid strike. So all the depressing babble about extinction could be suppressed, and all of humanity could get another chance on this planet if we band together to save the earth, and eventually, ourselves.