Thursday, October 02, 2014

Elon Musk thinking beyond Earth

It's funny, I've been saying this for a long time, longer than Elon Musk has, but nobody listens. I guess when you're a dumbass blogger -- nobody from nowhere -- nobody listens. Don't get me wrong, I rarely say these things to anybody. I'm not a soiled homeless guy who stands on a vegetable crate on the corner and screams at passersby. I simply learned long ago that if humanity doesn't venture beyond earth, the species will cease to exist at some unknown time in the future. All those sci-fi novels dealing with this topic aren't sci-fi at all, they're futurism.

When you are Elon Musk, a billionaire with an electric car company and a space company, people listen. It's not at all like being Nobody F. Nowhere. The basic idea is this: if we stay here, we all die. That's a fact, based on current knowledge, which is subject to change. It may not be for 50 billion years, so there's no need to panic, but it's true according to all valid sources. Eventually a catastrophe will happen to Earth, and then it's curtains. An x-flare from the sun, or the sun aging and expanding, which will incinerate the planet. A dozen other things can, and statistically will, occur, and each of these things will end humanity. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when.

Here's Musk in a new Aeon interview:
    ‘I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary,’ he told me, ‘in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, “Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.”’
Aeon is a great online magazine, btb, but be wary of the political stories. From what I've seen, they're buying stories from hard-core socialists. If you don't like stories extolling the virtues of weak, emasculated men, you may not like their politics. The other stuff is fine.

The last time I said to a friend we're doomed if we stay on Earth, I said we need to develop substantial colonies off-planet (not Mars specifically), and I admitted the looming castrophe(s) may not happen for a billion years or more. He looked at his watch-less wrist and said, "That's right around the corner." That friend is a bright guy, and he's right that we don't need to become paranoid. Still, we know it's coming at some point.

Musk's answer is to colonize Mars, mine is to live in space. My idea is better, by the way. If we have groups on Earth and Mars, we have doubled our chances of survival, but that's not nearly enough for the distant future. We need to be in space, in multiple places. Space cities can be turned away from x-flares, Mars cannot. Space cities can be moved out of the path of a giant asteroid, Mars cannot. I admit that Mars is the next logical step, and since we probably have hundreds of millions of years or more to develop escape plans from Earth, I'm not criticizing Musk. On the contrary, I'm glad somebody people are willing to listen to (not me) is talking about this. On the other hand, the catastrophe could happen tomorrow, and Mars will not suffice.

More from Musk:
    Musk has a more sinister theory. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’
He's probably right, except there's no way to be sure. It's entirely possible that only one planet in the universe has life, and that's ours. Either way, all life on this planet will come to an end one day, and we can prevent that only by leaving. That's why all this talk of preventing climate change is moot. It may have meaning in the short term, but in the long run we're only "saving" a planet that is utterly doomed.

Pleasant dreams.

One source of comfort, I suppose, is that we don't actually know anything. "Know" is a tricky word. It's slippery like an eel. If you read the Aeon article, you'll see the author discuss what will happen to the Earth as the sun begins its expansion in 5-10 billion years. Well, we don't know for sure that the sun will ever expand as it ages. This has not been observed directly in other stars. We haven't had telescopes long enough for certainty. The author is taking theory -- albeit the latest theories of the universe, sourced from well-respected scientists, same place I got my own "the planet is doomed" ideas from -- and discussing everything as fact. The truth is, we don't know for sure. Every time a learned scientist gets traction with a new theory, which almost approaches scientific law, 10-15 years later that theory is overturned, and we all follow, cult-like, a new set of "facts". We've seen this with astrophysics, and most areas of science, and astronomy and ideas about stars are no different. It does seem certain, though, so Musk is right to talk about the distant future and the things we must do for survival.

Here's another bit from Musk (and there's still a lot more in the article). Here he's defending human space exploration instead of relying exclusively on probes:
    ‘Well, we are sending probes,’ Musk told me. ‘And they are very expensive probes, by the way. They aren’t exactly bargain-basement. The last RC car we sent to Mars cost more than $3 billion. That’s a hell of a droid. For that kind of money, we should be able to send a lot of people to Mars.’
It's obvious he's thought about space exploration. I'm sure he also thought about India's recent Mars success. India last week became the first nation to send a probe to Mars successfully the first time. Their budget was only $74 million. Both of those things -- success on first try and for only $74m -- are astounding. India did something so fantastic it's almost absurd. Those facts undoubtedly got Musk's wheels turning. SpaceX, after all, is a private American company that is way ahead of India in terms of budget and technology (and capability).

There is one giant flaw in Musk's dream of a large colony on Mars, in my view. He can't do it on his own. One company, SpaceX, with on visionary, Musk himself, won't succeed. Many titans, and I mean tech titans, need to come together. Mars One is already way ahead, it seems, in planning. Can't Musk sit down with them, and also Gates and Ellison and Allen and Zuckerberg and Branson, to make a joint project? All of them together, with many I didn't name, could easily pool a trillion dollars (or 3T) and do a Mars colony properly, and without waiting 50 years. NASA is a victim of failed U.S. leadership, which values getting people on welfare more than space exploration, but there are plenty of billionaires around who could unite if they chose to make things happen.

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