Elon Musk, the chief executive of spacecraft company SpaceX, believes we need to reinvigorate popular interest in space colonization, not just to boldly go where no man has gone before, but to save life from extinction. In an interview with Nature, Musk asserts that "I think we need planetary redundancy to protect against the unlikely possibility of natural or man-made Armageddon." He joins recent pleas from physicist Steven Hawking and science journalist William Burrows, who have both argued that the only way to save Earth is to leave it.
While it sounds far-out, there's nothing more practical than spreading copies of Earth's life and cultures through the universe. As meteors, global glaciations, and a certain bipedal species of ape have shown, Earth is exquisitely vulnerable to catastrophe. We already have terrestrial storage for life's diversity, including San Diego's Frozen Zoo, and the Svalbard Seed Vault, which has 400,000 seed samples of food crops. A backup in orbit, on the moon, or on a new planet is the next logical step.
Image via Atlas Obscura.
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These ideas are very seductive; the very stuff of sci-fi. I believe that the eventual destiny of sentient life is to spread life where possible, but I think discussions about whether to do it now are preemptive. Truth is, space is an unbelievably harsh place to sustain life; there is only one example of a 'space ship' capable of supporting it. I would inverse the argument of the article; the only way to spread life into space is to 'save' (or at least understand better) earth.
Thanks for the thoughtful comments, and I agree. These are only stopgap measures. I read somewhere recently that our current understanding of ecology is at the same level of alchemist's understanding of chemistry in the middle ages. In the near-future we may be able to conserve and re-create species via "frozen zoos", cloning, and genetic manipulation, but may never be able to recreate every relationship in a healthy ecology.
San Diego’s Frozen Zoo and the Svalbard Seed Vault might store diversity in a numerical sense, but they can't store the living reality of that diversity -- and whatever is spread through the universe via attempts at planetary redundancy won't be "backups" or "copies," but miniscule fragmentary seeds of Earthly life. Which isn't a reason against doing it, and who knows what marvelous things might grow from those seeds ... but it's important to think of them clearly, and not imagine them as a hedge against irreplaceable losses.
While I'm all for saving the Earth's biota from Humanity (creating seed banks, genome banks) is Humanity ready to reach out and boldly go where no one has gone before? Past records indicate a giant NO. Planetary redunancy involving Human beings could bring about the same destruction elsewhere, same greed, same warring over who's god is god, etc., etc. not to mention the devastation to possibly encountered life forms! Unless a massive paradigm shift happens involving/evolving Humanity; how we view each other, accepting each other, stop destroying/eating/enslaving other life we feel superior over and dropping religious ideologies- space travel and colonization involving Humans should not happen.