The article makes the same mistake we often see with this kind of argument. It takes current day technology and explains how hard it would be to jump to the equivalent of our Galactia phase while selecting only habitable "Earth-like" planets as possible destinations. While Hawking's comments are on the mark as far as the need to spread throughout space to extend our (i.e. the Biosphere's) longevity, the commentary that follows makes it sound like a hopelessly extravagant endeavor. Like we can put a starship on a Saturn V and blast our way to Gliese 581 (e or c, take your pick) through impassable radiation in traveling in time-dilated hyper-sleep.
"The nearest star [to Earth] is Proxima Centauri which is 4.2 light years away," says University of Michigan astrophysicist Katherine Freese, "That means that, if you were traveling at the speed of light the whole time, it would take 4.2 years to get there."
Unfortunately, at the moment we can only travel at about ten thousandth of light speed, which means if man were to use chemical fuel rockets similar to the those used during the Apollo mission to the moon, the journey would take about 50,000 years. Without the use of a science-fiction-like warp drive or cryogenic freezing technology, no human would live long enough to survive the journey. In addition, "the radiation you would encounter alone would kill you, even if you could get a rocket to go anywhere near that fast," says Freese.
Here are some ways that my thinking differs from the article:
- We can increase our odds of survivability right here.
- By learning to adapt to and manage our home ecosystems and taking care of our current environment. This knowledge increases our chances in space which will reveal more knowledge to use right here.
- Colonizing the oceans can also bring benefits by creating more living space at sea away from prominent ecosystems we can lessen the burden of humanities' footprint on land.
- We can produce food and preserve sea life by creating fish farming and other aqua/poly-culture solutions at sea using nutrients from below and help feed a struggling population.
- By algae farming we can create carbon sinks to draw CO2 from the air and submerge it below the zone where it can be taken back into the atmosphere...
- I could keep going, but let's move on to
- We are not afraid of space.
- We don't need an Earth like planet in it's habitable zone.
- Near Earth orbit, Geosynchronous orbit, Lagrange points, the Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc., are all useful can be colonized with the right technology.
- Whether in artificial gravity or in micro-gravity, free space stations or colonized asteroids and comets are a far better use of resources than planets.
- Starting with NEOs (Near Earth Objects) and building through the belts to the Kuiper worlds and on throughout the Oort cloud we have a vast number of worlds right in our planetary neighborhood.
- That stretches the biosphere to at least 1 light year without the need for super fast star ships with radiation shielding and "go-fast" racing stripes.
- By extension, these "World ships" could be the first to ship off to nearby stars. They might not be the first to arrive, but they could be valuable as part of the growing biosphere as each would carry complete living ecosystems through space.
- Asteroids, nuclear war, grey-goo, or whatever localized danger you might be worried about wouldn't be extinction worthy. The further we go down this path, our odds of success increases tremendously.
- We don't need to wait for the Enterprise to get to our next destination.
- Given the previous points, we can see that we can build up to an interstellar program over the next millennium without draconian economic measures or hyperbolic extrapolations of current technology.
- If the Vostok-1 represents the space age version of the Kitty-Hawk flight, we can almost guarantee that technology can continue to progress past the current point.
- Faster ships will be developed as a matter of course, just to criss cross the Solar system. Starting with the low energy, erg pinching, sling-shot orbits we use today we will gradually build on propulsion technology to get us where we want to go faster.
- Radiation problems will be solved right here as we venture out into more strident colonies. From Lunar and Martian lava tubes to hollowed out asteroids we can move to orbital colonies with thick shielding to more exotic protection as the tech matures.
- Faster ships mean that more particles in your path become ionizing radiation. You may even need stronger shielding to pass through the Sun's atmosphere than the interstellar medium.
- A single country or even the Earth doesn't have to pay for interstellar missions.
- A system-wide economy would be better able to absorb the costs of an interstellar mission.
- With thousands of worlds and mini-worlds contributing to the project over hundreds of years, eventually funding a trip to Alpha Centauri would be like funding a trip for Magellan or Columbus.
- The energy needs of an interstellar voyage will be tremendous. A system-wide economic system and power generation system would be able to afford the power costs.
- Storing that energy as antimatter or some other compressed storage medium would also require lots of energy and money.
- We don't even have to be human.
- Humanity is an extremely recent development in the history of the biosphere and may have only a brief existence, at least as homo sapiens is concerned.
- As space technology develops, we will adapt space to suit us. As medical technology develops we will also be adapting to space.
- Clones--while completely human and unique individuals--will give us better understanding of genetic and epigenetic phenomena and what effect changes and manipulations have on us and our environments.
- As our understanding of aging progresses, it is not unthinkable that human maximum lifespan will increase over time. Long duration space missions could be completed within such elongated generations.
- Exchanges between species and synthetic biologies may lead to sentient plants, animals, fungi, and other forms of life. We will grow in possibilities in exchange.
- Machines will also grow more intelligent over time and the differences between us and them will converge. From AI to nanotechnology, machines will to some degree out evolve us.
- Intelligent software and artificial life will further blur distinctions between species--if that word will retain any meaning.
- That doesn't even take into account of exchanging bits of ourselves with machines and vice-versa. Cyborgs may become more mainstream.
- Only 1%-10% of your cells are actually "human" the rest of your cellular population consists of residents, visitors, immigrants, barbarians, and insurgents (or maybe mutants would be more accurate for that last group). Plant, animals, humans, microbes, and machines may evolve into a collective that resembles the ecosystem of the human body.
- Colonization of space will be a collective activity and opportunity of much of the biosphere.
- We have no idea what form life will take on Earth after the current mass extinction.
- After a mass-extinction on Earth, it takes about 10-100 million years to replenish the ecosystems.
- In 10-100 million years, the biosphere of a single planet could span the galaxy.
- The above speculations give only a barest glimpse of the possibilities for the Solar system after 10 million years. Maybe only even the next 1000 years.
- In 20-200 million years, the ecological niche of every planet, moon, asteroid, comet, etc., around every star, brown dwarf, pulsar, nebula, etc., in the galaxy could be filled.
- In 30-300 million years, the globular clusters, our satellite galaxies, and possibly even nearby galaxies like Andromeda could be colonized.
- In 1 billion years, the galaxy would be as different from the one we live in now as Earth is from it's state 1 billion years ago.
I'm not saying that we are on the verge of some "singularity event" that's supposed to be due mid-century or that we are headed for some kind of an omega-point anytime soon. But, I do see vast possibilities for the future of evolution and the broad expansion of the biosphere throughout space without alarm-ism or pessimism. All it takes is a little courage, faith, humility, vision, and imagination.