Watching the movie The Martian recently reminded me of the boundless hope that for most of my life motivated me to look to the stars for meaning, knowledge, and salvation from the doom that seemed to be an inevitable consequence of confining humanity – and life – to just one planet. It also inspired me to use the tools from my current research to revisit the possibility of reviving that hope.
As related in the memoir chapter of my book "Death Stoppers Anthology," that hope was a consequence of influences and events since childhood that were strongly linked to the U.S. manned space program and its showcasing of how human ingenuity could triumph over adversity and despair. During the late 1990s, I became convinced that settlement of Mars was the best next step for ensuring the long-term survival of our species and others that we could take with us. Along with other members of the Mars Society, I worked at convincing as many people as possible that manned exploration missions as a precursor for settlement could and should be launched soon. Discoveries since then, culminating in the discovery of liquid water, a necessary resource for life, have made the argument for sending people to Mars even more compelling. Clearly the author of The Martian was up to speed on the motivation and the technologies that could enable the first missions, and has provided a relatable vision that can help do the sales equivalent of "closing the deal."
Even back in my Mars Society days, I feared that escalating problems on Earth with a strong environmental dimension might soon close the door on getting people into space and supporting them long enough to create at least one self-sustaining community. The Martian does an excellent job of portraying the hazards involved in trying to sustain life for even a modest amount of time without such support in a hostile environment similar to, if not much better, than the places space travelers are likely to find themselves. The movie also demonstrates in one scene my greatest fear for our immediate future: the loss of "provider" species that enable "supporter" species to survive and generate the basic resources that people need to live. Wherever we go, beyond our planet as well as here, we will face the same limits; and early explorers and settlers in space will be precariously living very near those limits all the time.
My current research is the latest phase of work I began while in the Mars Society in order to estimate how much and how fast our population could grow if we settled space.
Preliminary simulations using the new model are consistent with my earlier conclusions, which support the observation that motivated that first project: exponential growth is fundamentally unsustainable. Like other species, but unhindered by predation that keeps their numbers in check, humanity grows as fast as it can with the objective of dominating its environment. If by settling space we expand the amount of resources that we can either reach or grow, then we will concurrently increase our consumption of them – very likely exponentially – until we either can't or decide not to.
Hope in my case stems from what I believe will occur in that last stage, and whether or not it is possible to keep our resources from decreasing on their own due to our actions. Will we as a species make the same choices as the hero in The Martian, who to me epitomizes the best of humanity in his values and unwillingness to give up in the service of something bigger than himself, or will we – as my study and extrapolation of history suggests – push the limits in pursuit of personal pleasure at the expense of other lives and ultimately our own longevity?