T-minus 1 Evolutionary Shift

On November 1, 2010, one of the greatest endeavors in United States history will see the beginning of the end – weather permitting.

The space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to make its 39th and final flight on 11/1 (originally scheduled for August 19). Not only will it be Discovery’s last hurrah, but it will most likely mark the end of the U.S. shuttle program. The U.S. “…will have no capability to launch people into space on American rockets for many years to come.”

How soon will those “years to come” arrive? On April 15, President Barack Obama said “By 2025 we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first ever crew missions beyond the moon into deep space. So, we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to earth, and a landing on Mars will follow.” Deeper manned space exploration than ever before within 15-20 years sounds promising, if it happens.

And it’s not as though the U.S. has a monopoly on space flight: Russia continues its work, and China’s space program is flourishing. Space exploration isn’t dead. But knowing those miraculous behemoths are flying for the last time can still wrench in the hearts of anyone who’s dreamed of visiting the stars.

Just how important is it that we continue to explore space, though? Thus far, we’ve learned that outer space is a harsh environment that we’re not suited to live in. Microgravity will cause bone loss and may impair birth, and of course space radiation could kill us without heavy protection. Why do we care so much about leaving our own planet? “Because it’s there”?

There are plenty of reasons. In the short term – the next few hundred years – we have to consider what overpopulation and overuse of Earth’s resources will do. There may come a point where Earth can’t sustain all of us – or we’ve used her too hard, and she can’t sustain any of us. We may need to colonize off-earth simply to perpetuate the species.

That’s another interesting and relevant question: How long do we expect (or want) our species to live? Most people would say that we want to perpetuate as long as possible… how long is that? The sun will most likely survive another 5 billion years, but no life more advanced than microbes has survived on Earth for that long. And any life that did survive for that long… well, it wouldn’t be the same. Evolution would naturally alter any life over that much time, quite possibly into something completely unrecognizable from its originator. By the time the sun dies, “humans” as we know them will no longer exist. (Not that that invalidates the desire to perpetuate ourselves.)

For that matter, our changing as a species may actually be the key to our long-term survival. Eventually the earth will no longer be habitable for life as we know it, and we will have to be something different to live here. Such changes could also better prepare us for life in space.

Also to consider is that short-term and long-term are intertwined. There’s strong reason to believe that seeking solutions to long-term problems will lead to solutions to short-term problems. For example, the search for ways to produce viable food sources in space could easily lead to food science applicable here on Earth, helping to solve worldwide hunger. And genetically engineering ourselves for safer, healthier space travel may create “self-designing beings” more capable of surviving harsher climates on Earth.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so sad about the end of the shuttle program. It may be that within a few decades, we’ll have changed ourselves so dramatically that something much simpler will do. What would a simpler ship to launch ourselves into space look like? Would it be lighter and therefore require less fuel? What if we reduced the amount of food we need to consume, thereby minimizing waste and lessening the amount of food the ship would need to carry?

What is there that we’ve been assuming we’d require for traveling in space that we can eliminate the need for by changing ourselves?

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