Antarctica and in the winter there are about 100, but “they are not noticed very much,” nor will those who explore space in his opinion. He said that he had been in Antarctica and it was difficult and boring, and that is the same for space exploration, which he does not find to be inspirational. Those who recently volunteered for a one-way trip to Mars would have to be indoors and underground for the rest of their life; it was a strange response that did not recognize the reality of the situation, in his view.
The near-term future of space exploration will be the equivalent of establishing several Antarctic research stations plus a few rich tourists. Eventually, off-world communities will evolve “organically” out of the research stations, as happened in Antarctica when Chile and Argentina sent families there to strengthen their positions as to who owned it. In space, it will not happen for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, the problems facing Earth are immediate. “Space is not the solution to the emergency that we face,” Robinson said.
Furthermore, Earth is at the bottom of a gravity well, so there will never be a great number of people traveling into space because it is so expensive, despite creative ideas like space elevators.
In “a couple hundred years,” perhaps terraforming of Mars will begin and beyond that, in hundreds or thousands of years, self-replicating machines and artificial intelligence. Eventually, the solar system will become our neighborhood. We should not underestimate what we can do technologically just with a linear extrapolation of existing engineering capabilities. The distances between stars, however, are “stupendous,” and it would take “forever to get there” with multigenerational starships. The people who take that journey will become a separate species and never come back; they are not “part of the human project,” he argued.
Returning to the present, Robinson continued, considering the environmental emergency we are facing, talking about human space exploration could be “easily misinterpreted as escapist and elitist, involving only a small percentage of the human population.” Instead, the focus should be on space science, which he emphasized is an Earth science, and that fact needs to be communicated to the public. Studying Venus’s atmosphere helped us discover the ozone hole, he asserted. “We are thrust into the position of being global biosphere managers…. There is no part of life in this biosphere that we cannot intervene in … and we have started to wreck it without understanding how.” Learning how to manage the biosphere is partly a space science, he insisted, through comparative planetology and studying Earth directly from space. Managing Earth’s biosphere is necessary if we are to avoid what is looking like the sixth great-mass-extinction event. That is why one cannot talk about space science except in the context of the global emergency we are in, he concluded.
Robinson said that the concept that people should create colonies in space as a hedge against an environmental disaster on Earth is “damaging” to the space program. “Space is not a bolt hole; it’s not a gated community. And also we may not be meant to be anything but Earth’s creatures…. We have not proved that we can live 200 or 500 years separate from Earth.” For example, our connection to bacteria in the soil on Earth may be essential to our survival. “We have all our eggs in one basket … so we can’t afford to treat Earth casually.” We cannot talk as though “getting 500 privileged scientists off planet” would be enough to make people feel better about an impending planetary catastrophe. It is a “stupendously damaging argument,” in his opinion.
As for how to better connect with the public, Robinson said that people trust scientists to be their doctors and build and fly airplanes, for example. There should be posters reminding people of that. It is time for the climate science community, as a community, to “bite the bullet” and tell the public that “we are in a fight for the hearts and minds of our own population.”