When Earthlings first saw photos of our planet taken in space, it sparked a flowering of awareness that all humanity shares a common home – our inexpressibly beautiful and fragile blue dot. Our annual celebration of Earth Day arose from this new consciousness, and this new sense of shared responsibility for the health of the whole planet.
But more recent advances in space exploration may instead offer the promise of an escape from this responsibility.
The Kepler spacecraft recently discovered 1, 284 new planets. The total number of planets that may support life – those in the Goldilocks” zone where there might be water and habitable temperatures – is up to about two dozen.
And Elon Musk’s SpaceX is actively planning to colonize Mars sometime in the 2030s.
The best we can hope for is that adventures in space will teach humanity what an unfathomable wonder our little blue dot of a planet is …
While human curiosity and ingenuity make space exploration inevitable, colonizing other planets still seems highly improbable to us, since our biological selves are not well adapted to anyplace but earth. This is one major reason they call Star Trek science fiction.
But more visionary people disagree, and are rabidly enthusiastic about space travel and the prospect of living on planets light years away.
This evokes a new uncertainty in the relationship between humans and the earth.
Does the possibility of finding a home on another planet weaken our bond with earth, and make people less committed to repairing the damage we have done to it? Will the day come when humans have so abused our home planet that it no longer serves our needs, leading us to abandon it? This is the worst that could come from the prospect of travel to other planets.
We find ourselves hoping that further exploration will find that none of the Goldilocks planets can support human life without insufferable hardship. And if Elon Musk does actually mount an expedition to Mars, we expect its major value will be a demonstration of just how miserable and difficult it would be to live there.
The best we can hope for is that adventures in space will teach humanity what an unfathomable wonder our little blue dot of a planet is, and inspires them to come home and take care of it.
To paraphrase Chief Seattle, the earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth. We always have been and always will be earthlings. Truly, there’s no place like home.