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April 7, 2013

After Earth

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While yet another shuttle launch is delayed, this one due to nature, NASA says it is gearing up to for the mission to the moon, Mars and beyond. Some space experts say that for the plan to colonize space to ever succeed, it needs to get across the message that natural disasters and manmade threats to the planet make it imperative for Earthlings to have a backup plan, as this ScienCentral News video reports.

Not a Race but a Journey

For the first time since the glory days of Apollo more than three decades ago, NASA has a plan to get humans out of low-earth orbit.

"We're reinvigorating our efforts to go forward past low Earth orbit ... to establish a presence on the moon, then utilizing what we've learned to go to the moon, do the same thing over again but geared to landing on Mars," says Edward J. Stanton, Jr., director of NASA's Constellation Systems division, which is overseeing development of the transportation and exploration systems for the manned exploration plans.

With the space shuttles to retire in 2010, Stanton says a new spacecraft, the "Crew Excursion Vehicle," will take over. "That will be upgraded during the timeframe between 2014 and 2018 to have capabilities to be able to return to the moon so that by the 2020's we'll be on the moon actively established with a base," he explains. "And during the 20's and into the 30's we will develop the basic capabilities to be able to go to Mars and be there."

image: NASA
But as Discover magazine reports in its September cover story, space experts who are in favor of colonizing the next frontier say the President and Congress' requirement that the space agency set out on this ambitious plan with no major increase in funding -- at least for the first five years -- and thereafter to "go as we can pay," could doom it to failure. As President Bush declared in his announcement of the plan, "it is not a race, but a journey."

For the plan to succeed, Americans will not only need to commit to the costs, but also to the risks of manned spaceflight, as the nation did for the Apollo program -- which was a race. What's needed, says Discover, is a sense of urgency and clear purpose.

Stanton is optimistic on both counts. "We're going forward and we can do it with the money that’s being projected," he says. "Most importantly, we're going to be cost-efficient about it and watching so that the tradeoffs to make sure we stay within the cost requirement are going to be there." He points to the agency's recent selection of two small businesses to develop low-cost crew and cargo transportation systems as an example of how NASA will partner with the private sector, and adds that other nations will also contribute to the effort. "This after all, will be an Earth-wide project and an Earth-wide endeavor," he says.

And he says the purpose is clear: "Throughout the entire history of mankind, we have endeavored to do nothing but -- whether it was the Phoenicians getting in their boats to cross the Mediterranean, whether it was the intrepid explorers going across the Atlantic and the Pacific ... you name it -- the entire timeframe of humanity's existence on this planet has been to go to the next horizon. This is the next horizon," Stanton says.

Intelligent Lifeboat?

image: NASA
Yet an increasingly vocal community of scientists (recently including Stephen Hawking) and space experts (including Space X founder Elan Musk) say that while it may not be a race, there is a clear, compelling, even urgent need to become a space-faring civilization: the very survival of humanity.

"The days of saying 'We're gonna climb that mountain because it's there' are over," says author William E. Burrows, who's chronicled the space program for 40 years. "It doesn't cost thousands to climb this one, it costs billions, so it's gotta be more than, 'Hey gang, it's there'."

To that end, Burrows and fellow New York University professor Robert Shapiro have launched a foundation called the Alliance to Rescue Civilization, whose mission is to "provide our manned space program with the central purpose which it has so sorely lacked, linking it firmly to human survival on our home planet and elsewhere."

In his new book, "The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth," Burrows details the many known threats to our home planet, including a comet or asteroid impact, catastrophic global warming, and nuclear destruction, among others. Add them all up, he says, and intelligent life needs a lifeboat. "Not to say we're going to have a calamity tomorrow," he says. "It's prudent to protect yourself."

image: NASA
Burrows advocates establishing a self-sustaining settlement on the moon, to "back up" not only the seeds of humanity, but also to secure an archive of its valuables in the form of Earth's plants and animals and mankind's technology, knowledge and art, because no planet lasts forever. At the same time, he argues, the need to use space to protect Earth will also continue, from the satellites that monitor weather and climate to the telescopes that track Near-Earth Objects.

"The priority NASA needs is to protect the planet, in all of these ways, to make sure we survive," says Burrows, calling NASA "grossly under-funded. "NASA is Congress' child," he says. "It needs its leash loosened. It needs to be able to do this."

So while NASA's inspiration remains the joy of exploration, others say the best reason to travel beyond earth is to prepare for life after earth.

The future of NASA was featured in the September 2006 "Discover" magazine and William E. Burrows' book, "The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth," was published in August 2006.

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