Some days, I feel like I’ve read everything worth reading on the internet. Then I come across something like Charles Stross’ blog, and realize how much I have to discover. I particularly enjoyed his, perhaps now classic, post about colonizing space: The High Frontier Redux. Yes, it’s nearly seven years old, but it’s still quite relevant, and given that his post was a redux of an even older one, it’s illuminating to look at it given what we’re seeing today.
If you go read the post (and I hope you do), be sure to also read through at least the first fifty or so comments. Stross has collected some thoughtful and engaged readers (kudos to him and them). Commenter Surur says, “Doing deeds for all time is a real and proven motivator, and has the immediate benefit of glorifying the person who initiated the effort in the first instance.” Stross responds, “Okay, I see where you're coming from…But I still maintain that the urge to immortality thing -- at least when divorced from reproduction -- is essentially religious in tone; you won't ever see any results, so you're basically doing it on the basis of faith in something you will almost certainly never see.” Earlier, in his actual essay, he makes the same argument in the context of people wanting to get off the Earth to avoid “putting all our eggs in one basket.”
If that’s the only form of immortality we consider, then sure. By the time the Earth is in any real danger, we’re so far into the future that people are unlikely to resemble human beings anymore, much less care how we got off the Earth. I would argue that stronger forms of immortality are more immediate: legacy and fame.
The idea of leaving behind a legacy is strongly rooted in human beings. At the very least, as Stross says, you can produce another human being (your child) who carries your genetic legacy for one generation. The people who dream bigger, though, want to leave their marks on the world in other ways - pyramids, skyscrapers, works of art or science. These are definitely ersatz forms of immortality, but they’re hardly being built on faith. Most great endeavors don’t span multiple lifetimes. In fact, most of the great egomaniacs - pharaohs, kings, artists - wanted to witness their work and appreciate the greatness. They reveled in contemporary fame as much as they wanted to be remembered by future generations.
Similarly, as we’re seeing today with SpaceX, DSI, and Planetary Resources, the most daring space ventures are being conducted by entrepreneurs and visionaries who want to see the fruits of their labor within their lifetimes. They want to go down in history as pioneers, but they also want renown in the world today. That doesn’t seem like a matter of faith so much as a matter of ego.
At another point, Stross likens the practical experience of working in near space to that of being on an oil rig or some other inhospitable locale - in other words, something isolating and unpleasant that is tolerated until the worker can return home. While I might agree with this if (when?) space exploration and excavation were old hat, I can’t see it as realistic in terms of human nature today. Look at what’s happening with the one way ticket known as Mars One. Loads of people have signed up for it knowing that they will never return to Earth. Why? Fame. The chance to make history. The chance to be first. The same thing is going to happen with asteroid mining, establishing a moon colony, building LEO stations, and other near space ventures.
Pioneering human beings have certainly been driven by profit and by faith, but they have been equally driven by ego, fame and curiosity. In the case of space exploration and in-system colonization, I suspect that the latter reasons will be more compelling. In a large part that’s because of the exact objections that Stross raises to the first two reasons. Yes, the monetary returns will eventually be great for asteroid and lunar mining, but they will probably take longer than a (current) human lifetime to realize. Similarly, while Mars One is planning to establish a human habitat on Mars, it’s not intended as a long term, viable colony so much as an exercise in psychology and reality-based entertainment. In the end, though, if fame is what gets people more excited about getting off the Earth, I say go ahead. Let’s feed that pioneering egotistical spirit!