Stephen Hawking: It’s Time to Get the Hell off Planet Earth

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Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has set a deadline for humanity to save itself. Within in the next 100 years, he warns, we need to colonize Mars and other planets. If we don’t, we may not survive climate change, disease, and other versions of doom we’re bound to inflict on ourselves this century.

Hawking’s pessimistic take on humanity isn’t new. But the super-famous scientist and author has been making the case more urgently in advance of the release of his new BBC documentary, Expedition New Earth, this summer.

And President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement on June 1 has only upped the stakes, Hawking said in a talk delivered by Skype at the Starmus science and art festival on Tuesday.

“Unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious and wrong decision on climate this world has seen, I am arguing for the future of humanity and a long-term strategy to achieve this,” Hawking, now 75 and still a professor at the University of Cambridge, said.
“There is no new world, no utopia around the corner,” on Earth, he added. “We are running out of space, and the only places to go to are other worlds.”
If you share Hawking’s faith in the human imagination and fierce drive to explore, then these are hopeful words. It’s conceivable that we could rekindle the excitement of the early days of space travel in the 1960s, and get more serious about it and Hawking has some concrete goals to guide us going forward. If we’re going to make his timeline for building new civilizations before we perish, here’s what we need to do:

1.     Bring the cost of spaceflight down dramatically.
2.     Develop new technologies to launch us farther and faster into space.
3.     Discover new planets more habitable than the ones we already know about.
4.  Figure out how to survive on inhospitable planets we already know about, like Mars, and planets that might support life, like Proxima b.

If these ideas sound familiar, it’s because billionaires like Elon Musk and Richard Branson, who are deeply invested in spaceflight, have been pushing them too. Some of Hawking’s fellow physicists and astronomers also agree we could use an exit strategy. And there’s now a small but growing community of aspiring space colonists prepping for life on Mars. (To be clear, Mars, for now, looks like a pretty deadly place.)

Last year, as Vox’s Brian Resnick reported, Hawking, along with a Russian billionaire and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, concocted a scheme to build and send spacecraft the size of postage stamps to Alpha Centauri, the second-closest star to Earth, some 4.37 light-years away.

The plan, called Breakthrough Starshot, is ambitious, to say the least. A huge number of engineering hurdles would need to be cleared over the next couple of decades to make a launch possible. And it’s just a tiny example of what we’d need to actually decamp to other planets and the moon.
Timetables like Hawking’s are troubling to climate scientists and a whole lot of other people who’d like to focus on fixing planet Earth, however. If we start looking for our salvation outside our solar system, they fear we may be dissuaded or distracted from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avert catastrophic climate change right now.

As Katherine Hayhoe, a renowned climate scientist at Texas Tech University and another Starmus speaker, tweeted during Hawking’s talk on Tuesday:

Hawking admits there are risks to the kind of audacious space exploration he’s calling for. We don’t know what or whom we’ll find when we venture further afield. But, he said Tuesday, with just a twinge of envy, "If there are beings on Alpha Centauri, they remain blissfully unaware of the rise of Donald Trump.”
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