Skip to main content

It hurts me to write this, but an excellent case can be made that the human race might need to give up on space travel.

In a recent commentary, I suggested the possible need to discontinue most air travel, since airplanes emit huge amounts of global warming carbon dioxide and are very difficult to electrify. Giving up air travel admittedly would be very painful, and this article drew hundreds of angry emails from readers.

Like airplanes, rockets put carbon dioxide (and, sometimes, other noxious gases) into the atmosphere, and I also suggested that we might have to stop launching them. But no rockets, no space travel.

Fortunately, giving up space travel would not be as painful as stopping most air travel. Airliners carry millions of passengers and a great deal of critical freight, but rockets have lifted only a few astronauts and billionaires into orbit.

Communication satellites can be replaced with more fiber-optic cables. Eliminating rockets would not greatly damage world economies.

The greatest pain might come from having to reorient our concepts of the future, a pain which I would share. From my youngest years, I was an enthusiastic science fiction fan.

Beginning with Jules Verne's novel "From The Earth To The Moon" (1865), science fiction has depicted space travel as humanity's future. I grew up reading every novel by Robert A. Heinlein that I could lay hands on, and he envisioned humanity spreading all over this side of our galaxy if not further.

But to quote Yogi Berra once again, as I love to do, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." Heinlein's "future history" chart, within which many of his early stories were set, anticipated the first Moon landing to be in 1978, but it actually happened nine years earlier.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Heinlein's "future history" chart also suggested that after an initial period of space travel, it would be discontinued for several decades. This turned out to be true in our real world.

But as far as I know Heinlein never considered the possibility that we might need to discontinue space travel permanently.

Recently, a thoughtful columnist, John M. Crisp, suggested that, like many of the rest of us, astronauts should work from home. He pointed out that unmanned probes are doing a fine job of exploring Mars, a planet which is very inhospitable to human life.

Without rockets, though, even unmanned exploration of other planets would be impossible. But would the knowledge we might gain from such probes be worth endangering the one planet we have for sure, not to mention the billions of dollars it takes just to get probes to another world?

It may be that the universe — with travel speeds limited to the speed of light and huge interstellar distances — is designed to prevent civilizations on different planets from interacting with each other.

This might be just as well, considering all the unhappiness that collision of civilizations at different stages of development has caused here on Earth: wars, colonialism, racism, diseases, etc.

In Greek mythology, Icarus was equipped with wings, but the wax attaching them to his body melted when he flew too close to the sun and he perished. In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which was to reach into the heavens, God forced an end to the construction by confusing the people's speech so they could not understand one another. (Genesis 11:1-9)

Both stories suggest the dangers of a human race that is getting too big for its britches. The attempt at space travel may be an example of such hubris.

Elon Musk wants to live on Mars, and this is a legitimate ambition. But we might do better to devote the resources and engineering talent now engaged in rocketry and space travel to improving life for everyone here on our own planet.