Always on the back burner, and sometimes on the front burner, is the dream of space colonization. In 1970 most Americans assumed that going to the Moon was just the first step in going permanently into outer space. A permanent presence implies a colony either in space, or on a habitable body. Thus was born the ISS, a money sinkhole with little payoff. Nevertheless, the much higher costs of launching a permanent colony beyond Earth have not dissuaded visionaries from keeping the idea alive, especially in Hollywood.
In the JFK era we were only bleeding money in Vietnam. Generally, it was felt to be an era of sufficient wealth and limitless futures. Americans would lead the world into space. Fast forward to the 21st century, where the dream still lives. Only now the dream is cast differently: Now we are thinking about protecting ourselves against rogue nukes, interstellar zombies hungry for human slaves and flesh, and the fact that we are stressing and trashing our blue biosphere.
Last year the eminent seer, Stephen Hawking, warned us of evil space pirates that could overwhelm Earth. This year Hawking has taken a more ecological approach to bleeding our national treasuries. He gave an interview to the Canadian press in November 2011. Among his comments were these:
"We are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history. Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space."
To properly dispose of this nonsense would take a very long essay, so here are only some major points:
There are five milestones in the search for life beyond our planet: (1) finding primitive life itself. (2) detecting evidence of intelligent life that once lived. (3) finding intelligent life in our time near enough for communication. (4) putting ourselves out there where we humans would become the ETs. (5) replacing our fragile astronaut bodies having "selfish and aggressive instincts" with benevolent life forms, the comphumans.
Astronomy is still at stage one, just looking for life itself. We are almost there, and I believe Mars or Europa will prove the viability of a panspermia. The next step is locating intelligent ETs, a step that potentially brings danger. The third step is communicating with intelligent life, on which radio telescopes are already hard at work.
These first three milestones may be achieved in a few years, or a few centuries. The hard part is locating sufficiently intelligent life that is still alive and near enough to carry on sophisticated discourse. Beyond that is the vastness of space. There will be no worm holes for us to use. Only if "they" first come to us are we likely to communicate with intelligent space beings anytime soon.
Will the arriving ETs be evil or benevolent? They will likely be curious machines, not protoplasmic creatures hungry for human flesh. When we become space aliens to other bodies, we will approach them with comphumans, not with humans. It's all about economy and viability in the cosmic ray space environment, and about the great distances beyond our locality.
We could easily build a boxy comphuman this century; and human-like comphuman androids within a hundred years, or less; but we don't need "Data" to get the job done. Consciousness is both individual and collective. We could input our consciousness and philosophical wisdom into these ambassadors from Earth very cheaply.
The first computer philosopher astronauts may be embedded in another physical form, but will not be bulky like the evil HAL in 2001. Early forms of comphumans could direct worker robots, giving themselves locomotion and remote operating capabilities. The entire wisdom of humankind would go on our space ships. The parts of our psyches that are mutually destructive would not go. As I explained in earlier books and essays, comphumans will not develop evil thoughts or behavior being by the force of philosophical wisdom both fair and peaceful.
While we are saving money in space junkets, we can use that money to keep clean our own terra firma. When I was in my twenties I left Harvard and the New School for Social Research to write a book (after researching its topic for 7,000 hours), complete with 50 pages of annotated bibliography. That book examined how our planet needs peaceful "negative population growth" that is planned and gradual. It explained Malthusian economics, wherein resources tend to increase arithmetically, while populations tend to increase geometrically. Of course, no publisher wanted to publish this garbage.
So now we are stuck with seers like Hawking getting air time for truly crackpot ideas that are given currency because nobody wanted to hear what a 25-year-old proposed in 1970. Will the ironies never cease?