Humanity's Launch Window

By Alan Silverstein, email
Last update: December 23, 2019

I wrote this brief essay sometime in the 1990s... Converted it to HTML and updated it a little in March 2008. Unfortunately it remains relevant.

Five billion years from now. That's when the Sun will expand into a red giant star. It will engulf and melt the Earth. All of our dreams, inventions, creations, artifacts, and remains will become a mingled shell of molten rock. Also our pollution, landfills, war machines, inner cities, and petty differences. The thought is both reassuring and humbling. Everything we affect is headed for ultimate oblivion as a hot wasteland... Unless before then we are able to:

Four and a half billion years. That's how long it took for self-awareness to appear on the Earth. We seem to be the first Earth species capable of departing the planet. It took over four thousand million years for life on our world to reach this point -- for our "launch window" to open. (See also my list of human gateways.)

Many thousands of people, all peacefully cooperating. That's what it takes to launch a payload from the Earth. Discovery of the Americas by Europeans required a few sailing ships. The exploration could be accomplished and the exploitation (ethical or not) begun by perhaps fifty people in one lifetime. A successful space program is much, much more demanding.

Wonders beyond comprehension await us beyond our Earth. To grasp those riches requires enormous investment. It takes raw materials and the technology to render them. It takes many, many people, at peace with each other in a stable society, wealthy enough to make investments whose return is measured in generations.

Fifty years. That's how long humanity's "launch window" has been open. Our precious Earth is crowded. Our raw materials are being consumed. Our launch window will close.

How long do we have? It is anyone's guess. I think no more than fifty more years. Possibly much less. After that -- no one, no group, will have the resources, the time, the energy, to spare on expanding into space.

(Historically we have always avoided permanent decline. One nation's fall has been another's rise. Room and raw materials have always been available somewhere. But we have never been so interconnected, interdependent, crowded, and dependent on technology and fossil fuels as we are now. I hope I am wrong, but what if I am right?)

The Dream might survive, but as an escapist fantasy on a crowded world become a prison. A world of inmates bound by gravity's bars.

Imagine it. Nine billion years for Earth. A one hundred year launch window for humanity. Now that is the big picture. Perhaps, in the long run, it is the only view that matters.

Now is our species' crux move. Our one shot at virtually infinite wealth and discovery. We can pursue the Great Adventure. Or we can fritter away our opportunity -- and wake up one day to discover it's too late. We can let our launch window close. Which do we choose?