Between the news of NASA's discovery of three exoplanets potentially capable of sustaining life, my discovery of the Mars One organization and it's goal to establish a human colony on Mars, stewing over Stephen Hawking's most dire words to date (humans "won't survive another 1,000 years without escaping our fragile planet"), the increasing likelihood of life existing on Jupiter's moon Europa, and a new anime series called Suisei no Gargantia, it's safe to say that I currently have space and sci-fi on the brain. That's the story of the last 60 years however, as interest in what lies beyond the confines of the little mudball of a planet we call home has steadily increased.
One hundred years ago, putting a man on the moon seemed as ridiculous and impossible an idea as airplanes had a century before that. Today we have put men on the Moon, rovers on Mars, sent unmanned probes billions of miles away to the edge of the galaxy and peered out into the unknown reaches with high-powered telescopes to see planets and stars light-years away. We're living the beginning of an Extraterrestrial Renaissance, an age of exploration unseen since European explorers stumbled upon the New World, and the possibilities are as wide and endless as only the universe and human imagination can be. And it will probably end better for us if we begin sooner rather than later.
Take a look at Hawking's words again, then look at just how things are going on the planet. Mankind is 7 billion strong (Projected to reach 8 billion by 2027), consuming natural resources at an unsustainable rate, causing uncontrolled climate change, and generally mucking up any chance of long on-planet survivability we have. That’s not even taking into account the innumerable, horrible ways the universe can kill us without us being able to do anything about it. Our planet and the life it plays host to are fragile, a point of light in a universe of shadow, and we are pushing it to the breaking point.
“... Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth but to spread out into space. We have made remarkable progress in the last hundred years. But if we want to continue beyond the next hundred years, our future is in space," Hawking says.
Here is where Mars One is stepping up to the plate. For the unfamiliar, Mars One is a non-profit organization with the goal of establishing a colony on Mars. Astronaut selection begins this year, with the initial group being made up of only four individuals and four more landing every two years. While the astronauts train on a replica settlement on Earth (After 8 years of training) Mars One will put together and launch several preparatory supply missions to get the settlement as ready as it can be in the time leading up to the arrival of the future colonists. It’s an ambitious project to be sure and the chances for failure are particularly high, but Columbus was probably told much the same when he set out across the Atlantic. Besides that, someone needs to do it, and the U.S. government isn’t looking to be that someone any time soon.
To be fair, aside from a brief period between 1988 and 1991, NASA's budget has never made up more than 1% of the U.S. budget since 1974. Since it's peak of 4.41% in 1966 the percentage has always been on a downward slope and between a weakened economy, uncooperative Congress and Obama's obsessive need for everything to be bipartisan that trend is unlikely to change in the next few years. NASA's 2012 budget of $17.7 billion constituted approximately 0.48% of the budget, which works out to be less than half a penny out of every dollar, and that needs to change. Thankfully, after comments made by Neil deGrasse Tyson in 2012 to the United States Senate Science Committee have prompted a non-profit called Penny4NASA to be formed to advocate doubling NASA’s budget to 1% of the federal budget.