Survival of the Elitist: Bioterrorism May Spur Space Colonies

October 30 2001

By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Space Writer/

Plans to save civilization from doom by sending people and important documents into space in a 21st Century Noah's Ark may get a boost from heightened fears of bioterrorism.

NASA had this vision for a space colony back in the 1970s. But no firm plans were ever made.

Psychologists, terrorism analysts and some space-settlement enthusiasts interviewed by said fear is the wrong motivation for any effort to colonize the cosmos. But it might just work, others indicated, as the pie-in-the-sky dream of moving to another planet meets the reality of biological terrorism on this planet.

Expect to pay your way to survival, however, at least in the short run. The apocalyptic view that humans must leave Earth or perish was raised Oct. 16 by the eminent physicist and author Stephen Hawking, who said a bio-engineered virus will wipe out the human species in this millennium. "The danger is that either by accident or design, we create a virus that destroys us," he told the Daily Telegraph in London.

Hawking is off base, according to several experts who accused him of ignoring science and speaking in language laced with religious overtones. One critic called his doomsday prediction "regrettable hype."

Space-settlement enthusiast Freeman Dyson, a 50-year veteran of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, agreed with that latter assessment.

"I have great respect and admiration for Hawking, but like everyone else he sometimes talks nonsense," Dyson told Humbly, he added: "Of course, I too could be wrong."

Robert R. Butterworth, a psychologist versed in society-wide crises, calls the idea of leaving the planet "a 21st Century response to an age-old threat."

Butterworth recalls a similar sense of dread that developed late in the last century. "During the Cuban missile crisis the only reaction was to dig down and build fallout shelters in the face of a nuclear threat," he said. "Now instead of digging down we're talking about flying out?"

To consider current threats as a motivation to leave the planet means "we've resigned ourselves to the fact that the bad guys are going to win," Butterworth said. "That's not a very hopeful reason to do anything."

Survival of the elitist

Yet Hawking's comments come at a time when plans are already being discussed to create a modern Noah's Ark to escape the planet and preserve humanity. Saving yourself or protecting your progeny, however, will not come cheap.

One idea for an Ark is actually called ARC, for the Alliance to Rescue Civilization. And if it flies, everything from DNA to important architectural drawings would make their way to the Moon, a futuristic spaceport, or some other safe haven. A select group of individuals would go, too, to maintain the monumental archive and to round out, with live bodies, what is billed as a way to save civilization no matter what happens on Earth.

It's the sort of scheme that since the dawn of the nuclear age has driven the desire to colonize space.

Yet the desire has long been scoffed at, generating what proponents acknowledge as a significant societal giggle factor tied to the sci-fi images conjured by such an endeavor. These proponents have fought an uphill political and financial battle to get the notion of sending humans beyond Earth orbit back on NASA's agenda.

They have yet to succeed. The space agency has no firm plans to send astronauts beyond the International Space Station.

So in recent years, many of the movement's most vocal supporters have given up on NASA. Private enterprise is the only hope, they say, and the almighty dollar will drive any serious effort to put people on the Moon, Mars or anywhere else.

Burrows' ARC

ARC is the brainchild of William E. Burrows, author of This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, and several other books about space, who is also a New York University journalism professor. He's been hatching the concept for more than a year.

"It's a deadly serious idea," Burrows said in a telephone interview.

"It's not a time capsule," he explained, "but a continuously fed system by which we would in effect back up the planetary 'hard-drive' system." It would involve sequestering people, genetic codes, important engineering and historical documents, photographs and cultural items. "Everything we can get out of here."

Burrows is not counting on any governmental agency to support his plan. Nor does he expect the current threat of bioterrorism to compel average citizens to jump aboard, two-by-two.

"Space is an elite undertaking," he said. "Not everyone came out to say goodbye to Columbus. Most people want three square meals a day and a roof over their heads."

But Burrows' idea has caught the attention of the Rick Tumlinson, president and cofounder of the Space Frontier Foundation, which helped to privatize the Russian Mir space station -- for a year before it fell -- by leasing it from Russia through MirCorp, which the foundation funds. The foundation also helped secure millionaire Dennis Tito's trip to the International Space Station after Mir came down. Now MirCorp has plans to launch a small, private space station.

Tumlinson said another organization he's involved with, called the Foundation for the International Non-governmental Development of Space (FINDS), is discussing ARC with Burrows.

On average, FINDS has awarded more than $500,000 in each of the past three years in grants to "cutting edge frontier-enabling projects" that further the notion of putting humans permanently in space. Tumlinson is the executive director.

"We are developing a possible project with [Burrows]," Tumlinson told He said the parties are discussing how to fund the necessary buildup for the ARC program, preliminary steps that would, if carried out, lead to eventually placing the first documents and people on the Moon or elsewhere in space.

No agreement has been reached.

"I see it as another rope by which we can pull ourselves off of the shores of Earth and outward," said Tumlinson. His philosophy for achieving space settlements is to pursue several lines of otherworldly exploration and travel, including space tourism, to plant the overall possibilities more firmly in humanity's consciousness -- and to put them squarely on the collective human to-do list.

"Going to space requires the cumulative effect of a lot of desires and activities," he said.

While Tumlinson's goal is to popularize space and to make it accessible to everyone, he acknowledges that money will largely control who goes and who stays in the near future.

"At first, the preponderance of people going into space are going to have to purchase their tickets," he said. "However, there are mechanisms in our society for regular people to get up there." He means game shows and lotteries, for which he said negotiations are in the works.

Ultimately, in Tumlinson's view, free enterprise would bring the cost of space travel down so average citizens could get a new, totally cosmic address.

We're talking decades down the road, however, even by optimistic estimates. Meanwhile, Tumlinson said a silver lining could emerge from the current cloud of terrorism and anthrax scares that have raised fears among Americans.

"If this makes people think about mortality ... then in a way this ugly, terrible thing has done something good," he said. "If we begin to put mechanisms in place to insure the survival of civilization, then there is a rainbow in this storm."

Prominent author and astrophysicist J. Richard Gott III has been arguing for years that space colonization is important for the future survival prospects of the human race. The Princeton University professor embraced Hawking's words in an e-mail interview.

"We stay bound to Earth at our peril," Gott said.

Gott makes the case in his new book, Time Travel in Einstein's Universe, where he warns that the risk of developing technology to the point that you can colonize space also raises the possibility that the technology will be used for ill purposes, such as biological or nuclear warfare.

"So it was especially heartening to me to see that Stephen Hawking has embraced this idea as well," Gott said. His reasoning extends beyond Hawking's narrow focus on viruses:

"Whatever may eventually cause the human race to go extinct may well be something unanticipated -- for it would be, by definition, a cataclysm the likes of which we had not experienced before," Gott said.

While he stopped just short of saying that current bioterrorism efforts could fuel a stronger desire in society for space settlement, Gott said it could have an effect. "The current situation has perhaps made us more keenly aware of the dangers we face staying confined on the Earth where disasters, either natural or of our own making, may do us in."

Are we doomed?

Many scientists argue that there is no need to worry about the mortality of civilization right now. Eric Croddy is an expert on chemical and biological weapons at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Croddy said the threat of a virus wiping out the entire human species is simply not real.

Even the most horrific virus outbreak in history, the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic that killed between 20 million and 40 million people, including hundreds of thousands in the United States, eventually stopped.

Experts say new strains of the influenza virus emerge every few decades and catch the human immune system unprepared, but prevention measures and ever-evolving medical treatments overcome the outbreaks.

"I'd be much more concerned about an asteroid hitting the planet," Croddy said. Croddy accused Hawking of speaking more from a religious, apocalyptic view than from anything based on the facts of science.

"What he said is more biblical than scientific," Croddy said. Besides, he added, "Earth's not such a bad place." Most space-colonization enthusiasts share this planet with Croddy, as well as his view of it. But whether stated or not, the desire to ensure survival has always permeated their plans.

Asteroids, in fact, frequently top the list of reasons to flee. Ample evidence suggests that many species -- including dinosaurs -- have perished as the result of colossal impacts in the past.

Most top asteroid researchers -- inside and outside NASA, on or off the space settlement bandwagon --recognize that sooner or later another large space rock will hit Earth, triggering a global catastrophe that could place human life in the balance. It probably won't happen for thousands of years, maybe 300,000, but it could happen tomorrow.

Stephen Hawking has broken no new ground in suggesting fear as a motivating factor for intelligent beings to develop an exit strategy.

Fear, in fact, has a long history of pushing humans to new frontiers. Cold War worries, more than anything else, put Neil Armstrong on the Moon. Fear of British rule and religious oppression helped to create the United States. And fear mixed with opportunity drove early humans to leave Africa, settle new lands, then later to migrate away from advancing glaciers.

Other reasons to go

But fear is just one factor that could push earthlings to the next frontier. Pure profit potential and the lure of scientific discoveries may prove to be the more productive enticements.

"I feel we should not go into space out of fear, either fear of asteroids, nuclear war, worldwide epidemics, pollution or industrial collapse," said Bruce Mackenzie, a member of the board of directors of the National Space Society.

"Those are all valid reasons, but they are not good long-term motivations," said Mackenzie, who stressed that he speaks for himself and not the organization. "I prefer positive motivations, such as the almost unlimited resources offered by asteroids, moons and other planets."

Whether opportunity or fear will eventually push us off the pale blue dot that has been home to hominids for more than a million years, no one is going anywhere anytime soon. At least not on a permanent basis.

Even Tumlinson, the director of FINDS and arguably the most energetic and productive proponent of space settlement, expects the whole process to take a generation. Sure, the first tourist has already flown. Others may soon follow. Mars could conceivably be visited in a decade or two.

But Tumlinson's ultimate goal is to have people calling space their home -- forcing FedEx to add rockets to its fleet of planes and trucks. And he hopes to live to see it happen, in 35 to 40 years.

Similar goals were voiced with great confidence 40 years ago, of course. But Tumlinson thinks the mechanisms are now in place to make it a reality. NASA has done its job, punching open the near frontier, he says. Now it's time for the space agency to get out of the way.

Private enterprise, say Tumlinson and many of the other true believers, is poised to take over the quest to the Moon and beyond.

"It's no longer pie in the sky," says Tumlinson.


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