The National Geographic Channel, a.k.a. NatGeo TV, had a fun 2-hour documentary on last night entitled ′Evacuate Earth.′ Sunday was a marathon of various doomsday programs, including a mix of Doomsday Preppers along with shows about the Mayan Calendar with their date for doomsday looming closer on December 21, 2012. The premise for Evacuate Earth is what would we do if we knew that a neutron star was headed our way in 75 years? Could we organize and construct a massive spacecraft to transport an assortment of humans to another Earth-like planet in a distant star system? Is there a lesson to be learned now? Should we start to consider leaving Earth to escape Barack Obama and Socialist tyranny?
Okay, so image some 40,000 years ago, a nearby giant star explodes in a supernova. Part of what is left is a neutron star, a very small but dense object. Perhaps about ten miles wide but weighing three times that of our own Sun. The supernova flings it off on its way through the heavens towards us. Astronomers detect it when it is about 75 years away after a series of meteor showers and other similar events. What do we do?
Naturally, our government forms a secret committee to hatch a plan. Saving 7 billion people is out of the question, but salvaging perhaps 250,000 might be possible. After a few years of study, they come up with using some old ideas that have been kicking around. Namely, Gerald O′Neil and his habitat tubes proposed in the early 1970s to be propelled by Project Orion′s nuclear bombs of the 1960s. An O′Neil Tube is a massive space dwelling about 15 miles long and 2 miles wide which would spin about its long axis to create artificial gravity. The interior would have about a dozen times the land mass as Manhattan Island.
Since our current breed of chemical rockets would mean a journey to the stars lasting tens of thousands of years, we opt for something faster. Project Orion involves equipping our giant spacecraft with a huge blast shield on the tail-end. When ready to go the ship fires off a series of small nuclear bombs at a rate of one every three seconds for ten days, The shockwave from each explosion hits the blast shield, kicking the ship forward and faster. After tend days, we could be hitting velocities near 70% that of the speed of light. At this speed, a journey to a potential Earth 2.0 could be completed in 80 years.
Picking who would go is a major issue which would cause all sorts of conflict. Genetic screening would help select near-perfect humans who would stand the best chance for survival and keeping our species going. You can just image the politics and chaos the selection process would cause! No doubt there would be wars, terrorism and other familiar problems as government committees decide who is worth saving. The TV program did offer another option, where a group of the super-rich decide to fund their own exit. Oddly enough, during the show, their spacecraft blows up on the launch pad. Somehow I don′t see that happening. My guess is that the super-rich would get their ship built first and it would be faster and better than anything the government builds.
Even when you select your near-perfect humans, based on health, you still need a reasonable cross-section of skills and professions. Scientists, engineers, medical doctors will rank high on the list, as well as those needed to keep the ship running and provide food and the rest of life′s necessities to the passengers. Life a board an O′Neil Tube would be essentially a city-state. People would have jobs and go about living much as we do now. What sort of government would such a group have to maintain their civilization? Would democracy, as we know it today, but too chaotic and inefficient to guarantee success of the over-all mission? Would our hardy travelers require something closer to a Fascist state to keep the population under control for the duration of the flight?
Gerald O′Neil′s book, ″Living In Space″, is one of my favorites. A collection of essays which tackles many of the issues, both technical and social, that future space colonists would face. One of the best essays was written by none other than LSD-guru, Timothy Leary. Leary postulates that much as we see a connection between freedom and liberty increasing as we travel from the Old World west to the New World, likewise a move into space would probably be led by Libertarians seeking more freedom than even America provides.
O′Neil imagines building his ′tube′ at a LaGrange point, where the gravitational pulls of the Earth, Moon and Sun all cancel each other out. There are five such points about the Earth, and O′Neil chooses the L-5 point, roughly 200,000 miles from Earth and about 40,000 miles from our Moon as the best spot to locate. Since the cost of transporting construction material from the Earth is so high, O′Neill first has our intrepid space colonists set up on the Moon. With plenty of mineral resources to utilize, and just one-sixth the gravity of Earth, an electromagnetic ′rail-gun′ is used to fling construction material to the L-5 building site. Other sources, such as small asteroids or comets, could also be obtained and parked at the L-5 site to add more needed material, including water and oxygen.
Pretty far fetched, eh? Well, NASA is going to propose building a a large space station at the L-2 point, which is about 10,000 miles beyond the farside of the Moon. From there, ships could be built and launched to explore the other planets and interesting objects in our own solar system much more efficiently. While not a massive O′Neil Tube, such a space station would serve as a jumping off point for any future we might decide to have in space.
Last night′s presentation of ′Evacuate Earth′ on the National Geographic Channel was very interesting. The 2-hour special was part of NatGeo TV′s doomsday marathon, which including episodes of Doomsday Preppers and programs about the Maya Calendar and other apocalyptic themes. We may not have to worry about a neutron star rolling into our solar system to destroy Earth, but who knows? At some point, the wealthy, the clever or just the fed-up may decide that it is time to leave our planet and seek political and economic freedoms elsewhere. Is it too crazy to consider a future where the Earth is one giant, Socialist welfare state and the only option is to flee to the heavens? Another four years of Barack Hussein Obama may give us an answer to that question!