Should we colonise space?

This article was originally published on Stuff.co.nz 

That’s the most intriguing question the late, great physicist Stephen Hawking considers in his final book Brief Answers to the Big Questions.

He also ponders whether God exists (no), if time travel is possible (in theory, yes) and the prospect of artificial intelligence destroying humanity (highly possible).

Hawking died in March aged 76 after a prolific life lived on borrowed time. Diagnosed with early onset motor neurone disease in 1963 at age 21, doctors expected him to live no longer than two years. Yet he went on to become one of the world’s greatest scientists and science communicators.

Hawking’s daughter Lucy, who edited the book, told Kim Hill on RNZ of her father’s complaint that many people failed to get past page 27 of his best seller A Brief History of Time, which explored black holes and the origins of the universe.

When you are dealing with questions this big, it isn’t surprising. But Hawking is crystal clear on one thing in Big Answers – he believed that humanity’s “ultimate destiny” lies off Earth.

He compares our current state to Europe before 1492. Many then would have complained that it was a waste of money to send Columbus on a wild goose chase.

“Yet the discovery of the New World made a profound difference to the Old. Just think, we wouldn’t have had the Big Mac or KFC,” writes Hawking. There’s plenty of that dry wit in the new book. 

Why should we look outward when we have pressing problems to solve on Earth?

Hawking clearly feared for our future as a species on an increasingly crowded and vulnerable planet and believed that exploring the darkness would “bring new meaning to our place on Earth”.

Interstellar travel should be a long-term aim, he suggests – back to the Moon first, then Mars and somewhere in the next 1000 years, the stars beyond our solar system.

It would take 70,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system, with our current technology.

So we clearly have some massive engineering challenges ahead, which Hawking was increasingly pondering before his death. 

“I hope for the best. I have to,” he concludes. “We have no other option”. 

❑ Brief Answers to the Big Questions, by Stephen Hawking, $34.99.