Commentary | Time To Build a New Ark

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With the recent release of Darren Aronofsky’s film “Noah,” the space community is reminded again of an enduring metaphor for our present-day quest to ensure human survival by building arks in space. Like the biblical Noah, many space advocates feel a powerful sense of urgency that a new Space Age ark needs to be built. 

After the great flood subsided, God promised Noah that he would never again destroy the world by flood. Of course, He didn’t say anything about the possibility of the world being destroyed by asteroid impacts, supervolcanoes, global pandemics, greenhouse gases or nuclear holocaust. These existential threats and others are well understood in our time. We may not be facing an imminent threat like the one Noah had to deal with, but certainly the potential for annihilation is an ever-present reality we collectively seem satisfied to ignore. 

Seeing that God has so far opted not to task a present-day Noah with building a space ark, we are left to consider the project on our own. Fortunately, we have something Noah did not: science. And science tells us that the world and life on it most certainly will not endure forever — the sages of ancient times got that one right. Science also tells us of the many existential threats, some listed above, that could consume us at any time. We don’t need God to tell us that things could get really bad very quickly.

But in spite of the overwhelming evidence that we had better build a space ark to ensure our own longevity, we continually give in to the small-minded naysayers, much like the villagers that Noah had to deal with in his time. Whenever there’s talk about space arks, the villagers are quick to mock and ridicule. Newt Gingrich was laughed off the U.S. presidential stage in 2012 for speaking of his vision of lunar colonies. I am no fan of most of what Gingrich stands for, but I admire his courage in using his campaign as a platform to promote construction of a space ark. It is easy to remain quiet and tell ourselves that perhaps the villagers are right. Better to leave it alone. It’s something for people in the future to worry about. 

But, for some reason, like Noah, many of us can’t just let it go. I think that’s because there just may be something speaking to us after all. A voice that is urging us on to build that ark in space — call it the voice of God if you wish. It’s not a baritone from on high, but maybe a soft whisper that is motivating and inspiring us to evolve. We may not even be aware of it, but those who are committed to a future for humanity beyond Earth are responding to those whispers. 

I think Frank White got it right when he wrote in “The Overview Effect,” “The purpose of human space exploration cannot be found in human desires and ambitions alone, but must be viewed as a phenomenon actively encouraged by universal forces.”

For those of us who hear the whisper of the universal forces, we need to copy Noah’s example. We must stand up to the small-minded villagers among us and tell them that the ark must be built. Tell them that you’re heeding the call, and you know the science, and your mind is clear on what must be done. It’s time to tell the villagers that you will build the ark with or without their help, for yours is the responsibility to ensure survival of the life that emerged on this planet. 

Many people, even in the space community, say we should not be setting our sights on space settlement now. Such a challenge is premature, they say. We should allow the evolution of spaceflight to take its course, and when the time is right, perhaps in 100 or 200 years, then there will be time enough to plan and build a new ark. 

True, it’s easy to take that attitude, and certainly most people in and out of the space arena think that way. But what if Noah had said to God, “You know, God, we really don’t have the technology right now to build such an ark as you wish. Even with the instructions you’ve given me, it’s way beyond what I can do. I’m happy to do a little ark-building R&D, but I’m going to have to leave it to some future generation to build the ark.” What would have happened then? The flood would have come and swallowed up Noah along with everyone else, leaving no one left to tell the story.

But, of course, ignoring that command, or whisper, was not an option for Noah, and it is not for many of us. And while a single Noah might have been enough for the task in the Bible, the space ark challenge requires much more than cypress wood and pitch. It will require many people to heed the call and be modern-day Noahs.  

Fortunately, there are already Noahs hard at work building the space ark. Peter Diamandis with the X Prize Foundation and Planetary Resources is building the frame of the ark. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, who makes no qualifications about his intention to colonize Mars, is nailing planks. Mars Society President and firebrand Robert Zubrin, who has fearlessly championed martian settlement, is crafting the ramp. Space evangelist and Deep Space Industries founder Rick Tumlinson has been heralding the age of space settlement for more than three decades, and has inspired many Noahs to action. Many other Noahs are cutting down cypress trees, bending planks and coating the ark with pitch. 

It may be a long way off before the ark is complete, but the work is underway. It doesn’t really matter what the naysayers say, although it would be great if they got onboard. The important question you need to ask yourself is, “Am I one of the Noahs for this age?” If so, then the responsibility for building the space ark falls squarely on your shoulders.

The settlement of space is no more of an option for us than building the ark was for Noah. It is a project that is up to us to complete as quickly as we can, not to be put off or be considered too big a challenge for this generation. Even if it takes multiple generations to build, we should do as much as we can now. Then leave the remaining work to the next generation along with a strong sense of obligation to complete the task. We have to get it out of our heads that space settlement is anything other than an urgent necessity for our species and for our evolving world. 

 

Steven Wolfe is the author of “The Obligation” (www.TheObligationBook.com), a former Capitol Hill legislative aide and serves on the board of editors of the “Journal of Space Philosophy.”