Around 1960 a high church leader, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, spoke in our stake conference. I was a teenager and ordinarily would remember little of what he said, but he commented on the nation’s plans to send men to the moon. As I remember, he said the effort would not succeed because the Lord doesn’t want us to leave the earth. I left conference a little dismayed at his lack of enthusiasm for what might be the greatest adventure of the century. By labeling his comment as a personal opinion I went on with my church activity. Later, after the 1969 moon landing, he became president of the Church and I accepted him as a prophet in spite of what I regarded as his earlier mistaken opinion. Now forty years beyond the time of the moon landings, I have changed my view of what he said. He was right in principle, and only wrong in an unimportant detail.
It appears to me that our Creator has placed mankind permanently on this earth to work out our mortality. While a few men have set foot on the moon, it is practically impossible for any significant number of people to leave Earth and live elsewhere for an indefinite time. A reasonable assessment of what science now knows about possible extraterrestrial abodes and the means for going there leads to the conclusion that we are stuck here on the earth and we need to make the best of it. In 1960 we had little idea of this limitation nor of the danger that our planet might not sustain our technological civilization for long. Now we know we can ruin the earth through unwise human activities, and that there are some grave external threats such as a large comet or asteroid causing global extinction. We may need to escape, but we do not know how to run away and live elsewhere.
Jared Diamond in his book Collapse points out that our present world civilization is in a situation similar to the people of Easter Island before their civilization collapsed. They used up all of the trees on the island, their agricultural production fell, and they could not make canoes to fish or to escape. Likewise, we are in an environment that is fragile relative to the demands we place upon it and we have nowhere to go if we or causes beyond our control make it uninhabitable. Just as the ancient ones who tried to reach heaven with the tower of Babel failed to even come close, we have no real means to send people to permanently live somewhere beyond the earth. The harsh realities that limit possible new extraterrestrial homes for humans and our means of going there are usually brushed aside in popular science fiction books and movies. These facts may lack entertainment value, but they can help us as individuals and as nations understand our dependence on God and the futility of plans for mankind to escape Earth.
Our closest chance for a new home within our solar system is the Moon. It can be reached in a few days trip in a space vehicle built with well-understood technology. A recent unmanned mission showed that there is a significant amount of ice there in the bottom of one of the craters at the moon’s south pole. That water could greatly reduce the cost of sustaining a moon colony where people could live and work for long periods of time.
Finding water is just one bit of good news against a lot of other reasons the Moon will forever remain a hostile environment to humans. It has no air and huge temperature extremes between light and shadow areas and day and night. Work on the surface requires thermal protection and air supply from a clumsy space suit. And you should not work more than a few days a year on the surface because the absence of an atmosphere means the surface of the moon is continually bombarded by cosmic rays that cause unacceptable radiation damage to humans over time. Lunar colonists would have to spend almost all of their time indoors in heavily shielded living quarters or in caves or tunnels below the lunar surface. They would be under continual threat of extinction from equipment failure or delay of vital supplies from Earth.
Science fiction writers once told stories of trips to the planet Venus and even encounters with non-human natives there. All thought of humans going to Venus or life existing there ended after space probes showed its true conditions. It has a crushingly thick atmosphere that is about fifty times as heavy as Earth’s. Chemically the atmosphere is mostly carbon-dioxide with a little sulfuric acid for seasoning. It is not remotely like the nitrogen-oxygen mixture we need to breathe. With this atmosphere, Venus has a massive greenhouse effect that traps solar heat, and the surface temperatures are hotter than a pizza oven.
Only one other planet in our solar system could possibly serve as a long-term refuge from Earth. Mars is far more hospitable than Venus or the moon. It has a little water, but because of its low surface gravity it has lost most of its atmosphere. It still retains enough atmosphere to slow incoming space vehicles and supply some shielding from solar radiation and cosmic rays. A Mars colony could manufacture breathable air from the water and the gases present there. In contrast to Venus, the surface temperatures on Mars are too low for human comfort or even survival. Also on the negative side for exploration or colonization by humans, Mars is so far away that it takes about a year to get there with today’s space vehicles. During that long trip the space travelers are exposed to continual radiation from cosmic rays and the danger of sporadic fatal levels of radiation from solar flares. These scientific and technological challenges of going to Mars have been studied in detail and appear to be surmountable, but very costly. This leads to the difficult question of how to pay for the trip.
In 2004 President Bush proposed missions to the Moon and then to Mars costing a total of $120 billion dollars. (USA today article from 2004) Earlier cost estimates had been much higher. This cost spread over say ten years is an affordably small portion of the national budget. The proposed space mission would send a small team of astronauts to explore Mars for around a year and then return to Earth. Given success of the first mission, follow-on flights would cost less. But, the monetary cost of dozens of flights and the equipment for establishing a semi-permanent human colony on Mars would be staggering. It would undoubtedly also cost many human lives because the risks from equipment malfunction and human error are so high. I say semi-permanent colony because after paying the staggering cost to start a colony it would depend on resupply from earth for almost all manufactured products and for additional colonists. Life on Mars would be dangerous, uncomfortable, and require expenditure of billions of dollars per individual colonist to take them there and keep them alive.
The Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11: 4-9) says that the confusion of languages stopped it. Such confusion would cause the loss of the political organization and cooperation needed for their project. Likewise today, the inability to get widespread political acceptance of an astonishingly expensive, decades-long, space project with no immediate tangible return value dooms a Mars colony. Political and economic constraints added to great technical difficulty make such a colony a practical impossibility.
Science fiction writers seldom bother with a simple Mars colony any more. There are stars out there that are likely to have better planets than Mars. One of them could be a new home for mankind. Recent advances in astronomy have revealed the existence of hundreds of extra-solar planets circling stars in the neighborhood of ours. When a writer’s imagination is the only constraint, the trip to one of them is easily accomplished. But, physical and economic reality dictate otherwise. Distances to stars are measured in light-years (about 6 trillions miles) not the millions of miles to the planet Mars. There is not a hint of anything in present-day science that could result in a starship fast enough to reach even the nearest stars in a human lifetime. Research on fusion reactors leaves open the possibility of a fusion powered rocket that might reach a velocity of around one million miles per hour. If astronomers identified a promising planet just twenty light years away a fusion powered rocket traveling at one million miles per hour would take 670 years to go there.
Some writers accept this speed constraint on star travel and send their colonists on a huge space ark that carries thousands of people and travels to another star in a more realistic millennium or so. Obviously the only ones to see the new star and its planets are the distant descendents of those who started the voyage. To launch such an expedition would cost more than the annual gross domestic product of all nations on earth together. Economics and political reality rules against us ever starting such a quest, and all of human history tells us that the inhabitants of a space ark could not stay socially stable and focused on their mission over a thousand year voyage.
This is a brief review of the evidence that the Lord has set up our environment in a way that ensures humanity will remain tied to this Earth until He returns. There is a small chance of a few transitory individual excursions within our solar system, but science and technology cannot even take a sizable number of us to live permanently on Mars let alone take anyone to the stars. It follows that it is very unlikely that our world civilization can escape the damage we are presently causing to Earth or survive a global disaster such as a new ice-age or a large asteroid colliding with Earth by sending a small sample of humanity off Earth to rebuild civilization elsewhere. Science and technology cannot save us. Only God can.