What happens when we KNOW?

The odds are overwhelming. The probabilities are so great as to be near certain. There are other planets out there capable of sustaining not just life, but our life. Earth-like puddles in that vast cosmos of uninhabitable void.

We very much think this to be true. What will be different when we know it to be true? A recent paper speculates that our current rate of exo-planet discovery means we should find an Earth analog sometime in 2011 (early May, according to the paper). And then there’s a slew of observational refinements underway. A successor to Hubble, a new type of wide array land-based ‘scopes. I imagine we will one day literally see a tiny blue speck out there, a little bubble we could breathe and swim in, if only we could cross that desert of black between.

What will happen then? In the history of exploration, the mere IDEA of conquerable lands has been enough to send brave men and women over known horizons. However, when factual knowledge of those distant, untouched, and Eden-like meccas were reported back, the real flood began.

Right now, the drive to reach the moon again, or to set foot on Mars, are tempered by the barren nature of those destinations. Nobody’s in a rush to get there, except for the same bragging rights that sent us to the moon in an earlier era of exploration. There’s just not that much impetus. Imagine, though, when world leaders are looking at the same image of that first Earth analog. What will that change about our thinking?

The first thing I’ll wonder is what sort of life lives on that ball. I’ll be pretty sure it isn’t intelligent (technologically advanced) life, but crawling, swimming, flying things will HAVE to be there. And I’ll want us to go. No matter the cost, it will seem cheap compared to the rewards. The scientific discovery, the chance to move our eggs into a second basket, the potential to direct all our resources to something productive rather than destructive.

How many trillions are spent each year in the creation and upkeep of armies? In the waging of wars? I’m not so naive to think we can stop humans from hating and fighting, but could we do it cheaper? Could we direct our energies toward this new blue dot? Could we overcome the social pressure from one fringe that humans are a cancer and we shouldn’t despoil yet another habitat? Could we withstand the pressure from the other fringe that would want to war with whatever we found (and likely be suffering from pangs of anxiety that the gods made two Edens and neglected to tell us of the other?)

How long before a group of wealthy entrepreneurs set out to do what governments won’t? Could a conglomerate of billionaires, like the sort who are already pushing into space, see the chance to create a “better” world and put together a probe, a one-way message, an ark, a seed, something?

Science fiction is full of stories like these, but rarely told with realism. It’s always some pan-human affair in these arks. All the nations united and sending out their emissaries and breeders. But could it be a bunch of retired CEO’s? Could a ship be built in orbit, perhaps at the end of a space elevator, that would allow a large group of people to sail (literally, perhaps), dozens of light years and for hundreds of generations, to one day settle a second planet?

I think it’s possible. And I think, when we have a picture of those distant lands, it will no longer be the realm of speculative fiction, but front page newspaper articles, subjects of debate at political conferences and around water coolers. It will become, in short, a thing of compelling fact instead of this conjecture and hypothetical.

What will happen, then?

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