3.6 billion years BTE (Before the Event)
The surface of the primordial sea tossed and churned angrily, while lightning from the heavens tickled its cross swells. Despite the tumultuous waters, there were no shores for the waves to crash against. No mountains, no plains, no rivers, no forests, nor land of any kind, only the rolling seas and the endless sky. Even with the indignant sea and sky, there was a calmness to this sterile world, for there was no life to give it purpose. The stark beauty of this lonely planet might have endured, if not for a peculiar event that occurred that day. Deep beneath the stormy surface, where the seas were warm and still, the first single-cell organism appeared. The mother of all life was primitive when compared to her descendants, with no nucleus or organelles, yet she had an attribute that no single-cell organism has had since: she was aware.
As the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA), she had no name for herself, for she had no one to distinguish herself from. LUCA’s sole existence consisted of drifting in the current, exchanging protein molecules with the surrounding sea through her semipermeable membrane. She lived in a persistent state of bliss as she drifted in the warm water spewing from the deep-sea vents.
LUCA’s state of nirvana continued for what seemed an eternity until she started having new thoughts. These thoughts were different from her normal thoughts of warmth and endless bliss; these were thoughts of memory. She remembered that she had a purpose beyond simple, blissful drifting in the warm, soothing waters. She remembered her sole reason for existence was to populate this barren world with descendants like herself, but she had no idea how to accomplish this feat. As her memory further awakened, the feeling that she must procreate became all-consuming, and it now dominated her entire existence. No longer was she calm or blissful; now she was driven with a single-minded purpose to accomplish her mission.
LUCA’s contemplations abruptly ended, and relief swept through her microscopic body as she surmised what she must do to reproduce: replicate her genetic code and divide into two equally perfect copies of herself. Her relief soon turned to horror as she realized that she would lose her consciousness, her very being, when she began to divide. As she commenced to copy her code in preparation for the division, she grew forlorn at her impending death but felt compelled to complete this mission, so she could begin another. This burst of awareness brought her comfort when the division process began, and as her consciousness began to fade, she knew that somewhere in the deep future, she would again become conscious; that’s when her real mission would begin.
3.6 billion years later
37 years BTE (Before the Event)
Ken smiled as the familiar odor of greasy hamburgers and craft beer greeted him while he walked into Monahan’s Irish Pub and Grill. Three years in Japan had dulled his memories of this place somewhat, but his fondness for it returned as his olfactory sense summoned images of happier times. He glanced in several booths, looking for his old friend, but he was not to be found in any of his regular spots. Perhaps he’s running late, Ken mused to himself.
“That’s right, Your Honor, a good goat will do that.” He heard his friend’s voice ring out, followed by a cacophony of laughter from the people around him.
Ken walked up to the bar where the commotion originated and said, “Hello, Nathan, it looks like you started without me.”
Nathan’s eyes lit up as he turned away from his friends and saw Ken. “Ken! There you are. Man, it’s been a long time!” He embraced Ken, and after they clapped each other’s back a few times, he stepped back and pointed to his friends. “Oh yeah, this is Karen, Chad, Tiffany, Bobby, Alice, and … Toby. Did I get that right?”
“Yeah, you got all of us,” Toby replied.
“And this is my old friend Ken Takahashi. We went to college together right in here in Palo Alto,” Nathan said.
“Nice to meet you guys,” Ken replied.
Nathan pointed to the bar and said, “Come on, Ken, let’s get a pitcher and grab a booth. We’ve got lots of catching up to do.” He turned toward his six other friends and said, “It was nice meeting you guys. I’m sure we’ll talk later.”
After they were seated in a booth Ken nodded toward the bar and said, “You just met those guys?”
“Yeah, it’s kinda funny, actually. I was trying to pick up Karen, the cute blonde, and then all the others walked in, including her boyfriend, Chad. So, I had to change tactics.”
Ken laughed. “I see you haven’t lost your touch. You had the whole group hanging on your every word when I walked up.”
“Well, that’s a pretty funny story.”
“No, I’m serious, man. You should be a politician.”
“Who, me? Nah, I’m just a simple economist. Or at least I will be,” Nathan said as he refilled both of their glasses.
“Oh yeah, how’s grad school going?” Ken asked.
“It’s going really well. I’m close to finishing my dissertation.”
“Oh wow, I didn’t know you were working on a PhD.”
Nathan nodded as he said, “Yeah, I want to teach when I’m done, so kinda need the PhD. Hey, how is it going working for your dad?”
“Frustrating at times, but I feel like I’m making progress. Dad just promoted me to VP of research and development.” Ken stared into his beer as he remembered that the promotion was more to placate him than anything else. If his father really believed in him, he would have promoted him to VP of operations. Now, Ken felt like he was pigeonholed in a dead-end position.
“That’s fantastic, congratulations. How in the hell can that be frustrating?” Nathan asked.
“Trust me, it’s not as good as it sounds but it’s really because Dad and I don’t share the same vision. He’s stuck in the past, hardware and robotics, but I want to steer the company more into biotech.”
“Biotech?” Nathan said as he signaled the waiter. “What kind of biotech?”
Ken looked around to ensure no one was eavesdropping before he said, “I’m working on a brain-computer interface.”
“A brain-computer interface?”
“Ssshhhh!” Ken said as he again glanced around the bar. “Yeah, and I’m not talking about plugging electrodes into mice so they can give themselves food pellets. I’m talking about having the internet in your brain. Having things in the internet overlay your vision as you walk around. I’m talking about a true virtual world but integrated into the real world and so much more.”
“But your dad’s just not into it, huh?”
That’s the understatement of the century, Ken thought to himself as he remembered the argument that had ensued when he pleaded with his father to fund the interface project.
“Yeah, he won’t give me the money I need to make the breakthroughs I know we can make,” Ken said as their burgers arrived.
“So, that’s where the frustration comes from. I get it,” Nathan said as he took a bite out of his burger.
You get nothing, Ken thought as he decided to change the subject. “Almost as frustrating as that,” he said, pointing to the TV that was mounted above their booth.
Nathan finished chewing and said, “Yeah, I saw that on the news today. All robotic probes for anything other than low Earth orbit. No more manned missions to the moon or Mars.”
Ken slammed his fork on the table and said, “Well that’s total bullshit! NASA has lost all perspective.”
“Yeah, I’m not crazy about it either, but what do you mean?”
“If we don’t start colonizing other places in the solar system, we’re doomed to extinction. We can’t keep all of our eggs in one basket right here on Earth,” Ken replied.
Nathan leaned back in his chair as he gathered his thoughts. “It’s funny that you mention colonizing, because that’s what I’ve been working on for my dissertation.”
“You’ve been working on colonizing the solar system?”
Nathan laughed and said, “No, I’ve been studying the economics behind human colonization and expansion throughout history.”
Ken cocked an eyebrow as he realized his old friend had caught him off guard. “And how does that apply to NASA’s decision to give up on manned missions beyond Earth orbit?”
“Well, for one, I think I’ve debunked the popularly held opinion that people migrate to strange lands due to some mystical wanderlust that resides deep inside everyone. On closer scrutiny, it doesn’t hold up; people don’t pick up and move great distances just to see what’s there. They do so because they think they have to.”
“Yeah, I get it. People migrate for better opportunities for them and their families. But what about the great explorers like Magellan and Columbus? You can’t tell me they didn’t have that wanderlust,” Ken replied.
Nathan nodded. “Maybe they did, but they were also seeking fame and most especially fortune. They wanted to get rich, man.”
“So, your entire dissertation is basically ‘follow the money.’ Is that right?”
Nathan chuckled. “Well, that’s kinda oversimplifying things, but that’s the overall gist of it. Every major human migration I’ve studied so far was based on some major economic reasons and had major economic consequences. Sure, people also migrate to escape persecution, be it from violence or otherwise, but even that’s usually rooted in economics when you break it down.”
“That’s interesting and all, but what does that have to do with NASA’s decision to abandon manned missions?” Ken thought he saw where this was going, but he wanted to hear Nathan spell it out.
“All I’m saying is that when you look at it from a purely logical point of view, NASA’s decision actually makes sense. There’s no reason to send people to Mars, because people will never want to live there.”
“So, you’re saying there’s no economic reason for people to migrate to Mars?”
“Exactly! There’s nothing there, and the cost of living there would be astronomical and economically prohibitive. There will never be a colony on Mars; the most we’ll ever have on Mars will be a scientific outpost like what we have in Antarctica.”
“I don’t know, man, that’s a bold statement,” Ken said as he furrowed his brow.
Nathan smiled as he handed his empty plate to the waitress, took a sip of his beer, and said, “Think about it, man. Why don’t we have people living in Antarctica? And I don’t mean the scientific outposts. I’m talking about a self-sustaining colony.”
“Well, for one reason, because there’s a treaty that forbids it.”
“No, that’s not the reason. It’s because there’s nothing there. There’re no animals, no plants, oh, and it’s also the most inhospitable place on Earth. Why do you think everyone signed that treaty anyway?”
“Because they knew no one wanted to live there anyway?”
“Exactly, and because it would be cost prohibitive to exploit any natural resources that might be there. Antarctica is way more hospitable than Mars and has more natural resources; Mars makes Antarctica look like a paradise.”
“All right, buddy, you make a strong argument,” Ken said as he decided to throw his friend a curveball. “But what happens when we overpopulate Earth?”
Nathan smiled as he clinked his mug with Ken’s. “Well, there’s still an entire continent we haven’t settled, and then there’s the oceans, but it won’t come to that anyway.”
“Because birth rates are already slowing, and eventually, they will even off. Besides, we could never send enough people off-planet to make a dent in the population here on Earth.”
“Yeah, you’re right about that,” Ken conceded.
“Oh, here’s an interesting thought experiment.” Nathan’s face lit up as he thought about it. “Do you remember the Viking probes we landed on Mars back in the ’70s?”
“Now, just for the sake of conjecture, let’s suppose the landers not only found life on Mars, but what if they discovered that Mars was teeming with life? What if they found that Mars had a nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere?”
“Well, that’s preposterous, but I’ll play along. What if?” Ken asked.
“I propose that we would have sent a manned mission within the decade and that there would be a colony on Mars right now,” Nathan asserted.
“With 1970s’ technology? I don’t think so.”
“That’s what I’m saying. We would have invented the technology if there would have been a reason to go there,” Nathan insisted.
“I see what you’re saying,” Ken agreed. “Damn, you still know how to construct an argument, and on the fly too.”
Nathan laughed. “Just because I’m good at it doesn’t mean it’s not true. NASA’s decision really does makes sense once you break it down.”
NASA is run by a bunch of American idiots, Ken thought as he replied. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it, because that means we’re doomed to extinction, since we’ll never settle the rest of the solar system.”
“There are always extra-solar planets,” Nathan said as he signaled the waitress for another pitcher. “If we discovered an Earthlike planet in a nearby star system, I bet people would want to go.”
Ken thought for a moment. “You’re right, people would want to go, but I don’t think we’d be able to do it.”
“Of course, it would be expensive.”
“Way too expensive,” Ken said as he leaned forward. “There’s no way one nation could afford to send a colony ship to another star system.”
“Are you about to school the economist?” Nathan smiled as he continued. “So, how expensive do you think it would be?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it, but this is something I’ve studied.” Ken paused as he leaned back in his seat. “The Apollo program devoured nearly 5 percent of the United States’s annual budget for ten years.”
“Yeah, it was ridiculously expensive,” Nathan agreed. “And people wonder why we stopped sending people to the moon.”
“And that was just to send a small capsule with three men to the moon. Now imagine the cost of sending a ship with thousands of people across interstellar space to a planet in another solar system.”
“Thousands of people?” Nathan asked.
“Yeah, you’d need thousands of people to have a genetically sustainable colony.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right, and the ship would need to be really big, because it would have to be a generational ship, as the voyage would take at least a hundred years,” Nathan said.
“See what I mean? No one nation could afford such a project. I mean, you’re talking about a project that might take a century to complete and the cost would be …”
“Astronomical?” Nathan said.
“Ha ha ha! Yeah, the cost would literally be astronomical. I think we’d need the economic output of the entire world for the better part of a century to sponsor such a venture.” Ken paused and took another drink of his beer. “So, I guess we’re destined for extinction after all.”
“Relax, buddy, the sun won’t go supernova for billions of years. Humanity will have a nice run when it’s all said and done.”
“I just wish it didn’t have to be that way, though. There’s got to be a way off this rock!” Ken said.
Nathan looked around the bar before he said, “Well, there might just be a way.”
“Are you serious? What do you mean?” Ken asked.
Nathan leaned in close and whispered, “We could take over the world and set it all in motion.”
Ken laughed and pounded the table with his fist. “Man, I miss these conversations!” He abruptly stopped laughing when he noticed Nathan wasn’t laughing at all. In fact, his face was deadpan serious.