When I was young and when I was at the Lunar Lab in the sixties, I thought I’d probably go to the Moon. I think most of us, the younger students, thought we’d probably be doing planetary geology on the Moon or on Mars. It was a big disappointment when that didn’t happen. My dream all along has been that we would have people doing work and living on these other places. I think we know now it’s a lot harder than we used to think it might be. But I think we should still do it.
I used to teach, and I would tell people to have a longer perspective. The perspective I used was the orbital period of Halley’s comet. Halley’s comet was last visible in 1986. Mark Twain was born in 1835, and halfway through his life he said he came in with the comet and he’d probably go out with the comet, and he died when Halley’s comet came the next time. That’s 76 years. If you think in terms of 76 years as one cycle, if you think back to the 1500s, 1400s, and every time Halley’s comet came close to the Earth before that, the people on Earth were pretty much living in an agricultural environment. There were flare-ups of culture in Greece and China and places like that, but pretty much life was fairly agricultural.
When Halley’s comet appeared in the 1500s and 1600s, the scientific revolution had started, the Renaissance had started. The first scientific society was 1669 in England. As Halley’s comet came every 76 years, the next time it came for the last three or four hundred years, we’ve had lots of technological advances. For example, in 1835, we had the steam engine that was invented; we were doing trains. By the next time it came, 1910, airplanes had been invented. By the next time it came, in 1986, computers had been invented, spaceships had been invented. So if you look at how much change there was between one time Halley’s comet was near the Earth and the next time, it’s just phenomenal. It’s almost unbelievable, the technological changes that have occurred.
So I assume that the same sort of unbelievable changes are going to occur between 1986 when it last here and the next time, 2050 or whenever it is. I think the next time it appears that there will be people on Mars studying it as it goes past Mars, and they’ll be people on the Moon studying it as it goes past the Moon, and they’ll be other people flying in spaceships alongside of it as it comes into our solar system so we can study it better.
The time after that, that Halley’s comet comes, about 150 years from now, we’ll be living throughout the galaxy. The rate of technological expansion is just extraordinary. So if we don’t kill ourselves because of environmental degradation or nuclear war or something like that, humans will be throughout the galaxy. It doesn’t seem to me it’s so much of an extrapolation. You should be planning what your life is going to be in the solar system, not just what your life is going to be on Earth.
We’re literally in the golden age of planetary science, there’s no doubt about it. I mean, going to Mars, going to Saturn, going to Jupiter, going to the Moon—the textbooks literally have to be written constantly to keep up with the new information. Planetary science is just growing like crazy.
Solar physics is an area that is expanding, and there’s a lot of emphasis on understanding how the Sun works. It’s been recognized fairly recently that the Sun itself undergoes changes. It’s got the 11-year sunspot cycle, and it becomes active and can have these huge solar storms that can affect communications and things. This is kind of a new area of research that’s come up, that’s been given the blanket term “space weather” or “living with a star”—buzz words that have come about. That’s been the big emphasis for the last five to ten years. When I came here in ’93 I don’t think “space weather,” that term, had been invented yet.