Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking spoke in celebration of NASA’s 50th anniversary Monday, asking “Why should we go into space?”.

“In a way, the situation is like Europe before 1492. People might well have argued that it was a waste of money to send Columbus on a wild goose chase,” Hawking told the audience at Georgetown Washington University in Washington, D.C. “Yet the discovery of the new world made a profound difference to the old. Just think, we would not have a Big Mac or KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken),” he added.”Spreading out into space will have an even greater effect. It will completely change the future of the human race and maybe determine whether we have any future at all.”

The vision Hawking described involved a long-term exploration project in space including a moon base within the next 30 years. Technology will need to be developed to speed spacecraft greatly so that we will be able to exit our solar system and explore others in a reasonable time frame so that the information gathered will be meaningful.

“It will not solve any of our immediate problems on planet earth,” he said, “but it will give us a new perspective on them and … Hopefully, it will unite us to face a common challenge.Going into space will not be cheap, but it will take only a small portion of world resources,” he said.

In his talk, Hawking focused on near-term possibilities, supporting NASA’s goals of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and sending humans to Mars soon after that. “The Moon is a good place to start because it is close by and relatively easy to reach,” said Hawking. “The Moon could be a base for travel to the rest of the solar system,” he added. “Mars would be the obvious next target, with its abundant supplies of frozen water, and the possibility that life may have been present there at some point in the past”, according to Hawking.

“A goal of a base on the Moon by 2020 and of a manned landing on Mars by 2025 would restart the space program and give it a sense of purpose in the same way that President Kennedy’s Moon target did in the 1960s,” he said. Eventually, according to Hawking, humanity should try to expand to Earth-like planets around other stars. “No such planets are known so far. But even if only 1% of the 1,000 or so stars within 30 light years of Earth has an Earth-size planet at the right distance from its star for liquid water to exist, that would make for 10 such planets in our solar system’s neighborhood,” he said.

“We cannot envision visiting them with current technology, but we should make interstellar travel a long-term aim. By long term, I mean over the next 200 to 500 years,” he said.

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