Page last updated at 16:54 GMT, Tuesday, 22 April 2008 17:54 UK

Nasa 'should follow Columbus'

Stephen Hawking (AP)
Hawking says it is time "to boldly go where no man has gone before"

Professor Stephen Hawking has called for a new era of space conquest akin to Christopher Columbus' discovery of the new world.

In a speech honouring Nasa's 50th anniversary, the 66-year-old astrophysicist said the situation we face "is like Europe before 1492".

"People might well have argued it was a waste of money to send Columbus on a wild goose chase," he mused.

"Yet the discovery of the new world made profound difference to the old."

And then he quipped: "Just think, we would not have a Big Mac or KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken).

"Spreading out into space will have an even greater effect," he told an audience assembled at George Washington University, Washington DC.

"It will completely change the future of the human race and maybe determine whether we have any future at all."

Earth focus

Professor Hawking envisions a long-term space exploration project that would include building an experimental base on the Moon within 30 years.

He said scientists must devise a new propulsion system to take us on a planetary hunt outside our Solar System in 200-500 years.

Stephen Hawking floating in zero gravity (Zero Gravity Corporation)
If intelligent life is out there, "where are the alien quiz shows"
"If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before," argued the theoretician, who is known for his works in cosmology and quantum gravity.

"It will not solve any of our immediate problems on planet Earth, but it will give us a new perspective on them and... Hopefully, it will unite us to face a common challenge."

The Oxford-born scientist suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative motor neurone disorder, which has left him almost completely paralysed.

However, a year ago, he was able to get out of his wheelchair and float about in a special plane that simulates the weightless conditions of space.

Rocket ride

He hopes to repeat the experience in space, above the atmosphere, aboard the maiden, suborbital flight of British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic rocket plane. The vehicle is expected to start commercial flights before the decade's end.

During his speech in Washington, the Cambridge University professor told his audience that he had been thinking a lot about the cosmic question, "Are we alone?"

The answer, he concludes, is probably not. But if there is life elsewhere in the Universe, he asked, why has humanity not stumbled onto some alien broadcasts in space, maybe something like "alien quiz shows?"

One possible reason is that there is no life elsewhere. Or maybe there is intelligent life, but when it gets smart enough to send signals into space, it also is smart enough to make destructive nuclear weapons, he said.

But Professor Hawking prefers a third option: "Primitive life is very common and intelligent life is fairly rare," he said, before quickly adding: "Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth."

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