“The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program.” Redundancy is an important risk management strategy

28 August 2015

reading time:  minutes

Over the past week I’ve been absorbed by a looooooooong article by Tim Urban titled “How (and why) SpaceX will colonise Mars“. I recommend it highly. It’s a head trip.

Like many people from my generation, I haven’t given a lot of thought to space exploration. By the time I was born, it had been a long time since a person had been on the moon. It hasn’t happened since.

Like many people, I think I’ve internalised a general sense that there are more important things to focus on here on Earth than to get carried away with space travel.

At the risk of sounding out of touch with reality, however, the article has made me optimistic. And excited. About the possibility of humans colonising Mars in this century.

And I think there’s an important case for pushing to do this, from a risk management perspective.

The quote in the heading of this article – that “The Dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program” – is attributed to science fiction author Larry Niven. It continues: “And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!”.

If we care about the survival of the human race, it makes sense for us as a species to get some of us off planet Earth as soon as possible. This means that if something terrible happens here on Earth, the human race will survive.

(Especially if we are at what the article refers to as “the God Point”. That is, we’ve progressed to a point where we “simultaneously gain the power to forever end species vulnerability or drive [ourselves] accidentally extinct”.)

Colonising Mars illustrates the beauty of redundancy as a strategy for managing risks. If you only have one of something, you can be lost if you don’t have it. If you have more than one, you’re in a much better position.

(Depending on the context, the more you have of something the better. There is a military saying that “two is one and one is none”, meaning that if you ever come to rely on a back up, that back up often doesn’t work as well as you might hope. There can be situations where having a back up of a back up is useful, if not essential.) 

Redundancy is an important, and often overlooked, risk management strategy. 

  • Would you feel comfortable buying a car with only one key? Me either.
  • There is the “heir and a spare” joke about royal babies that’s not really a joke. 
  • If we have important computer files, we back them up. (And in fact, in the “How (and why) SpaceX will colonise Mars” article, Urban refers to “making human life multi-planetary in a self-sustaining way” as “backing up the hard drive”.) (And if the files are really important, we might want to back them up more than once. For example, once on the cloud, and also on a physical hard drive.)

In a world where minimalism is often celebrated, and efficiency is lauded, the argument for redundancy can often be overlooked. Sometimes, it can be good to have two of something. (Or, to be more precise, two things that have similar capabilities.) It can be good to have three or more of something similar. Most of the time it might seem like it’s more hassle than it’s worth, or more costly than can be justified. 

But sometimes, when the stakes are really high, redundancy can be the best form of insurance of all.



redundancy, risk management

About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or a popular author of erotic, supernatural, mystery novellas. Sometimes he says he was in a band that opened for Robbie Williams. None of these are true.

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