– By Paulie Spiceflow –
The movie Interstellar has many people talking about space travel. Some believe that for human civilization to survive long term, we must colonize other planets to ensure a single catastrophic event on Earth won’t wipe out the species. We could move somewhere nearby like Mars but some think we should find an ideal habitable world. To do that, we must travel to other stars.
Sarah Scoles, a blogger at Discover Magazine, took on the question of what was needed for interstellar travel and colonization. She examines the technological hurdles of interstellar travel such as propulsion, stable habitat, medical treatment during transit, and maintenance of the ship. These challenges are certainly important but there are other big problems we need to resolve. Specifically, what do we do once we get to this new world?
Suppose we do manage to get a ship to another world and colonize it, it will be dozens of light years away and we’d have no way of knowing they reached their destination until they sent something back decades later. Communications would be pointless because several generations would’ve passed. Would we be an interstellar civilization or just two separate and independent civilizations that happen to be the same species.
For some that might be enough but not for me. There must be something that connects us to one another.
Let’s start at the beginning. How are we going to pay for it? Nations don’t just spend billions without some perceived benefit. There needs to be a reason, or specific rational purpose to a new interstellar space race. In the movie Interstellar, the Earth is dying. Humanity needs a new home world. I couldn’t help but notice it is strikingly similar to the premise of Jacob Foxx’s masterpiece The Fifth World (buy it and read it!).
Necessity is the mother of invention.
Why did we travel to space in the first place? The answer is simple: The Cold War. The Soviets launched Sputnik into space in 1957. Less than a year later President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating NASA. Without Sputnik, there may not have been a NASA. Without the intense strategic competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, we would never have landed on the moon.
Sputnik was built is part of the Soviet rocket program, specifically to expand their capability. You can guess what was going to be on those rockets.
There is no major international conflict taking place today or a strategic advantage that warrants research into interstellar travel. Their needs to be something of value out there. There are a few potential resources available out there: rare metals from asteroids, land on new planets, and exotic elements not present on Earth in significant amounts, such as helium-3. At this time, the costs of recovering these resources dramatically outweigh the benefits.
The second challenge is the obvious one: propulsion. No one is going to invest billions in such an enterprise unless they will see benefits within their own lifetime. It is not really a technological challenge but more of a theoretical one. According to our knowledge of physics, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. With that limitation, any interstellar voyage to another star would take decades, possibly longer. Such long time periods and distances make interstellar travel and colonization impractical.
There is also the challenge of communication. Without some new form of communication we will only be able to send messages as fast as our ships can travel, just like the old days before the telegraph. To maintain some sort of unified civilization, Earth needs to be able to communicate with her colonies at a reasonable speed.
Planet habitability will be another challenge. On Earth we take habitability for granted. Earth was habitable before humans existed. If we couldn’t survive in Earth’s atmosphere, we wouldn’t be here to discuss it now. Alien worlds won’t be so hospitable. Most will require some amount of terraforming. Even then, we will need to gain an extensive knowledge of planetary mechanics in order to maintain its habitability. As we’ve recently learned about our own planet, environments can change.
Finally, we come to the first contact question. Captain Picard and the United Federation of Planets had the Prime Directive. What do we have? What will we do if we encounter intelligent life? No such laws or protocols exist. If we are going to travel to alien worlds, we need to be prepared in case there are current residents.
Traveling beyond the Solar System is an incredible challenge but colonizing a new world is even harder. We need to figure out what we do once we get there, how we will ensure the environment is tolerable, how to govern it, and what to do if we encounter intelligent alien life. All of this before we figure out how we are going to pay for such an endeavor. Even if we find a new world, the world powers aren’t known for their ability to share. The European empires fought over two large continents during the colonial era. Can humanity unite behind a single objective and achieve it without strife?
I doubt it. Maybe we should just colonize the moon and Mars.