BBC Future has an article looking at how living in space might effect humans and society, and asking, among other things, should we have babies in space?
“Mars,” sang Sir Elton John in Rocket Man, “ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids.”
Sir Elton might be lacking in Nasa-related experience, but he had a point. Not only is the planet “cold as hell”, it is also isolated, airless and barren. Even the desolate view of rusty soil, lifeless valleys and bare mountains is shrouded in a permanent orange haze.
Nevertheless, it appears to be humanity’s goal to end up there. If all goes to plan, eventually – quite possibly within the next 50 years – colonists will be living on Mars. In the coming centuries, humans might also be packed onto nuclear-powered starships heading, over generations, for the nearest habitable planet. These pioneers – pilgrims if you like – will be starting new lives beyond Earth.
For these human civilisations to succeed, the space farers will need to start families. “If we’re going to have a long-term future in space, it won’t be done by a handful of astronauts, it’ll be whole communities,” says Cameron Smith, an anthropologist at Portland State University in Oregon.“It’ll have to be.” But can this work in reality?
The more I think about this, the less I feel that humans, in our natural form, will ever colonize other solar systems. It’s all very well to talk about building generation ships, but if you think about what it would actually involve, it becomes pretty problematic.
First, there’s the issue of maintaining a self sustaining mini-biosphere for decades or centuries. It’s easy to write about doing that, and many science fiction stories do, but we really have no clue yet how to make that work. And if any aspect of the ecology of such a habitat goes wrong, there would be no recourse, no resupply shipments from Earth. A generation ship would be completely on its own. Of course we could imagine a fleet of ships, but such a fleet would still need to be a self sustaining ecosystem.
Power for the habitat would also be an issue. Most of the energy in our solar system comes from the sun. But there’s no solar power light years away from any sun, no fossil fuels, no renewable energy. The ship would either need to bring all the power resources it would need for the entire trip (probably nuclear or fusion fuel), or maybe have it beamed in from an huge laser back home, which would provide decreasing power as the distances pile up.
The population of the ship (it’s not really accurate to call them a crew) would be constantly exposed to radiation. We can talk about shielding, and that might be possible, but it will add more mass to the ship, which will increase the propulsion energy requirements, which for any conceivable interstellar trip are already appalling.
Speaking of mass, the minimum population for such a trip would need to be in the tens of thousands in order to insure a healthy genetic diversity both during the trip and at the destination, adding even more to the mass, habitat, and other requirements.
Now, I don’t doubt that human ingenuity might eventually find a way through all these issues. But would our civilization consider it worth the cost? Particularly with how much cheaper it is to send robotic probes?
As machine intelligence continues to increase, it’s easy to see how AIs would eventually be able to manage all the details of the trip, without mini-biospheres, radiation shielding, or minimum population. It seems to me that, if we’re lucky, we might eventually be able to upload our minds into robotic probes, or transmit ourselves to colonies established by robots. If we’re not lucky, the stars may belong to our machine progeny.
Of course, if someone manages to invent a warp drive, then all of this becomes moot.