Interstellar travel: Raising children in space

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?

via BBC – Future – Interstellar travel: Raising children in space.

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.

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14 Responses to Interstellar travel: Raising children in space

  1. john zande says:

    I like Robert Reeds take in the Marrow series, where humans and aliens alike hollow out asteroids (packed with mineral resources, including water) and slap dirty great engines on them for getting around.

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  2. Steve Morris says:

    My thoughts – much of what you describe is true, and yet ultimately if we stay on Earth we will cease to exist. That’s a long way in the future for sure, but the longer we stay here the greater the existential risk from asteroid strikes, killer pandemics, nuclear war, etc. Some brave souls may feel that a journey to another star system is worth a chance.

    But before that happens we will surely begin to explore space using robots.

    And on a timescale of centuries, who knows? Post-humans might find it rather easy to undertake long distance travel. If ships can reach speeds close to relativistic, then the time taken to reach the stars becomes relatively short and may not require generational ships.

    So there are many reasons why generational ships will never be made, but lots of reasons to find humans, post-humans or human-made machines colonizing the galaxy in the next 1,000 years.

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    • If we cease to exist as substructures within the structure of our biosphere, but modified versions (posthuman, uploaded minds, etc) continue beyond that biosphere, have we really ceased to exist?

      Of course, who knows what a future society, much richer than we are, may choose to do with its resources. Maybe they’ll send out natural humans simply as an expensive act of symbolism, although I agree with you that it would almost certainly happen in the wake of machine exploration.

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  3. I personally think it would be more feasible to send out relatively small drones which would land, start building more of themselves and other equipment from the raw materials and then either assembling or growing humans and crops etc from data they’ve taken with them. The drones could even be conscious, perhaps with uploaded human personalities so that they could properly care for and nurture babies.

    Yes, fanciful. Perhaps less fanciful than generation ships, though. I don’t think technology is ever going to overcome the sheer energy and material requirements of a generation ship, but advancements in AI, nanotech and biology might make this kind of scenario more possible.

    It’s still likely to never happen for economic reasons. Sending out the resources to start a new colony on a one way ship is a massive investment with no hope of ever seeing a return for those left behind. It might save the human race from extinction, but it won’t save the people who paid for the colony so there is limited incentive to do it.

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    • Steve Morris says:

      DM, I agree with everything except your last statement. History shows that humans are very capable of investing for a future we will never see. That’s why we plant trees that take hundreds of years to mature and have built cathedrals that require centuries to construct.

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      • Steve, I’m not sure those examples make the case. You get intermediate benefits from a tree as it grows, even if you don’t live to see it in its full glory. In any case, planting trees is a fairly inexpensive activity. And I’m not aware of anyone building cathedrals that weren’t useful until they were completed generations later. (Although I’d be interested in learning of any.) Usually, from what I’ve read, the pattern is someone builds a cathedral, someone in the next generation adds to it, etc, until you have a gigantic structure that no one probably would have built in one project.

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        • Steve Morris says:

          Well what about benefactors who create endowments for schools or universities?

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          • Possibly, although the ones I have knowledge of often have requirements attached, like naming a building after someone. (Doesn’t your school have one where someone is supposed to pray regularly for the original benefactor?) Still, whatever the original motivation, I’d agree that it is a case of short term incentives being orchestrated for long term benefits. The question is whether it you could get enough benefactors for an interstellar ark.

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          • Good point, Steve. Sure, there are altruists or egoists who would love the idea of founding a whole planetary community, but the fact that they will never get to know if their efforts succeed may weight against it.

            I’m not making any strong point here. It may happen. I just think it’s not a no-brainer, even if we have the technology.

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    • DM, I’d add to your first paragraph that we might eventually have the ability to simply construct a human body (properly modified for the local biosphere) and implant a transmitted mind into it.

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  4. Sable Aradia says:

    Reblogged this on Confessions of a Geek Queen and commented:
    Considering the difficulties of interstellar travel.

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