If you haven’t read this blog post by Charles Stross yet, and you’re a science and/or science fiction nutter (or just interested), then you should probably do so.
I’m going to take it as read that the idea of space colonization isn’t unfamiliar; domed cities on Mars, orbiting cylindrical space habitats a la J. D. Bernal or Gerard K. O’Neill, that sort of thing. Generation ships that take hundreds of years to ferry colonists out to other star systems where — as we are now discovering — there are profusions of planets to explore.
And I don’t want to spend much time talking about the unspoken ideological underpinnings of the urge to space colonization, other than to point out that they’re there, that the case for space colonization isn’t usually presented as an economic enterprise so much as a quasi-religious one. “We can’t afford to keep all our eggs in one basket” isn’t so much a justification as an appeal to sentimentality, for in the hypothetical case of a planet-trashing catastrophe, we (who currently inhabit the surface of the Earth) are dead anyway. The future extinction of the human species cannot affect you if you are already dead: strictly speaking, it should be of no personal concern.
Stross then looks at the energy requirements required and the reasons for exploring, but throughly trashes the idea of interstellar travel without “...technology indistinguishable from magic — magic tech that, furthermore, does things that from today’s perspective appear to play fast and loose with the laws of physics…“. He then runs through the same types of issues for colonizing the planets.
We’re human beings. We evolved to flourish in a very specific environment that covers perhaps 10% of our home planet’s surface area. (Earth is 70% ocean, and while we can survive, with assistance, in extremely inhospitable terrain, be it arctic or desert or mountain, we aren’t well-adapted to thriving there.) Space itself is a very poor environment for humans to live in. A simple pressure failure can kill a spaceship crew in minutes. And that’s not the only threat. Cosmic radiation poses a serious risk to long duration interplanetary missions, and unlike solar radiation and radiation from coronal mass ejections the energies of the particles responsible make shielding astronauts extremely difficult. And finally, there’s the travel time. Two and a half years to Jupiter system; six months to Mars.
Now, these problems are subject to a variety of approaches — including medical ones: does it matter if cosmic radiation causes long-term cumulative radiation exposure leading to cancers if we have advanced side-effect-free cancer treatments? Better still, if hydrogen sulphide-induced hibernation turns out to be a practical technique in human beings, we may be able to sleep through the trip. But even so, when you get down to it, there’s not really any economically viable activity on the horizon for people to engage in that would require them to settle on a planet or asteroid and live there for the rest of their lives. In general, when we need to extract resources from a hostile environment we tend to build infrastructure to exploit them (such as oil platforms) but we don’t exactly scurry to move our families there. Rather, crews go out to work a long shift, then return home to take their leave. After all, there’s no there there — just a howling wilderness of north Atlantic gales and frigid water that will kill you within five minutes of exposure. And that, I submit, is the closest metaphor we’ll find for interplanetary colonization. Most of the heavy lifting more than a million kilometres from Earth will be done by robots, overseen by human supervisors who will be itching to get home and spend their hardship pay. And closer to home, the commercialization of space will be incremental and slow, driven by our increasing dependence on near-earth space for communications, positioning, weather forecasting, and (still in its embryonic stages) tourism. But the domed city on Mars is going to have to wait for a magic wand or two to do something about the climate, or reinvent a kind of human being who can thrive in an airless, inhospitable environment.
Colonize the Gobi desert, colonise the North Atlantic in winter — then get back to me about the rest of the solar system!
I’ve been reading science fiction for a long time because it stretches my mind more than any other type of fiction does. Normal fiction I can usually deduce the plot early from the very limited numbers of plot lines that humans have so far invented. I drive people nuts watching films and doing the same thing. Non-fiction is ok, but being fed on a diet of facts is as boring as eating one of those diets designed to prolong life by slowing down the metabolism – dead boring. Science fiction is fun to read and even more so now I’m using Stanza and Project Gutenberg to read my way through classic SF written before I was born.
But science is science and of course Stross is correct. His dismal analysis isn’t good for the romantics. But without a mythical magic kit there is no escape route.The implication is that there isn’t any way that we want to risk screwing up our only viable living space. So why are we stupidly attempting to change the climate that we depend on with our greenhouse emissions?