Boldly going where no one has gone before will be no stroll in the park
The idea of boldly going where no one has gone before may be plausible one day, but for now getting as far as Mars is proving to be a stretch for us fragile, earth-bound humans. More than unbridled enthusiasm and technological audacity will be needed to physically propel the species much deeper into space than that.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced ambitious plans to send humans to the Red Planet in the 2030s. Renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking isn’t the only scientist encouraging the space agency to get a move on.
Hawking’s sense of urgency is based on his growing concern that planet Earth has only about 600 human years left, or roughly about the amount of time that has elapsed between the Renaissance period and the Modern Era. By 2617, the world’s mounting population will consume enough energy to render the world a “ball of fire,” according to a quote attributed to Hawking by the British newspaper Metro.
Only scare talk?
The world and the technology that pushes it have come a long way since Leonardo da Vinci, a leading figure of the Italian Renaissance, added the finishing brushstrokes to his widely celebrated portrait of the mystery woman the world knows as Mona Lisa. What we’re experiencing today is progress at a pace that is exhilarating and inspiring but a bit over-the-top at times. Clearly the stakes are high.
While it’s never a good idea to short-sell human ingenuity, there are a number of daunting challenges to sort and overcome before anyone on the planet will be ready to shop for real estate elsewhere in the galaxy. In addition to technology challenges, long distance travel in space brings with it a unique set of physical and mental health issues, says Marc Jurblum, a training psychiatrist at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Jurblum is a member of the Space Life Sciences Committee of the Australasian Society of Aerospace Medicine and provides this sobering observation:
“On earth, tiny gyroscopes in your brain give you spatial awareness. They tell you when you tilt your head, accelerate or change position. But it’s different in space. In Zero G, those don’t work as well and, as a result, astronauts suffer a lot of nausea. Most spend days feeling incredibly unwell. It’s like being seasick.
“Just like people going to sea eventually get their sea legs, astronauts develop space legs within about two weeks. But once they return to earth many have to work hard to get their Earth legs back,” he said.
There are worse things, like the mental stress that comes with living in cramped quarters while floating through space in an airless vacuum. Astronauts are well aware of the dangers posed by radiation, and by streaking micro-meteorites that could abruptly end their mission at any time.
Research groups are looking at how space travelers can maintain mental health in dangerous, extreme environments. They’re looking into interventions, such as meditation, and at the positive impact pictures of nature can have on space travelers. Jurblum suggests Virtual Reality might help by giving the astronauts a rest from monotony. But we’re a very long way from losing our cares in the holodeck of the Starship Enterprise. Or from feeling the familiar tug of gravity at our feet as we stroll familiar corridors of the starship in the desired upright position.
On earth, if people get upset with their boss or workmate they might take out their frustrations at home or in the gym. In space, astronauts can’t afford to get angry with each other. They must be able to react really quickly, communicate and work as a team, Jurblum says.
The lack of gravity in space plays havoc with the human body. Our muscles are so used to fighting gravity on Earth that its absence means they weaken and waste. On the International Space Station (ISS) astronauts must do two to three hours of exercise daily just to maintain muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness in this Zero G environment. It would be extremely dangerous if the heart muscle was not maintained through exercise, Jurblum said.
A common hazard on the ISS is the fine specks that float around the cabin, often lodging in the eyes of astronauts and causing abrasions. Most end up wearing glasses in space, and when they return some have permanent changes to their vision.
But it’s the lack of gravity and the movement of fluids that cause the most serious issues for astronauts In weightless space. Body fluids shift to the head, build up in the skull, and bulge into the back of the eyeball, changing the shape of the lens. “The bulging seems to cause the irreversible vision problems we’re trying to understand,” Jurblum said.
“It’s not clear why but bacteria are more dangerous in space. And the human immune system doesn’t seem to work as well either in this environment. If you sneeze in space all of the droplets come straight out and keep going. If someone has the flu everyone is going to get it, and there are limited medical facilities and a very long way to the nearest hospital,” he said, adding:
“Dealing with major medical emergencies in space is problematic. While a rescue from the ISS can be performed within a day, the people who go to Mars will be on an eight-month journey and need to be prepared to manage on their own.”
A Long Shot?
Given how far we’ve already come, many believe that over the next 400 years the citizens of planet Earth should find a way to build spaceships with enough juice to reach other star systems. However, despite the enthusiasm generated for this idea by Hawking and others, intergalactic space travel remains a long shot. Blame time, mass and distance.
The nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, is about 25 trillion miles from earth, or about 300,000 times the distance from Earth to the Sun. With current rocket propulsion technology, it would take tens or hundreds of millennia to reach our nearest stellar neighbors.
The current thinking in high-tech circles is we can improve on that timeline. Hawking and others are pulling for the Breakthrough Starshot Project, which involves ultra-light miniature space probes that are attached to lightsails and blown through space at speeds up to 100 million miles per hour. The fully functional, miniaturized probes are built on a single circuit board and weigh just four grams. But they contain miniaturized solar panels, computers, sensors, and radios – everything they’ll need for an exploratory journey to the nearest star.
Last July, the Breakthrough Starshot Project successfully launched a number of prototype “Sprites” into Low Earth Orbit as the first step in a program with far reaching plans. Pete Worden, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, now oversees the Breakthrough Starshot project. If all goes well, sometime after the middle of the century we’ll have our first pictures of another planet, possibly life-bearing, orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor, he says.
The tiny probe will zip past Mars in less than an hour and reach the Alpha Centauri system in just over 20 years. Upon arrival, the probe will start beaming home images of possible habitable planets orbiting Alpha Centauri. Assuming that a larger spacecraft based on the Breakthrough Starshot concept could eventually mass-deliver humanity to the new location, we’d still be staring down a logistical nightmare. How many will be hardy enough to make such a trip in what size ships? And what would future human travelers be able to bring along with them to their new digs? Are we talking Adam and Eve or hoards of anxious folks and a few of their animal friends? How many passages might it take to transport a representative sample of humanity to the new New World?
An issue that scientists tend to ignore goes to the fundamental nature of human existence. Are we simply the end product of a mysterious evolutionary process that has blessed us with the intellectual wherewithal to manipulate the environment and assuage our survival needs? Or is something else going on?
Does everything we know – or think we know – originate within our hard-wired, insular brain? Or are we part of a larger, interconnected reality that draws upon the cadence, location and disposition of other planetary bodies in our solar system? Are we, as astrologers claim, effectively tethered to a reality that, among other things, relies upon Mars to initiate action, Mercury to help rationalize our existence, and Venus to attract the help we’ll need to sustain momentum on whatever course we set? Can we even exist without celestial prompting?
Astrologers do relocation charts for those who move from their place of birth to somewhere else on planet Earth. But what happens to our relocated birth charts when we move to Mars? Or colonize our own Moon or one of the many moons orbiting other major planets in the solar system?
From an astrological perspective, most practitioners place Earth at the center of the universe. But a birth chart with all the usual suspects (planets) can be drawn up placing Mars or any other habitable location we find elsewhere in the solar system at the symbolic center of things. But what happens if/when we untie our moorings and shoot for Alpha Centauri? Can we even exist without the familiar celestial promptings of the planetary bodies that orbit our Sun in predictable orbital patterns?
The Overview Effect
Jurblum describes a positive psychological phenomenon of space travel known as the “overview effect.” Most astronauts who have gone into space come back with a change of perspective. They become environmentalists or more spiritual or religious. NASA astronaut Ron Garon described it as “…the realization that we are all traveling together on the planet and that if we all looked at the world from that perspective we would see that nothing is impossible.”
Perhaps, as Hawking suggests, our world has only six centuries left before it implodes due to a plethora of problems related to being excessively human. Or perhaps we’ll find some other way?
Why aren’t more people thinking about such things?