This article was originally published by Scientific American.
The idea that humans will eventually travel to and inhabit other parts of our galaxy was well expressed by the early Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who wrote, “Earth is humanity’s cradle, but you’re not meant to stay in your cradle forever.” Since then the idea has been a staple of science fiction, and thus become part of a consensus image of humanity’s future. Going to the stars is often regarded as humanity’s destiny, even a measure of its success as a species. But in the century since this vision was proposed, things we have learned about the universe and ourselves combine to suggest that moving out into the galaxy may not be humanity’s destiny after all.
The problem that tends to underlie all the other problems with the idea is the sheer size of the universe, which was not known when people first imagined we would go to the stars. Tau Ceti, one of the closest stars to us at around 12 light-years away, is 100 billion times farther from Earth than our moon. A quantitative difference that large turns into a qualitative difference; we can’t simply send people over such immense distances in a spaceship, because a spaceship is too impoverished an environment to support humans for the time it would take, which is on the order of centuries. Instead of a spaceship, we would have to create some kind of space-traveling ark, big enough to support a community of humans and other plants and animals in a fully recycling ecological system.
On the other hand it would have to be small enough to accelerate to a fairly high speed, to shorten the voyagers’ time of exposure to cosmic radiation and to breakdowns in the ark. Regarded from some angles bigger is better, but the bigger the ark is, the proportionally more fuel it would have to carry along to slow itself down on reaching its destination; this is a vicious circle that can’t be squared. For that reason and others, smaller is better, but smallness creates problems for resource metabolic flow and ecologic balance. Island biogeography suggests the kinds of problems that would result from this miniaturization, but a space ark’s isolation would be far more complete than that of any island on Earth. The design imperatives for bigness and smallness may cross each other, leaving any viable craft in a non-existent middle.
The biological problems that could result from the radical miniaturization, simplification and isolation of an ark, no matter what size it is, now must include possible impacts on our microbiomes. We are not autonomous units; about eighty percent of the DNA in our bodies is not human DNA, but the DNA of a vast array of smaller creatures. That array of living beings has to function in a dynamic balance for us to be healthy, and the entire complex system co-evolved on this planet’s surface in a particular set of physical influences, including Earth’s gravity, magnetic field, chemical make-up, atmosphere, insolation and bacterial load. Traveling to the stars means leaving all these influences and trying to replace them artificially. What the viable parameters are on the replacements would be impossible to be sure of in advance, as the situation is too complex to model. Any starfaring ark would therefore be an experiment, its inhabitants lab animals. The first generation of the humans aboard might have volunteered to be experimental subjects, but their descendants would not have. These generations of descendants would be born into a set of rooms a trillion times smaller than Earth, with no chance of escape.
In this radically diminished enviroment, rules would have to be enforced to keep all aspects of the experiment functioning. Reproduction would not be a matter of free choice, as the population in the ark would have to maintain minimum and maximum numbers. Many jobs would be mandatory to keep the ark functioning, so work too would not be a matter of choices freely made. In the end, sharp constraints would force the social structure in the ark to enforce various norms and behaviors. The situation itself would require the establishment of something like a totalitarian state.
Of course sociology and psychology are harder fields to make predictions in, as humans are highly adaptable. But history has shown that people tend to react poorly in rigid states and social systems. Add to these social constraints permanent enclosure, exile from the planetary surface we evolved on, the probability of health problems, and the possibility for psychological difficulties and mental illnesses. Over several generations, it’s hard to imagine any such society staying stable.
Still, humans are adaptable and ingenious. It’s conceivable that all the problems outlined so far might be solved, and that people enclosed in an ark might cross space successfully to a nearby planetary system. But if so, their problems will have just begun.
Any planetary body the voyagers try to inhabit will be either alive or dead. If there is indigenous life, the problems of living in contact with an alien biology could range from innocuous to fatal, but will surely require careful investigation. On the other hand, if the planetary body is inert, then the newcomers will have to terraform it using only local resources and the power they have brought with them. This means the process will have a slow start and take on the order of centuries, during which time the ark, or its equivalent on the alien planet, would have to continue to function without failures.
It’s also quite possible the newcomers won’t be able to tell whether the planet is alive or dead, as is true for us now with Mars. They would still face one problem or the other, but would not know which one it was, a complication that could slow any choices or actions.
So, to conclude: an interstellar voyage would present one set of extremely difficult problems, and the arrival in another system, a different set of problems. All the problems together create not an outright impossibility, but a project of extreme difficulty, with very poor chances of success. The unavoidable uncertainties suggest that an ethical pursuit of the project would require many preconditions before it was undertaken. Among them are these: first, a demonstrably sustainable human civilization on Earth itself, the achievement of which would teach us many of the things we would need to know to construct a viable mesocosm in an ark; second, a great deal of practice in an ark obiting our sun, where we could make repairs and study practices in an ongoing feedback loop, until we had in effect built a successful proof of concept; third, extensive robotic explorations of nearby planetary systems, to see if any are suitable candidates for inhabitation.
Unless all these steps are taken, humans cannot successfully travel to and inhabit other star systems. The preparation itself is a multi-century project and one that relies crucially on its first step succeeding, which is the creation of a sustainable long-term civilization on Earth. This achievement is the necessary, although not sufficient, precondition for any success in interstellar voyaging. If we don’t create sustainability on our own world, there is no Planet B.