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Making Aliens 1: Why Go at All?

apollodawn-sm.jpegThe Repercussions of Planetary Settlement

by Athena Andreadis

Art image: Apollo Dawn, by Chris Butler

Part 1: Why Go at All?

Humans possess two interesting characteristics. The first is our curiosity: we have an insatiable need to know our universe. We’ve investigated our surroundings ever since we became self-aware. That inquisitiveness pushed us out of our original home in an African savanna and drove us to explore and occupy our entire planet, regardless of the local environment. The second is our ability to envision a destination before we actually embark on the quest. As with many of our capabilities, this is a double-edged weapon. It motivates exploration, but it also colors expectations. So it can distort reality, and act as an obstacle to understanding and accepting real discoveries.

Our curiosity and our yearning have fuelled our vision of exploring space. Until now, our dream of space exploration has rested on two deeply embedded but rarely discussed assumptions. One is that humans can overcome everything, given enough technology. This outlook is not surprising, given that the primary movers behind the endeavor have been engineers. Another is that (given our technological prowess) settling on other planets will be about as difficult as it was for our hominid ancestors to expand across the Earth.

Both assumptions are false. Some people advance the argument that humans are really not native to Earth, just to the African savanna. The conclusion is that since we colonized the entire planet, we can do the same with Mars or any other planet we put in our crosshairs. However, there are some fundamental biological limitations that technology cannot address. And these limitations are real enough, since they have prevented us from settling the terrestrial oceans, whose conditions are a distrorted yet faithful mirror of those on Mars — namely, a fatal pressure differential, unfriendly temperature and an unbreathable atmosphere. Contrary to what we like to believe, humans, like all complex systems, are inherently fragile and completely dependent on both external and internal ecosystems.

At first glance, we’re miracles of flexibility. Among advanced mammals, our physique is the least specialized and our brains the least hardwired — at least at birth! With the exception of our manual dexterity, we’re physically mediocre at everything else, jills and jacks of all trades and perfect for none. Our brains, too, can reroute and rewire almost at will, if presented with the crucial information at the right window of opportunity. So, for example, it has come to pass that we click computer mice and drive cars, skills never required of our tree-swinging ancestors.

However, this power of our mind, which made us wish to understand our universe and enabled us to take the first steps towards such a goal, cannot overcome all obstacles. Plainly put, humans are native to this planet in all aspects which matter. Perhaps terrestrial life originally arose from some version of panspermia. It may have arrived from Mars when it was the favorite within the Sun’s habitable zone, dropped out of the sky from contaminated comets or seeded by experimenting aliens. Regardless of origin, the seeds were at most at the bacterial stage. We know this from the fossil record, from the fact that all earth life has the same genetic code and because all terrestrial species are, to a large extent, optimized for this planet.

At this point, humans have overrun the earth, to the point of endangering its miraculously favorable but fragile ecology. If we cannot stabilize our population and do not wish to give up the wasteful first-world living style, our only other choice is to expand outwards. Even if we reach environmental equilibrium, exploring and colonizing other planets is something we must eventually attempt to survive our sun’s evolution into a red giant, regardless of how well these New Worlds can accommodate us.

So when we venture into space long-term, we have to deal with questions beyond the staggering cost and difficulty of the enterprise. Can we bridge the enormous distances between stars without forgetting either our technology or our mission? And can we flourish in a place that is not optimal for us — which, by definition, will be every planet we encounter, as well as the spaceships that take us there?

Part 2: The Journey

11 Responses to “Making Aliens 1: Why Go at All?”

  1. rocketscientist says:

    Excellent essay. It raises some truly vital questions. And it gives raise to some interesting ideas for fiction. Many moons ago I read a James Blish novel dealing with sub-light travel. I wasn’t the best book, but it’s a fertile concept. Funny that faster than light speeds are such a given in scfi these days.

  2. Athena says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the essay and even happier that it raised questions. I think the FTL default mode in SF allows old-fashioned swashbuckling plots. You cannot have space opera without it. Sublight travel brings forward the time dilation aspect, which can be a plot point in itself, especially in terms of human interactions.

  3. intrigued_scribe says:

    Wonderfully written, interesting essay. :) It does a brilliant job of bringing to mind the concepts and necessary questions that many overlook–or deliberately disregard, in order to avoid giving up comforting illusions–particularly the issue of technology as a tool to overcome one’s environment. Specifically, it serves as an effective reminder that a civilization can come to rely too much on its technology (most of all when the matter of journeying to and colonizing other worlds comes into play) and become enslaved by it. Excellent, thought provoking stuff.

  4. Athena says:

    I’m happy you found it thought-provoking! I have been mulling over these issues for years, as a biologist who is in love with space exploration. Humans are not really made for space travel, yet there is something about it that tugs powerfully at our hearts and our minds.

    Too, there is no question that over-reliance on technology can lead to atrophy of inventivess and imagination (a counter-intuitive outcome, given the intelligence that created the technology in the first place).

  5. TransAlchemy says:

    Im glad you mentioned the evolution of our sun into a red giant, people need to get out of there head that earth is eternal. The end of the world does exist somewhere down the ripple of time, and to ensure our survival we would have to get off this rock.

    To perplex this matter even more in the last couple of years we have had to adjust the age of the universe and the age or our sun to conform to new data. This to me only enforces the obvious fact that we have yet to figure it out. Another example of this is the constant models that have been coming out of NASA over solar cycle 24 which by far has taken solar physicist off guard this go around by behaving in a manner that hasn’t been recorded in nearly 100 years.

    So considering the unpredictable nature with all things extraterrestrial it should be evident that a solution to increasing our changes of making it lies in the stars.

    On the other hand one thing that I find rather interesting though is the need to even make a case for space exploration. It just seems so logical that we must explore ways to get off this planet no matter how costly.

  6. bigdan201 says:

    It’s me from centauri-dreams.

    I agree that civilization has outgrown the earth in many ways. This planet used to be huge relative to your societies, to the point that people in different continents had little to no contact with each other. Now, with money and a passport, you can go almost anywhere within 24 hours.

    Colonizing other planets will be the best insurance for our species, especially if we get to other stars. The limitation of c/speed-of-light will ensure that globalism wont be an issue when we get more globes.

  7. Christopher Phoenix says:

    This is quite a thought-provoking essay- however, I have a few nits to pick. You draw a parallel between colonizing the oceans and colonizing Mars, but the vacuum of space and the chilly deserts of Mars aren’t anything like the crushing depths of the ocean. Sometimes bad analogies have been drawn between spacecraft and submarines, but these fall flat considering the differences between space and the oceans.

    First, let’s consider the pressure differential. On Earth, we live at the bottom of an ocean of air which presses on every square inch of our body with 15 pounds of force. In space, on a planet with a thinner atmosphere, or on a very high altitude balloon, the pressure is too low to sustain humans- we need around one atmosphere of pressure. Some SF movies show exposure to the vacuum as being instantly fatal. The movies Outland and Total Recall portray characters exploding when thrown into the vacuum.

    So, how dangerous is the pressure differential in space, and how does that compare to the pressure differential in the ocean? Hollywood (as usual) is utterly wrong. Human tissue is too tough to explode in the vacuum- the victim will remain alive for a minute or so before he/she dies. Even if large sections of a spacecraft’s hull is destroyed, air will not exit with hurricane-like force- it will be closer to a gentle breeze. The pressure differential is just not high enough to create the spectacular effects we see in in bad SF action films.

    The pressure differential in the ocean is much greater- many atmospheres to one atmosphere, instead of one atmosphere to zero. A breach in a submarine’s hull can lead to the swift destruction of the vessel. Deep sea divers can be ripped apart if a depressurization chamber is opened too early. The oceans are much more hostile than space. That is why submarines are so heavily reinforced.

    The pressure differential in space can be quite deadly, but it is not as crushing (pun intended) a hazard to spacecraft and astronauts as the pressure deep in the ocean is to submarines. By the way, submarines make lousy spacecraft- which undermines the concept of mounting a space drive in a submarine and sending it to Mars- and there is no reason why a spacecraft must be cramped like a submarine. Cluttered with instruments, yes, but cramped like a nuclear sub, no.

    The overall points of your essay are quite true. Adapting ourselves to alien planets that may have quite different compositions, atmospheres, and weather patterns won’t be easy. Even if some easy form of FTL travel were to be discovered the first settlers on a suitable exoplanet will face great challenges. Many SF stories show other planets as being just like Earth, only with little green guys. In reality, every “Earth-like” planet will have sundry small differences in their surface conditions, climate, and geological activity. Every human colony planet will be a hard-won prize.

    You said that humans are not particularly suited to spaceflight. While it is true that we are not ideally suited to space travel, we could be much worse off. If humans were water creatures, we would have to pressurize our spaceships with water, making them enormously heavy and almost impossible to launch into space. If we were very large creatures, we would need much bigger rockets. If humans were naturally able to fly, maybe we would be unable to cope with the small dimensions in a spacecraft. Perhaps our inability to fly, despite our great desire to do so, is what enables us to explore space. Most terrestrial creatures do not like having their feet not on the ground. Birds don’t like being confined and kept from large environments. Humans settled upon the idea of a sky-boat to take us into the sky, a concept that extends to the spaceship. A species with a different psychology might not take to the idea of craft that fly as readily as a we did.

  8. Athena says:

    I’m glad you found the essay interesting, Christopher. Please don’t nitpick, save your energy for people you really disagree with. The pressure differential is real enough regardless of details; space also has radiation — a risk absent from underwater exploration. Unlike scifi film watchers, I’m aware that people can actually survive a few minutes in vacuum (I even used this in a space opera I’ve written). Ironically, water creatures might do fine in space once they had tools, because water is one of the best possible insulators against radiation.

  9. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I didn’t think that you did not know the real effects of exposure to the vacuum of space, Athena. However, someone else might not know the differences between pressurized vehicles that operate underwater and those that operate in space. In some ways, spaceflight is easier than ocean exploration- the pressure differential is too small to instantly kill everyone in a spaceship if the hull is breached, and spaceships can never sink no matter how many compartments are depressurized. On the other tentacle, space explorers face radiation, solar flares, and weightlessness.

  10. Athena says:

    The pressure differential depends on the depth. Spaceships will be entirely on their own in terms of personnel and resources, unlike nuclear subs et al. Also, how cramped spaceships are will again depend on details (budget, goals…). The ISS doesn’t strike me as roomy or homey.

  11. Christopher Phoenix says:

    My only point is that the analogy between submarines and spacecraft is flawed. Both are different vehicles operating in quite different environments, with totally different technical challenges. One amusing anecdote is John Campbell’s suggestion that we mount the Dean Drive in a nuclear submarine and fly it to Mars!!

    A workable reactionless drive, like the Elixer of Life or the Holy Grail, is one of those impossible inventions that captures the imagination. That one invention would lead to flying cars that defy gravity with neither wings nor jets, flying cities, and space cruisers that never run out of propellant. Don’t worry, I know how impossible such a notion is in the accepted framework of physics, and what to do if I thought I had built a drive that could produce thrust without expelling reaction mass. If a suspect “space drive” can hold itself at an angle to the floor when suspended by wires, it is time to call on a physics professor. After taking out a patent on the gadget, of course. One such engine as that could provide station-keeping boosts to keep the ISS in orbit forever, using nothing but solar power. It’s impossible, of course, but I can understand why John Cambell was excited by Mr. Dean’s claim.