Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

Becoming an Interstellar Civilization

Our universe is so vast it is beyond our capabilities to truly comprehend yet we mainly persist in the belief we are the reason for its existence. Our current view of life in the universe is that it is rare mostly because we lack the means of knowing otherwise. Perhaps we are ignoring evidence right in our face we have failed to recognize or acknowledge for far too long. We fail to acknowledge what we know. Earth is one of three rocky planets, that if things were only slightly different, would all be capable of harboring life. We fail to acknowledge, at least until quite recently, that life on our own planet exists in places we would not think possible and is far more adaptive than we had thought.

Added to that is the emerging research indicating our DNA contains elements from at least three other proto-humans we interacted with, mated with, and then eliminated along our path to domination of Earth. That seems to indicate the chances for the emergence of intelligent life is many more times likely than we have thought previously.

However, we have learned the origins of life on earth owes much to the cosmos. The building blocks for life came from meteors, comets, and asteroids striking the earth in its infancy. Earth’s abundant water is believed to have been transported here in this manner. Amino acids arrived in the same way.

Could it be God seeded the Universe for the evolution of life in this way? Or it is simply how the Universe works. Suppose all the life in the cosmos we eventually find turns out to be based on the same building blocks as our own? It would be yet another example of Star Trek fantasy becoming reality. How ironic would that be?

Studying the evolution of various species on earth we see similar problems have been solved along analogous yet different lines of development. The biggest shock of all may be that the life we find out there may look very similar in key respects to the life we know from here.

I recall two times my perception of reality was forever altered by seeing a photograph. The first was seeing the photograph taken by the Apollo Eight crew of the Earthrise from the perspective of the moon.

Suddenly I saw my world in a different way. I saw its beauty, its fragility, and its wholeness and realized the artificial divisions and lines we put on maps are nothing more than that. It is our attempt to separate ourselves into little competing groups identifying each other as ‘us’ and ‘them’ based upon superficial differences. For the first time in my life, I paused and reflected on what it meant and began to focus on how absurd it is.

My second great epiphany also resulted from viewing a photograph. It happened when I saw Voyager I’s picture of earth taken from distant space. There, in all the vastness of our little solar system was our home seen as a pale dot. I remember the late Carl Sagan’s lecture underscoring his reflections on the Pale Blue Dot, the photograph of Earth seen from 6 billion kilometers (more than 3.7 billion miles) away. He had this to say at the time:

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”

It has been almost 30 years since Sagan made those remarks, but sadly, their truth has yet to begin penetrating human consciousness. I can only pray we will open our eyes before it’s too late.

If we are fortunate and lucky enough to survive this century, we still have monumental obstacles to interstellar travel. The distances between stars are vast and remain virtually incomprehensible and meaningless to most. Our current means of propulsion are primitive and would require centuries and millenniums to get us to our destinations. All proposed systems currently under consideration would cut the time, but not significantly in relative terms. Unless and until we can figure a way around the limitations set by Relativity and the speed of light we have no alternative. We will have to build a virtual ark.

Our first step would be to launch and conduct extensive robotic explorations of nearby star systems to search for suitable candidates for exploration and habitation. To travel to even our closest neighboring star systems like Alpha Centauri or Tau Ceti will, within the limits of all currently known science, require us to have a kind of space ark large enough to support a community of humans, plants, animals, insects and a host of microbes in a fully recycling ecological system or mesocosm. Yet at the same time, we have to be able to accelerate this craft to a sufficient speed to shorten the voyage. This is desirable to limit the voyagers’ time of exposure to a multitude of possible difficulties including cosmic radiation and the inevitable breakdowns in the ark. It would be a machine after all. These arks would build upon and incorporate all we have learned living on or above other worlds in our own solar system.

An interesting insight into this process was included in the 2009 German-British post-apocalyptic science fiction film Pandorum. In this story the ark, the Elysium leaves earth with 60,000 people on a 123-year trip to the fictional planet Tanis. Most of the people and crew are in a kind of cryogenic hypersleep. The crews rotate in and out of sleep as the voyage continues. The ship carries a repository of all humanity’s knowledge. It carries every bug, every bacterium, every plant, and every animal that can be collected from the earth. The actual plot of the movie here is not important. What they are trying to accomplish is.

This brings us to another set of problems along the way that must be avoided. Living and traveling on an ark to a destination that will take generations to get to will present us with social and psychological issues and difficulties we’ve never encountered before. In a radically diminished environment, 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. Recall our own founding at Jamestown and what extreme measures had to be instituted by John Smith to ensure its survival.

Humans are highly adaptive and ingenious, but history has shown that people tend to react poorly in rigid states and social systems. Add to these social constraints, permanent enclosure, the exile from the planetary surface we evolved on, and the probability of health problems, and the possibility for psychological difficulties and mental illnesses seems quite high. For these reasons it is all the more important and vital we establish colonies on worlds closest to home first. However, it illustrates how vitally important it is for humanity to take care of this planet first. Without it, as a healthy life fostering home base it won’t make much difference what we dream.