Leave the Earth Behind

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The people behind Gallery are responsible, so the articles in this earth-themed issue are likely to give the readers a gentle prod in a slightly more sustainable direction. We all know we should recycle more, consume less and generally take better care of our planet – because it’s the only one we’ve got.

Those who disagree regard our planetary home as an infinite well of resources that must be exploited for maximum profit; they shrug off the evidence of our impact on the globe as questionable, biased or just “alternative facts”. In an age of melting glaciers and dying forests those people are starting to look very stupid indeed, but they’re in control of the world, and even as we battle them a third viewpoint has emerged. It is held by a faction who definitely agree that our species is ruining the planet, but their preferred solution is that we keep burning up resources, industrialise at a faster rate, and work together for a common goal – not to save our planet, but to leave it behind and find a new one.

Moonbase Amazon and the MMyspace from Mars

Colonising new worlds has been a dream of humanity for centuries, a goal expressed eloquently by utopian thinkers who thought that the human race was capable of coming together as one and making a new home amongst the stars. The likes of Arthur C Clarke gazed upwards to the heavens in hope, but today’s proponents of interplanetary travel are less socially idealistic. They are predominately drawn from the ranks of the super-rich, specifically California’s high-technology billionaires, and are attracted to space travel because they either can’t be bothered or lack the capacity to solve any problem on Earth that can’t be addressed with an app. These people certainly aren’t short on belief in their own abilities, but the only hitch is that establishing an off-world colony is, to put it mildly, somewhat more challenging than arranging to dodge tax on 24-hour delivery of a Sherlock box set. I too want to live on a planet with breathable air, so on the assumption that they are monitoring my email I’ve listed some roadblocks that our saviours will need to overcome. 

Challenge 1: the massive level of resources required to leave Earth’s orbit

There’s a reason that nobody has been to the moon recently, which is that the trip is incredibly dangerous, requires a highly-trained crew and expends gigantic quantities of fuel just to push a small rocket into orbit. Even once you’re in space the moon is still three days away, through a vacuum dotted with radiation and flying rocks – the AA don’t offer breakdown coverage out there. The International Space Station is a wonderful achievement, but in space colony terms it’s the planetary equivalent of camping at the Minquiers and telling people you live in the ocean. Russian technology is currently the only way to ride, and nobody wants to put all our space eggs in the basket called “Offworld Aeroflot”. So, the dotcom billionaires are first going to need to work out a safe, cost-effective way of lifting millions of tonnes of stuff into orbit without any of it blowing up or falling back down, and then assembling it into the interplanetary equivalent of Virgin Atlantic, Heathrow Airport and those little buses that carry your suitcase. I assume the inventor of Uber is on the job, but they haven’t even worked out how to operate in Jersey, let alone deep space.

Challenge 2: the immense difficulty of long distance space travel

At currently achievable speeds, a journey to our nearest potentially inhabitable neighbour (Mars) would take between seven months and a year. This trip would already be several orders of magnitude more dangerous than any journey undertaken by a human crew, and would need to be conducted in a vehicle that could contain all of the necessities for habitation, ship repair and eventual long-term survival on a planet with an average temperature of -55°C. When you consider that the vehicle would also need enough space for a large crew to move around, exercise and interact without killing each other you’re going to end up with a space rocket at the very least the size of a nuclear submarine, which drastically increases both the fuel requirement and the danger from space debris. There is a possibility that a colony waypoint could be constructed in Mars orbit by robots, and get everything ready for a much smaller human-crewed vehicle, but if we’re being lead by Californian techies we’ll be expecting this to be done safely by a community who can’t even stop Russian teenagers from hacking your fridge.

Challenge 3: the unprecedented task of creating a habitable environment

If challenges #1 and #2 are difficult, but ultimately achievable, engineering tasks, then this one is a whole different ball game. Remember, we are talking about a species that couldn’t work out how to safely manage the ecosystem on the one planet perfect to support it, and is nonetheless expecting to develop technology to wholly adapt a hostile foreign environment to its incredibly precise needs. Humans struggle when there’s too much pollen in the atmosphere, but colonising space will require us to create a breathable environment and produce food on an entire alien world. What if we get to Mars and discover it’s covered in space gluten? We’d be dooming our descendants to bloating, tiredness and bad skin. That’s a silly example, but reality holds a million unknown dangers – evolved human germs, unknown Martian bacteria, new toxins. The scientific community can’t even agree on whether butter is bad for you, so personally I’m not taking their best guess on whether my descendants can live on Mars without recreating the pyramid scene from Total Recall.

Challenge 4: recreating human society on a foreign world 

Based on our history, the biggest challenge to extra-planetary colonisation won’t be space travel or the science required to settle a new planet, it will be the part of our brains that has barely evolved from our vicious monkey ancestors. If it’s possible that humanity can somehow scrape together enough resources to escape Earth, the prevailing scientific dream has been that this effort will be lead by the best and brightest among us, the selfless elite who see through petty squabbles and work in service of our shared humanity. The problem is that these people will need to bring the rest of us with them, and the likelihood is that the colonists to our new home will be chosen by President Donald Trump and some billionaire sociopaths from San Francisco. If we assume that even a barely functioning Mars colony might take 10 to 30 years for them to build, can you imagine what kind of a place will greet new arrivals once those people have finished work? A freezing, potentially poisonous mass of dead rock, adapted for humanity by the hand-picked servants of a sweet potato fascist and people who spy on their staff during toilet breaks. The Total Recall comparison was supposed to be a joke, but it might not be too far from the truth. We will have ruined a perfectly good planet, travelled across the solar system at the cost of many lives, and the only thing we’ll have to show for it is self-driving cars, psychic mutants and a radioactive hooker with three boobs.

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