Originally posted on Brenwriters on Febuary 19th, 2014.
I was introduced to Star Wars when I was seven years old. When the movie ended, I made a solemn vow to dedicate my young life to its study. Star Wars plucked a chord that resonated through my childhood psyche in a way that Power Rangers and Looney Tunes could not. Maybe it was the promise of mysteries hiding amidst the cosmos, an idea of exploring an unknown still full of danger and wonder.
Well, and there were robots, lightsabers and laser guns, of course. And spaceships: the Millennium Falcon; the Serenity; the Enterprise. In the realm of science fiction, the spaceships are the coolest part.
The starships of the future, we are assured by Lucas, Roddenberry, Scalzi, and countless others, can travel faster than the speed of light by way of tachyon manipulation or warp drives. With the assistance of artificial gravity, the crews of these vessels dwell in spacious lodgings reminiscent of a cruise ship. Matter rearrangers recycle the nutrients from waste into delicious food (or tea). Teleporters allow the crew to visit nearby planets, providing they are hospitable to human life (which they usually are).
Because it’s science fiction, we are lead to believe that these technologies could be possible – magic and miraculous as the may seem, the concepts are (loosely) based on science. That’s what is so entrancing about the genre: we want to believe that this sort of technology could exist, sometime in the future. It’s this technology that allows mankind escape the confines of our planet and explore the far reaches of the galaxy.
It’s a vision that resonates, and not just with me.
NASA and the Colonization of Space
The mission to the moon captured the imagination of an entire generation, a cultural milestone for the entire human race. The images from the Hubble Space Telescope have inspired and awed millions.
NASA continues to pioneer high-tech, spacefaring technologies – they’ve just sent a rover to Mars, and are completing the Hubble Telescope’s high-powered replacement. There is already an International Space Station that supports extra-terrestrial life, and NASA is working on developing technologies that could allow humans to set up self-sufficient bases on other planets. In Silicon Valley, NASA is building a “Sustainability Base,” a compound that generates all the power it needs to operate (via photovoltaics, wind, and geothermal energy), and utilizes 90% less water than comparable buildings. The building itself learns to anticipate and react to changes in usage, sunlight, and temperature. It’s the first step towards bases on another planet.
This technology, for some, couldn’t come quickly enough. Stephen Hawking argues that the only way humanity will survive is to establish bases on other planets within the next two hundred years. He’s not alone: the need for humanity to find a new home in the stars is a motif well documented in science fiction. In Elysium, the wealthiest people escape from a polluted and desolate earth, choosing instead to live on an orbital space station. In Wall-E, mankind escapes the trashed and dying planet, living on a starship for so long that even plants are no longer recognizable. In these stories, humanity survives, though the earth as we know it does not. Space technology allows us to escape our otherwise unavoidable fate. Deus ex machina.
Dues ex machina
Deus ex machina. It’s a term for a plot device in which a seemingly insurmountable problem is miraculously resolved by the sudden appearance a workable solution. In ancient Greek tragedies, this was often the appearance of a god being raised or lowered onto the stage by some contraption. This god then rescues the protagonists of the story from their woes by some divine power. Deus ex machina, literally, God from the machine.
Stephen Hawking, NASA, and many others are counting on space technology as our deus ex machina – humanity’s miracle solution to the problems of environmental degradation, climate change, social turmoil, population pressure. If we can develop the right technology, we don’t have to worry about solving these problems holistically – we can just escape earth entirely.
But science fiction is not reality. As we all know, life rarely plays out like it does in stories. Starships are not sleek and spacious. Artificial gravity is a pipe dream, as are teleporters. And there’s far fewer planets suitable for human life than the genre would lead us to believe: the closest planet with similar conditions is probably Gliese 667 Cc, at a distance of 22.7 light years away. The journey there would take roughly 100,000 – 500,000 years, since faster than light travel is, for our intents, impossible.
As such, our space colonization prospects are confined to our solar system. Mars may be a likely candidate, but setting up a sustainable base on Mars would be exceedingly difficult. Replicating the conditions for life as we know it is hard. The Biosphere 2 experiment demonstrated that a self-sufficient ecosystem that replicates the conditions on earth is costly, tenuous, and ripe for failure.
Here on earth, we take a lot of things for granted: gravity, air, water, light. Synthetically reproducing the services that natural ecosystems provide is expensive, inefficient, and difficult. Earth is the perfect place for people to live: it would be a shame to ruin it.
It’s been a long time since I watched Star Wars. I still like science fiction, and I’m still entranced by the cosmos, but I don’t pin my hopes for humanities’ future on the colonization of space. All the world’s a stage, but when and if our salvation comes, I doubt it will be from a machine.
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