Oct 23

Humanity Toward the Stars

In Brief—As we are told that habitable planets are increasingly being discovered in the universe, the author examines whether humans are likely to visit those planets in the future.

The Stars Beckon; Do We Measure Up?—

Today must be a slow news day. The Times tantalizes us with a report that another Galaxy Locationpossibly habitable planet has been found in the “Goldilocks Zone” of Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbor in this galaxy. It’s only 4.37 light years away from us, a mere walk-around-the-block in terms of the enormous size of the known universe. The “Goldilocks Zone,” by the way, is that distance from a star that allows for the possibility of being habitable to Earhlings.

Not only is traveling to Alpha Centauri pie-in-the-sky, but interestingly the story allows Times readers to keep on doing as they have been doing since we can always go to another planet once we finish screwing up Earth. The Swedes call it the “Wear it out, Throw it away” philosophy. Humans are short-term thinkers, refusing to think about the future. I’m going to pop the “travel-to-the-stars” balloon.

Reality Intrudes—

A light year is the distance light travels in a year. Light travels at a speed of roughly 186,000 miles per second. A beam of light takes about 8 minutes to travel from here to our sun which is actually a star. Earth is in the “Goldilocks Zone” of our planetary system.

The number of miles between Earth and Alpha Centauri is 25 trillion miles. 25 TRILLION! And that’s if we traveled at the speed of light…which we can’t. With current technology, it’s estimated that we will be able to go only about one-quarter of the speed of light. Guess how long that would take? Like about 75,000 years!!

We’ve all seen Star Trek where they have warp drive that allows them to go faster than the speed of light. While that speed has been theorized, it’s no more than pipe dreams and certainly not within reach of the best minds in science even with the advances expected in the next decades. Here are a few sobering conditions of traveling to Alpha Centauri.

What’s the trip going to cost? In America today, particularly with an ever-expanding military and America’s political system, we don’t have enough money to take care of our own domestic needs, so any trip to Alpha Centauri will have to involve several other nations. Those nations have their own financial problems. Thus, it’s going to be a matter of priorities. Think about refugees? Or stretched world finances? Or climate change?

Planning? Such a massive undertaking requires years of planning. Unmanned probes. Vastly improved telescopes. Unknown exigencies will arise during the trip and must be anticipated.

Cost is a major part of the considerations. Cost overruns are as common as dirt. Nothing costs what is originally planned.

Here’s a list that undoubtedly understates the other roadblocks to eventually heading for Alpha Centauri.

Who goes and how many? Remember that this one-way trip will take generations. Females? Males? Ages? Marital status? If the astronauts have partners or children, they will never see them again. Technical expertise? A big space ship needs lots of maintenance, particularly if it’s struck by a particle of space debris. Elder care? Astronauts will age and die. Physical and Emotional health? Potential human conflicts? Jealousy or different habits. Food? People eat. Exercise? The film 2001 comes to mind. Diseases? Death? Disposal of remains?

Size of Space Ship? This will depend on the number of humans, propulsion, food and necessaries like equipment, etc. Remember they won’t know what conditions will prevail. The size of the vehicle will necessitate launch from beyond Earth because the load is enormous. Where? Earth’s moon? How is everything transported to the launch site and how long will it take? Indeed, where is the spaceship built?

Training? In any enterprise of this magnitude, the original crew will have to train for the trip. Training takes time. Additionally, we have to assume that children born during the trip will be taught the necessary skills required in order to take over when the previous crew is no longer able to perform the necessary tasks.

As we look around the world today, we see wars, displacement, fraternal disagreements, fear, disarray, greed and a whole laundry list of discord. That discord doesn’t bode well for a trip that will take thousands of years. How can we expect that short-term thinking humans will overcome this? And I haven’t even discussed human nature.

What we must do is deal with the many problems faced on Earth and forget about the fantasy of finding another planet to pollute and destroy. Earth is our home. Let’s care for it and its creatures. Let’s treat it as our home.


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    • Brenda on October 23, 2016 at 16:52

    Too funny, or maybe it isn’t funny at all. Just like the Times must be having a slow day, the author is having a slow day, or maybe not. I think he is looking at the stars in the clear, beautiful skies of Sweden and imagining
    what could, or would, be. The author of Star Wars was quite successful, why not write a book or movie on this line. You certainly have the words to do so. Remember the days of the watch you talked to in Superman? Never thought we’d see that, but, lo and behold, we are far past that. Start that story.

      • Don Bay on October 23, 2016 at 18:52

      Your view of my writing ability is humbling but nevertheless appreciated. This little blog is within my ability (and energy), but something of the magnitude of Star Wars is beyond me.

      As I say to Kathy in all seriousness, reaching the stars is the stuff of science fiction stories, not of reality. I’ll stick to reading my Scientific American and looking at the stars, but not for a second do I think that humans will reach the stars.

    • Kathy on October 23, 2016 at 17:16

    All of your questions are routinely dealt with in science fiction stories. The most common solution is a generational ship, where people expect to live out their lives en-route. This would of course include men and women and entire families, and would entail all the difficulties of any isolated human village.

    Or as in the novel/movie “Contact,” a time-space warping device, where one doesn’t travel any distance at all and travels at the speed of light. Since space is actually being warped so that there’s in effect no distance at all between two points, lightspeed constraints don’t apply.

    As far as local problems (on Earth, in America, or whatever you decide to define as “local”), these have always been the bugaboo of exploration. But there will ALWAYS be local problems. If we always waited for the problems to be solved before exploring, we never would’ve explored anything. And sometimes the effort of exploration itself offers solutions to the problems. Of course, it also sometimes creates new problems, but that’s life in this imperfect existence.

    I agree that we don’t have the technology now for interstellar travel, and may never have it (although never is a long time). Resources required would of course depend on the technology involved. What if the technology existed within our own minds? What if it was quantum? All sorts of ideas to play with.

    People are usually by necessity short-term thinkers, since most people are forced to survive day-to-day. But there is always a proportion of the population that contains dreamers and inventors, explorers and adventurers who think well beyond the short term. I’ve come to believe that most of human progress is due to the small percentage people who are willing and able to see what “could be.”

      • Don Bay on October 23, 2016 at 18:38

      As you point out, matters like this are dealt with in stories. Although I merely touch on them, the obstacles are enormous and, I must say, are insurmountable, particularly in the light of human nature.

      No doubt the human imagination is impressive. Science is impressive. A look at the obstacles and the capabilities of science show that reaching the stars lies way-y-y beyond human capabilities. Mars is nothing compared with Alpha Centauri. Humans may reach Mars, but they will never reach another star system.

      I have frequently said that humans have no more than a 5% chance of surviving THIS century…and that’s probably optimistic given human nature. Neither you nor I will live to see if that prediction will come to pass. Meanwhile, we can read science fiction and dream of life on other worlds, but I maintain that human nature will win in the end.

      You are considerably more optimistic than I. What do other readers feel on this issue?

    • Dave Meyers on October 23, 2016 at 19:15

    Imagining that it would take generations of space travelers to reach another habitable planet is one thing….but, you must consider that the designers of such a mission would be long dead before it’s completion as well. The ground crew that monitors the flight, likewise, would be gone leaving the need for generations of people interested enough to fill those needed positions to carry on. I wonder if the enthusiasm would last past one life-time.
    Cleopatra lived just over 2000 years ago. Can you imagine her servants and their offspring keeping her bed chamber tidy in her absents until today? Hmmm.

    Here is a theory I’ve held for years.
    Sub-atomic particles make up atoms. Atoms make up molecules. Molecules cells. Cells tissues. Tissues organs. Organs animals (humans). Humans make up societies. Societies nations. Nations make up our Earth. Our Earth is part of a solar system. Our solar system is part of a galaxy. Galaxies make up the universe as we know it, and on and on I’m sure.
    Given that, I find it unbelievable that life in other planets is not only possible, but certain. I am more interested in making contact with them, than traveling to a planet that might replace the one we are currently damaging beyond repair.

      • Don Bay on October 23, 2016 at 21:40

      Addressing only the communication with alien civilizations, I have always asked two questions: 1) Since their communication with us travels at the speed of light, are they still in existence? 2) Will that alien civilization even communicate in a language we will understand? What if they are using a system that is completely alien to us? Will we even recognize that communication?

      We Earthlings may have already missed their communication simply because we didn’t recognize it as such. Assuming our scientists are knowledgable enough, maybe they are accounting for that issue. I don’t know the answer to that. If anybody knows, enlighten us.

  1. I’m still learning from you, but I’m making my way to the top as well. I certainly liked reading everything that is posted on your site.Keep the posts coming. I enjoyed it!

      • Don Bay on December 10, 2016 at 19:00

      Keep reading and I’ll keep writing. A new piece is released every Sunday.

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