The exploration of space represents an investment in the future of mankind, the likely course of which will determine whether we survive as a species and our place in the cosmos.
But aside from speculating about the grand destiny that scientists often lay out for us amongst the stars, what are the practicalities of its pursuit? What do we have to do to become the interstellar species that we undoubtedly have to be?
I’m not talking in the limited terms of space probes and manned missions, I’m talking about humanity as a whole reaching into other galaxies.
The grandness of the future is matched by the scope of the question, but let’s keep it simple restricting those ideas to earthly concerns.
Extended space travel is likely to be an extremely expensive endeavour, if the current cost of the manned missions and unmanned probes is anything to go by. The budget of the US space agency NASA from 1958 to 2011 amounts to $526.18 billion, an average of $9,928 billion per year. While the budgets of other international space agencies are not as large they are substantial, it is a substantial expenditure which is only likely to increase if the extension of space travel extends.
Economies are likely to be stretched, with new sources of revenue required and governments are going to find it a struggle. The desire to explore other worlds will in its initial stages most likely be financed by the mining and exploitation of newly discovered planets. This is by no means a certain pursuit as we cannot definitively prove that these resources exist on other planets. Colonisation may become a short term experiment until these resources can be found and sustained.
As we do contact other species in the universe, there is the possibility of long term trade agreements with these species which would have the effect of enhancing the economies of the effected countries. There may be another side effect to this as the alien species may treat humanity as a whole and could struggle with the concept of nationhood. Trade between alien species and individual governments may result in disagreements and boycotts.
Additionally with space travel becoming such an expensive pursuit, there is the danger that space travel will become the domain of the rich exclusively. The poor may not be able to leave Earth due to financial restrictions. The possibility of the poor remaining on earth could reduce the base economy of the earth exponentially, but inversely it could create a more stable economy with everyone on an even keel.
As our colonisation of the galaxy increases, new methods of calculating time need to be devised to cope. We cannot afford to remain restricted to a 24 hour day, a 7 day week or a 365 day year. A standardised method of keeping time will need to be devised in the same way as it was devised to deal with the rise of the railways on earth.
Different nations may meet this in different ways, or an international effort could be mounted to meet this problem. New ways of mapping space would need to be devised in the wake of this change to ensure that travel methods adhere to the new time method.
As travel to other stars currently would take centuries rather than realistic numbers of years, the need to speed space travel up becomes more obvious. Longer term missions are far less cost effective than shorter term ones, but technology takes time to develop and longer term missions may be the only immediate way to proceed.
The chief sacrifice in our pursuit of extended space exploration maybe the nation state. The economics of space travel will necessitate greater financial co-operation between the nations of Earth and it is possible over time that the relevance of the nation state may decline to the point where it becomes unnecessary. Space agencies from different nations may amalgamate to deal with this co-operation and increased financial expenditure.
International institutions will be created to deal with this, with one particular organisation being ideally suited to deal with international co-operation in space exploration. The United Nations, largely toothless at present, could enjoy a political resurgence.
Contact with other species, central to the future of extended human space exploration would ideally be conducted by this centralised organisation. Individual nations can make mistakes, diplomatic negotiations can be mishandled opening the way for interstellar incidents. The UN could employ its existing arms to first contact scenarios with alien species.
Non centralisation of this authority could lead to diplomatic issues between nation states as they colonise space individually. Diplomatic issues could potentially lead to military conflicts in space across colonised worlds, with nation fighting nation over claims to other worlds. Vicariously, the growth in colonies increases the likelihood of those colonies seeking independence from central government. There would be a political question of representation for these colonies in the respective parliaments of the colonising power and this would most likely lead to a colonial government. The building blocks of the centralised authority could encompass independent colonies, in the same way that it encompasses individual countries on earth.
With the probable slow progress of space travel in its initial phases, it is likely that we will have to deal with problem of political change during extended travel in space. For example, a group of people travelling in a cryogenically induced sleep would not experience the political change of its mother country. They would arrive at their destination likely unaware that their previous regime had changed, which could cause a political schism and in all likelihood could result in a similar war of independence from the mother country.
The traversing of interstellar space also prompts speculation about what would happen those political and sociological institutions which remained on planet Earth. Diminished populations mean more abundant resources on Earth, although the pressure to export these resources to the burgeoning colonies in space could result in shortages on Earth. This could result in a socio-political backlash against the demands of the colonies.
Greater space exploration could result in a paradigm shift in opinion about the whole subject of exploration of space. The Earth could turn inward upon itself and become isolationist, shunning contact with other races. This isolationism could naturally progress into a form of fascism, predicated on the belief that humanity is superior to inferior alien races.
The implementation of a human first ideology could manifest itself in the terraforming process used to colonise other planets. It could be used harmfully where life exists in a different form, with the intention of exterminating the inferior species to make way for man.
Space exploration brings with it contact with other species and increased knowledge about the universe. Our knowledge of the Earth and the universe as a whole could become so changeable, so fluid that it becomes impossible to teach this to any human. Systems of learning could be devised, augmented with technological advances which would make it possible for a human to have a base level working knowledge of the universe from birth. This would aid humans as they colonise other planets, with potential applications in contacting and conversing with other species. There will always be knowledge gaps and areas where cultures across space do not understand each other, but the use of diplomatic and political institutions can support humanity to overcome these obstacles and build bridges.
If it is possible that this new knowledge could subjugate existing knowledge, then no area will more keenly feel this than the area of Religion. Most organised religions rely on us being born in the image of God, which is a concept wholly negated by the existence of other races in the universe.
The knowledge of this variety would undoubtedly reduce the relevance of humanity in its dealings with God. Encountering other species with religions similar to ours would relegate our religions to provincial belief systems and if those belief systems we encounter are more advanced and more readily provable, ours could be seen as arcane even primordial in its outlook.
On the other hand, exploration and encounters with other species could magnify the role of religion as those humans travelling to other galaxies look to anchor themselves to something earthbound.
Other species, whose form does not conform to the classical ideas of what alien species could be present ethical and legal concerns. Human law is written to preserve the rights of humans, it does not encompass alien species and their various cultures and customs. The human law can be easily applied to human colonies but it stops at alien worlds.
Likewise, the infringement of the rights of other species by humans in their desire to colonize space could increase to the point where we brazenly explore the stars with no moral compass to guide us.
An example of this ethical conflict could be a human terraforming project on a colonised world which encounters an indigenous species. Whereas on Earth, exploring countries have ignored the human rights of indigenous peoples, the indigenous species rights could be preserved in the laws of other races. The humans, unknowing of these laws would undoubtedly encounter conflict when trying to remove the indigenous species. Not knowing they were there is no defence in such an incident.
The moral and ethical virtues of travelling in space for an extended time could be supplanted by the physical and psychological effects of extended space travel. By physical, I mean the effects of travelling in zero gravity for years rather than months. This would have a detrimental effect on human bone structure and muscle tone, which is why you do not currently see obese astronauts. Long term travellers in space may not be able to return to their mother planet as gravity would not allow them to do so.
The psychological effects of space travel could be more difficult to spot. Space travel currently is a very dangerous occupation, which can provoke emotional responses which trigger psychological upheaval. Also there is the effect of longer term space travel on those individuals undertaking the mission. A long time in an enclosed space with the same people often leads to friction and outright manifestations of anger. Likewise the absence of people, coupled with no changes in scenery or environment could breed severe psychological problems which could manifest themselves during the mission or after. Extended time in suspended animation could lead to psychological disorders upon re-entry into the physical world. The current space programmes of earth ensure that their prospective astronauts undergo rigorous psychological and physiological testing before they can go into space. These programmes could continue with longer term space exploration but would need to adapt to suit colonisation as astronauts are not made of the same stuff as colonists.
Considering these issues, we have to also consider the other side of the coin. What if we get out there and there’s nothing? No species to interact with, just an empty universe with no species in it other than our own. This could have a highly detrimental effect on the psychological state of the human race or it could lead to us placing a higher value on human life than we do currently.
The effect this absence would have a hugely influential effect on the continuance of earth bound religions as it would add weight to the belief that we are the chosen of God and we should go forth into the universe.
Also the prospect of endless habitable worlds with no indigenous species would allow us to spread out into the cosmos, potentially just as nation states rather than a centralised power. Population expansion would not be such an issue as there would be any number of potential planets where the surplus population could be housed.
The human race is by its very nature adaptable and we have used that adaptation to become masters of Earth. It is likely that this adaptability will allow us to spread further and further into the cosmos as we grow. The practicalities of this long term travel would be a challenge, but it would be a necessary challenge as the human race cannot afford not to escape its Earthly confines.
Overpopulation, food shortages, the problem of war all will only get worse if we do not do this. To survive as a species, we must explore the stars.
© R Simmons. All Rights Reserved.