Home > Science, Society, What-ifs > Life on a Generation Ship

Life on a Generation Ship

I like the idea of adorable robot caretakers

A lot of science fiction is predicated on the idea that that humanity has at some point in the distant past gotten on spaceships from their homeworld (usually Earth, sometimes not) and colonised the stars, terraforming and populating hundreds of worlds and thousands of moons along the way. This is the backdrop of landmark science fiction such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Star Wars, Alien and a whole raft of others. The common theme here is that in order to have epic adventure across the stars, the problems of interstellar space travel need to have already been solved.

Unfortunately, the problems of interstellar travel are substantial ones, the most insurmountable of which is the issue of sheer distance. To quote Douglas Adams, space is big. How big, you might ask? Big enough that if you tried to visit our nearest neighbouring star (Proxima Centauri – 4.24 light years) and somehow contrived to travel at light speed, it would still take you four years to get there. Big enough that if you tried to get to Proxima Centauri as quickly as the fastest man made object ever built (the Helios II probe), you would take some 18,000 years to arrive.

Of course, most science fiction stories of the type I mentioned get around this problem by invoking theoretical concepts such as faster-than-light travel, wormholes and hyperspace. While these concepts may have some basis in real physics, their depictions in science fiction tend to gloss over some vast technical problems it might be impossible or impractical to overcome. Like with the development of powered flight, it might take thousands of years for these concepts to go from the level of our current speculation to physical reality. We may, in fact, never solve these problems.

If the speed of light really is the cosmic speed limit, we will at some point need to leave our solar system in order to ensure our species’ survival. It might not be for a few billion years, but our sun will eventually become a red giant and engulf the Earth. If humanity is still around at that time, colonising the stars will no longer be a far off dream, but a practical necessity.

This is where the notion of the Generation Ship comes in – a huge spacecraft designed to be continuously inhabited by hundreds or thousands of people for literally generations while the craft makes its way to its intended destination. The idea is that it would be a floating environment people would be happy to grow up, raise families and die in without ever seeing the outside of. While that might sound awful to you, remember that this is basically what Earth is (albeit on a much larger scale) and that for most of human history, the majority of people never ventured more than a few kilometres from the place they were born. Make the environment big, pleasant and/or interesting enough and the people on board may never want to leave (think of The Axiom from Wall-E)

Of course, this isn’t without its own problems. First of all, much to NASA and every other space agency’s chagrin, keeping a human being alive in space is difficult, expensive, time consuming and usually requires a lot of training, effort and vigilance on the part of the human. This isn’t something you can trust most people with, let alone generations of varying quality and it means that you will have a real problem keeping the lights on and the air going. No building has ever been continuously maintained and used on Earth for more than 2000 years, so you can have no hope that generations of human maintainers can do it to a vessel hundreds of times more complicated for at least ten times as long. That will mean that shipboard maintenance will need to be taken up by autonomous, self-repairing robots if you have any hope of getting the ship to its destination with its cargo intact.

Additionally, for every cubic metre of living space you provide, the ship will probably require several times that amount of room for all the resources and systems required to keep that living space going, let alone the rockets and other things you’ll need to land on a likely planet for colonisation when you get there. Remember that even if you can build a lot of the tools you need, you will never get a chance to stock up on more stuff like oxygen, metals, fuel or water in the thousands of years between star systems, so you will need to take it all with you when you go. If you get on a Generation Ship the size of (say) New York, you will be relegated to living in a tiny portion of it about the size of Central Park.

Moreover, all the food you eat, all the air you breathe, all the water you drink would be recycled. Again, this is something the Earth does for you all the time that a Generation Ship would need to provide a facsimile for in the emptiness of space.

None of this even considers other issues you might encounter living in space. Low gravity, for instance, might be the cause of a lot of health problems for Generation Ship inhabitants, like muscular atrophy and brittle bones. Cosmic radiation might be difficult or impossible to effectively shield against and this could lead to elevated rates of cancer and other health conditions. As of yet, nobody was ever conceived, born or raised in space, so there might be a slew of issues that haven’t even been identified.

Let’s say that these problems are mitigated by genetic engineering, new unimaginable technology and clever construction of the ship. The builder of the ship still has not addressed the social issues that hundreds of generations of humans living in the worldlet the builder has created for them would encounter. How do you keep them “on mission” and stop them from turning around or abandoning the colonisation scheme? How do you keep them from killing each other or destroying the ship?

One answer would be to feed, clothe and educate the inhabitants generation after generation through the use of sentient robots. This way any change in language and culture or societal breakdown can be adjusted for and people wouldn’t forget the mission, where they came from, where they’re going or what they need to do once they get there. Unfortunately, any measures you take to ensure the successful colonisation of the stars also means curtailing individual freedom and stagnating culture for hundreds of generations of people. Even convincing them of the idea that a planet is a good place to live after countless generations on board a ship might be a huge challenge, regardless of how automated the process of terraformation is.

You might get around all these issues by not sending people at all, but rather thousands of vials of frozen DNA (or DNA sequences in the form of data) and factories for the production of humans to kick into gear only when the destination is reached a la Rendezvous with Rama. Combine this with robot nannies to rear the first generation of colonists and you ensure mission success, but risk a discontinuity of human culture if these robots cannot properly emulate human interaction. Whether this is a problem or not depends on your point of view and the quality of your robots.

If human interaction, and especially continuity of interaction, is considered to be of paramount importance, or if there is no way of building a human from scratch, another alternative is to simply grow human brains in jars, hooked up to a computer simulation of a planetary environment (like The Matrix) and mating is taken care of by the ship according to choices made by humans in the simulation. This will reduce the amount of living space and resources a Generation Ship builder needs to provide, limits the damage to the ships human conflict can cause and will mean that the first generation of colonists is raised by actual humans. Of course, this assumes the process of transferring brains into new bodies is firmly established by that point.

Regardless of what form it takes, building a Generation Ship is not as simple as simply constructing a floating resort and calling it a day. You need to think about human nature and how to get the passengers to go along with your original plan millennia in advance. It requires building a world and setting rules for the inhabitants and their descendants to live by – the duties in fact, of a creator deity.

Perhaps it’s a good thing we’re not quite at that stage yet. Something in me doubts that we are mature enough yet as a society to set those limits responsibly.

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