July 21, 2018

Most of the space stories I have read have sunnily assumed that all will be well out there. That, notwithstanding a few technical problems and a few bad guys, everything would work out.

But we have learned from our limited experience out there, that space is a murderous environment. That the technical problems are more like technical improbabilities that often reach the level of impossibility.

Take the problem of pervasive radiation in space that most of us have sunnily ignored in the past. We put our characters out there, floating in space, or wandering around on the surfaces of planets that are flooded with pervasive and fatal radiation, without the slightest care for their safety, even though we now know that we cannot live there unprotected without suffering radiation effects that manifests themselves in dozens of ways.

They would get radiation sickness, blindness, space brain, DNA damage, heart disease, and a raft of other ill effects from the radiation (from two sources) we now know from the Mars explorer Curiosity’s detectors  (and others round the Moon) is actually getting more intense.

It now appears that the Apollo missions were conducted at a very quiet time in the radiation history of our solar system. I recall that the cosmic ray component of the double dose of radiation out there has increased almost 20% and we know that our Sun will not remain quiescent all the time. With only minutes of warning, spikes in radiation can endanger people exposed to it.

Even with the beneficent conditions prevailing during the Apollo era, the Astronauts all suffered unfortunate and life-shortening side effects from their time outside the protection of the Van Allen belt.

Low Earth orbit is as far as we can go right now – and even that visits a wide swath of health effects on the hardy people who venture there. It is certainly worth the risk, but there is a cost.

So, if we want to live safely in space for any length of time, we need to bring some serious protection along with us. Our scientists and engineers know a lot about providing that protection, but there is a cost to it.  The only truly reliable protection that is fail safe comes from using materials that have a lot of mass.  There are no force fields to save us yet.

Providing protection will mean burying living quarters deep, and protecting ships with thick shielding. A mixture of light and heavy elements in sufficient depth to block out the radiation seems to do the trick. That is the solution I imagine that will give us something the ‘Rockship’ in my novel.

But that is heavy and expensive, in a spaceship, especially. It inhibits every movement, and makes it necessary to have powerful engines orders of magnitude more throaty and persistent than the chemical engines we now use.

There are plasma impulse engines in development that may someday satisfy this need, but we haven’t got them yet. And they will need lots of reliable power we don’t really have yet anyway. It will need fusion power – but that is coming too.

From a practical point of view, the only destination we could handle right now is the Moon, since Mars is out of the question with present technology. And even the Moon would be would be very expensive. So expensive that no-one has a reason to do it now.

We need to remember that no country or group of countries would commit to the herculean effort a real colony (not visitors) would need without a commercial reason.

NASA or the ESA will never be enough. A colony would be world-grindingly expensive and close to impossibly difficult technically. It will not happen as a research project, or even a billionaires dream. It will need much, much more.

It will need to satisfy a basic need of humanity. I posited an imposed reason in my book, but that seems a very high price to pay. Let’s try to do it without killing billions of people.

So, in my book, I take the obvious step of putting people underground far enough to avoid radiation and foreseeable impacts like those we see happening on the Moon  all the time. But every solution is like a nested set of Russian dolls. When you open one up, there are nested  others inside that predetermine your direction and bring their own problems.

Putting people underground with reduced sensory imput creates a lot of possible psychological problems in its wake that must be dealt with even though we will no doubt choose remarkable people for our colonists.

They must be protected from feelings of isolation that are natural in the circumstances and the complications of living in a confined environment. This will involve considerable extra expense that must not be ignored if we expect the colony to persist as a sustainable entity.

You might think them to be trivial, but that means providing sensory experiences to balance the losses they will suffer living in boxes, forever foreclosed from the simple act of going outside.

We must give them a sense of space by providing very large boxes that mimic outside spaces, wonderful food to eat, some sense of a larger reality that will come from something like the flyeyes all over the Moon that I postulate, and beautiful things to see, like flowers and plants and art, and luxurious places to live.

The work they will do can easily hold its own in the powers of absorption it will engender. Being as it is, concerned with the survival of humanity, that part of their lives will provide its own interest.

Then there are all the environmental necessities we must supply from local resources, because there will be no way we can supply what they need from Earth.

So such a project will be no small thing, but we must do it for our survival. We need the outward push or we will lapse into navel gazing.

We need the challenge we have always had to the modern era to attract the minds that will not be satisfied with anything less. You can already see the lack of direction and sense of purpose that has already started to dominate our society.

When the public need subsides, the private need takes over, and we are not all pretty under the skin. it has happened to many other civilizations when they saw no worlds to conquer. Our kind needs it.

 

 

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