In the movies, if there is a starship on screen, they're almost legally required to have it shred through nebulae at some point, or something equally colorful. They're even designed with this point in mind, with large windows in every hallway that lay bare the Technicolor splendor the universe.
There really is a lot to see in the universe. Unfortunately, 99.9 percent of it is this:
The majesty of the universe looks a lot like a shitty screensaver.
But what about those awesome Hubble photos they keep sending back? Like the "pillars of creation" picture from the Eagle Nebula?
Could we not one day zoom through the Great Beyond pointing out all the clouds that look like wispy rainbow colored dongs? Then flying through them to get the approximate experience of cock punching the universe?
Well... that up there, doesn't actually exist. Or it exists, but doesn't look like that.
The picture was, in essence, Photoshopped. Or, in more technical terms, "The color image is constructed from three separate images taken in the light of emission from different types of atoms. Red shows emission from singly-ionized sulfur atoms. Green shows emission from hydrogen. Blue shows light emitted by doubly-ionized oxygen atoms."
So, no, that's not at all what it would look like if you were plowing through it. What would it look like?
Our best guess is that it looks like Gene Shalit.
Well, we can say that it's boring enough that it took a shitload of manipulation to get it to look like something worthy of Astronomy Picture of the Day.
But, hey, there has to be something out there, right? Couldn't you intentionally set your course for some cool-looking part of the galaxy? Well, maybe, provided the nebula or other gas formation is still there when you arrive. All the pictures we have now were made with light that took many thousands of years getting to us. By the time you arrive, the whole thing could have collapsed into a new generation of stars or been blown to the far ends of the universe.
Of course, whatever you do see, you'll be watching on a video screen. They're not going to put windows all over the ship for you to gaze out, unless future space agencies suddenly become comfortable with the idea of installing massive structural faults into their trillion dollar investments. Having a window that you can see out of means that it's also transparent to radiation you're desperately trying to avoid. It would literally be like a screen door on a submarine.
Really, you'd be better off sleeping the whole trip. Which is a good thing, because...
Sci-fi is fond of selling us space travel as the Greatest Adventure. Luke Skywalker started as a simple dirt peasant, and at the end of what appears to be only a week he'd traveled across half the galaxy, crippled an empire and won the affections of a princess that wouldn't become creepy until much later. In the world of sci-fi, you can take day-trips to various Planets of Adventure and then return home the triumphant hero.
"Well, you know... hypothetically."
Luke Skywalker had hyperdrive, and the crew of the Enterprise had warp drive to get them around at faster-than-light speeds, both of which were pulled out of a writer's ass to get around this killjoy of an equation:
What a jerk.
Einstein's equation tells us that a little bit of mass equals a lot of energy. That means adding energy, like if you wanted to propel the object forward, increases its mass. You don't notice it normally, but you would if you went fast enough. So the faster you go, the more energy the object gains, and the more massive it becomes. As your object (that is, your ship) approaches the speed of light--but before it can reach it--it becomes infinitely massive, and the only way make something infinitely massive go faster is to use an infinite amount of energy.
Any mass you start with, even a single atom, is going to hit the same "Your Fat Ass Requires Infinite Energy" wall. Since there isn't enough energy in the entire universe to move even a single atom past this threshold, it's safe to say this is one speed limit you will be forced to obey.
But big deal, right? Light is like lubed lightning, going 300,000 kilometers a second. Even if we were going half that, we'd still make good time, wouldn't we?
Well, even though light can make the trip from here to the Sun in just eight minutes, on the scale of the universe that distance is like reaching for a beer. Getting to the next closest star system (Alpha Centauri) will take you more than four years, going the maximum speed the universe allows.
That's 28 wookiee years.
So even "short" trips are going to entail years of travel. But wait! Relativity has another fun surprise: Time will always seem to pass at the same rate for you, but to an outside observer, like everyone back on Earth, your time will appear to slow the faster you go. So, figuring you'll need a year at Alpha Centauri to get anything worthwhile done, that decade-long round trip from your perspective could easily mean 20 or more years of time passed on Earth depending on how much ass you've hauled.
And this will have happened.
There's going to be a severe disconnect when you get back. Knowledge and skills you painstakingly acquired will be outdated, your friends and family will have aged beyond you, and the culture itself will have evolved into something almost alien. Home, and the life you knew, will be forever gone.
In your average sci-fi setting, starships seem to serve equal time as vehicles of drama as they do, you know, actual vehicles. Every other episode of Star Trek has the crew facing down Catastrophic Space Anomalies and Sudden Equipment Failures. Fortunately, there's always some way to reconfigure the deflector dish to fix it.
Usually, the solution involves spilling red shirt blood.
You'd better freaking hope nothing goes wrong. Your life depends on your time aboard the starship being skull-crushingly boring. It'll take a lot of planning to make that happen since, as we mentioned before, the faster you scoot, the more kinetic energy you have. When you're moving at relativistic speeds, particles the size of a pebble impact with the force of a hand grenade. Rocks the size of a nuclear bomb will hit like a nuclear bomb.
"Goddamn, space is redundant."
But if you take damage--or have an onboard system fail--and it's not right in line with what the mission planners thought might fail, your options are pretty much limited to picking which part of your ass you would like to kiss goodbye. None of the stand-by sci-fi strategies for crisis management are going to work.
For instance, when your engine dies on Earth, friction from the air, ground and slow pedestrians will eventually bring you to a full stop.
Take heart, Toyota owners.
In space, nothing stops you; you keep hurtling forward into a black vacuum. If you want to backtrack, you have to spend twice as much time accelerating the opposite direction.
But maybe you're banking on a rescue? Of course, any ship sent after you will first have to match your speed and then go even faster to catch up. If you were going 0.5 times the speed of light, and they accelerate to 0.6 times, that means a starship only one light-year away will take 10 years just to get to you.
What's that you say? Screw the rescue ships and make for the escape pods? It almost sounds plausible. After all, didn't the Mir space station have one of those for when tired crewmen accidentally rammed cargo ships into the solar panels? Well, yeah, Mir did have an "escape pod," but the station was also sitting over Earth. All that pod really had to accomplish was to be really good at falling, just not good enough to liquefy its passengers on touchdown.
In deep space, the requirements for an escape pod scale up a bit. It will need:
A. Living space and amenities.
B. Artificial gravity.
C. Engines powerful enough to get you somewhere within your lifetime.
D. Enough supplies to last for the several years it'll take to make the trip.
So your escape pod is just going to be a second starship. What happens when it breaks?
You hope for help from an ethereal space dragon.
For cost reasons, future space agencies are unlikely to provide an infinite loop of starships. When something does go wrong, the reality is going to be more like Apollo 13, with astronauts scrambling desperately to MacGyver up shit like air filters out of duct tape and plastic bags.
Remember, kids: once you take the Deep Space Plunge, there's no going back. Your ass is committed.
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