6 Reasons Space Travel Will Always Suck
We love movies about space, but are continually bored by actual space travel. When's the last time you rushed to the TV to watch a space shuttle take off?
No, we all seem to be waiting for the future of space travel to get here, a future of huge, comfortable starships hauling us to other planets where adventure awaits. Hopefully ships with lasers, that can destroy other ships.
Unfortunately, it appears that even for your grandchildren, space travel will really, really suck. Mainly because...
There is No Sex in Space
If Battlestar Galactica taught us anything, it's that the starships are like the Love Boat, if it were filled with never ending robot orgies and counterproductive human sexual drama. It's perfectly natural for the crew to spend their off hours doing some space romance, or as experts call it: "Boldly going where Kirk has gone before."
Places like the cavern o' dicks.
Let's start with the physical challenges. First of all, being in space lowers your blood pressure and slows down the flow of blood overall. That means you almost certainly can't get a boner. So there's that.
"I'll take that challenge."
If you somehow are able to achieve a zero-G erection, you'd better damned well make sure you've got multiple forms of birth control in effect. Think about it; they're not going to stock an interstellar mission with tens of millions of dollars of extra supplies on the off chance an extra crew member will pop out of somebody's womb. But that's not the only reason a pregnancy in space would be bad news.
Experiments done on mice embryos have shown that a lack of gravity messes with an egg's ability to properly develop. Add to that the markedly higher doses of radiation an astronaut is typically exposed to, and the result is not going to be something whose picture you'd want to keep in your wallet.
Of course, we've avoided the most obvious reason: you don't have to have spent time around too many dating couples at the office to know how it screws up the team dynamic. Take the bickering and innuendo and breakups and crying, and imagine being stuck with that while sealed inside a huge metal tube for several years.
Dead. Both of them.
Even now, NASA doesn't allow married couples to go on the same trip (there has been one exception, where the couple got married right before launch and it was too late to change the plans). As NASA knows, the true power of love is its ability to make even brilliant, highly skilled people turn into kidnap/murder plotting, 500 mile driving, diaper wearing crazy people.
That simply can't happen on a starship--romantic entanglements would have to be forbidden. You'll have to be compatible with these people, if for no other reason than to make it less awkward when you're drinking their recycled pee.
"So... how 'bout them sports teams?"
Hey, speaking of recycled pee...
It'll Be More Like a Submarine Than Star Trek
Big, comfy chairs, high ceilings, carpet. The Starship Enterprise is basically a damned star-hopping cruise ship.
Remember the Nostromo, the dim, filthy, depressing ship from Alien? Imagine that, but much, much more cramped. The luxurious starship from Star Trek is based on a couple of technologies that, as far as we know, will never, ever be possible:
A. Replicators that can instantly manufacture anything at all--food, clothing, spare parts--out of thin air;
B. A virtually unlimited, self-contained energy supply that requires very little room for storage.
Until somebody invents those things--and that may very well require the work of a wizard--space ships will continue to look more like this:
Many tons of equipment, wires and hoses crammed into every nook and cranny, with the humans basically just in the way.
If you're on a craft that has to take a decades-long trip and come back with something other than two dozen skeletons floating around inside, then every single spare inch of space--even more so than what you see up there--will be devoted to storage. Fuel, food, spare parts, medical supplies, machines to recycle your water and air; those are the systems whose sharp corners you will continually be banging your elbow on every time you make a sudden movement.
Those pics are from the International Space Station, which actually isn't a fair comparison since they aren't having to include all of the stuff it'll take to 1) get your sorry ass to another solar system, 2) accommodate for the fact that you're years away from help or resupply and 3) house lots and lots more people--you'll need doctors, engineers, scientists, etc. So it'd be more like a submarine:
Everybody packed together like sardines. For years. Why wouldn't the designers throw in some extra head room to make the voyagers more comfortable? Because every extra bit of ship is going to cost somebody millions--just getting cargo into orbit on board the space shuttle costs $20,000 a pound. That's also why you'll be drinking your own pee.
Remember to keep your pinky out so as not to appear uncivilized.
Yeah, the pee drinking thing. Water is heavy. You can't store much of it, and what you have is carefully rationed and recycled. The space station recycles sweat, urine, general humidity in the air, everything. Bathing is done with a damp wash cloth. So maybe it's less submarine and more filthy pirate ship.
Life in Zero-Gravity is Horrible
Hell, even the Nostromo had normal gravity on board, everybody walking around as if they're back home on Earth. In Star Trek, even their tiny shuttles have it. They're certainly not floating around the cabin like a bunch of dumbasses, slamming their head into a cabinet because they forgot to strap themselves down before they went to bed.
Man, those guys on the Nostromo had it good.
First of all, you do need gravity. Human bodies just fall apart without it. Without that constant working of your muscles due to gravity pulling you to the ground 24 hours a day, those muscles--including your heart--begin to shrink and your bones become brittle. Eventually you become so weak that the exertion of just sitting in a bed in normal Earth gravity will kill you.
Modern astronauts are able to counter the worst of these effects with heavy exercise, but if you're going to be gone for decades (and more on that in a moment), you're going to have to make your own gravity. The only plausible way we've ever come up with for doing this is to spin the freaking ship around so fast that it pins you to the floor.
If you've ever been on a carnival ride you're already familiar with the "centripetal force" that seems to be squishing you against the seat. For all practical purposes, that is gravity. So you'd be living in a spinning ring, where the outside wall is your floor.
If living for years on board a huge carnival ride sounds like a nightmarish puke-a-thon, well, it probably would be. You might also notice that the cartoon man up there is continually walking uphill, no matter where he goes. If you're going to have everybody living in the same area, that's about the only way to do it.
Presumably, if you tripped you would just fall and fall and fall.
Other designs feature multiple separate compartments, spinning opposite each other with a tether in between. Which could also work, until somebody needs to go from one compartment to the next, at which point they get to experience the awesome feeling of gravity shifting half way through their walk down the hall. Again, keep a well-stocked station of vomit buckets along the way.
But hey, who cares about physical comfort? Take one look out the window and your blues will go away! You're in space, baby!
The problem is...
There's Nothing to See
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...
Getting Anywhere Interesting Means Never Going Home
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 Space, On-Star Won't Do Shit For You
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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