Speculations on Human Life in Outer Space 

Man’s expected emigration into outer space has captured the popular imagination. By now human beings have walked on the surface of the moon and have photographed distant planets close up. We know it is possible for humanity to colonize space and that possibility excites us. For many, the idea of living in space is like a piece of blank paper upon which to project fantasies of an ideal world. In a more practical way, the colonization of space offers assurance of survival for the human species should nuclear catastrophe, pollution, disease, or another deadly peril ravage its earth-bound population. It promises new frontiers to be conquered, new human adventures, and new opportunities for exploiting a limitless territory filled with abundant materials. Who could fail to be moved by such a prospect?

Science fiction writers have responded imaginatively to the challenge of exploring outer space. The television series, Star Trek, has attracted a cult following. While most space explorations remain in the future, it does seem to me, though, that some of the fiction writers’ assumptions concerning their way of life may not be realistic. The human colony assembled on the star ship “Enterprise” consists of hyper-rational individuals who are organized in a military-like society and who spout philosophical profundities. This type of culture is not futuristic but hearkens back to Plato. Apart from the darkened, star-filled scene outside the portals, little about life on this space ship reflects conditions of living in outer space as they might reasonably be anticipated.

What are those conditions? The main purpose of life, then as now, will be to perpetuate the human species. Because outer space lacks a natural environment in which earth-formed life can survive, humanity will have to create that environment artificially. An air-filled chamber accessible to water and other necessary materials will have to be manufactured and transported to its permanent location. Unless this apparatus and the materials can be brought up from earth at a great cost in energy, they will have to be created from materials found in space that are available to man. That will require new technologies for converting the materials chemically and physically into a useful form.

Beyond this obvious need, the natural conditions of space will impose certain requirements upon human colonies. Confining ourselves to regions within the solar system, we realize that our natural environment, beyond the space chamber itself, would be characterized by locations in time and space and by velocities of motion relative to the sun, its planets, and their moons. A space station might, for instance, be orbiting one of the planets, it might be stationed on a planet or moon, or it might be traveling orbit-less through space. These represent different conditions with respect to gravity for which different expenditures of energy will be needed for travel. It is obvious that no human colony could be established on the surface of a large planet such as Jupiter because the heat, gaseous pressures, and gravity would immediately crush and disintegrate the space station and its living inhabitants.

As a rule, therefore, human colonies will be limited to places having a lower gravity, cooler temperatures, and less density of atmosphere than found on earth. Those particular conditions must be within the limits of human tolerance. As for intolerable conditions on the other side of comfort, it is expected that technology can provide a supplement through artificial gravity, heating, and pressurized air.

At first glance, it would seem that the territorial instinct, common to most animals on earth, will become obsolete as the human species moves into outer space. There is obviously enough “room” in that place to accommodate everyone’s wants and needs, Upon further reflection, however, one realizes that certain locations in space are a more desirable place to settle than certain others. Places close to sources of materials convertible into waster and other of life’s necessities, which also are safely habitable by man, might remain a focus of territorial struggle. Unless comets and asteroids can be mined for their materials, those places would be restricted to locations on the surface of smaller planets or their moons. The premier residence, predictably, would continue to be the earth’s surface.

Humanity would also be concerned with possibilities for interplanetary travel. Such travel would be easier for human beings residing in places of low gravity where a minimal expenditure of energy would launch the voyage. The particular locations and orbital velocities of space ships relative to those of the planets constitute special opportunities for “fast track” travel comparable to those of oceanic currents on earth.

The basic fact is that, when a moving body approaches a large mass such as a planet, it gains acceleration and speed without further expenditure of energy. As it passes and moves away from that mass, it decelerates and loses speed. The net effect is that the spatial distance is traversed in less time that if the mass had not been present. Substantial changes in the direction of motion are also possible. Interplanetary travel will therefore be governed by natural time tables for exploiting favorable configurations of the planets similar to that which allowed Voyagers 1 and 2 to visit four outer planets.

Fundamentally, the rhythm of life in outer space would not be congenial to human nature. Human beings have evolved on earth in accordance with periodic frequencies of activity appropriate to our level of magnitude. For millennia, representatives of our species were hunters and gatherers who had daily interaction with their prey. On earth, we expect things to happen at rates of speed to which we are able to react. In outer space, those spatial and temporal relationships would be greatly changed.

Generally, elevation to a higher level of spatial magnitude brings a corresponding reduction of temporal frequency. So,in inhabiting outer space, we would move into a realm of huge size with vast distances. Our bodies would become completely dwarfed in this environment. Temporally, our lives would be out of synch with the slow-moving events found there. Within the artificial space chamber we would be normally stimulated by interaction with other human beings; but, outside, nothing much would be happening. the human life cycle spans perhaps eighty years, but significant celestial events take much longer. As a result, life in space may seem uneventful and boring.

At this point in time, there is no evidence that intelligent life exists anywhere in the solar system except on earth. If we should encounter an extraterrestrial species more intelligent than man who would choose to have contact with us, it might involve grave risks for our species. Therefore, we must assume that man will be left alone with himself and his earthly plant and animal companions in an otherwise inanimate universe. Nevertheless, the intra-human contact offers real relief from the boredom that might otherwise be experienced by inhabitants of space colonies.

All across the solar system, we might anticipate centuries hence that they will be colonies in various places created and inhabited by human beings. Each colony, confined to its own space chamber, would develop a distinctive ecosystem based upon the particular varies of life, including microbes, brought to it from earth. In time, the genetic differences between creatures inhabiting these colonies may become too great to permit safe travel between them. Even so, they might maintain close communication with each other through safe and energy-efficient techniques of radio communication. Thus the human colonies would be in touch with each other culturally though not physically

Even if the immediate physical circumstances of life in outer space are slow-moving and boring a space colony would receive ample stimulation from all the other human colonies with which it was in touch, including, hopefully, the mother colony on earth. Each colony would have its own set of historical experiences to share with others. Human beings in each colony would continue to make scientific discoveries which could also be shared. This the increase in historical experience and scientific knowledge would itself provide a steady stream of events to keep the inhabitants of the different colonies mentally occupied The proliferation of human colonies would make possible an enormous variety of experiences and points of view of which all, potentially, might be aware.

The human race would meanwhile be receiving much expanded and improved information about events in the natural universe. The larger an more advanced instruments of astronomical observation, unimpeded by distorting gaseous atmosphere, would permit more accurate readings of objects or events within the solar system and beyond. computer processing would “speed up: events so that conclusions might be seen from fragmentary evidence.

It would no doubt, become a policy question for each colony how much private information should be shared with the other human colonies. Some would adopt an “isolationist” stance, preferring to develop their own pure form of culture, while others would be more open and generous with their neighbors. Some might wish to exploit scientific discoveries to gain a power advantage while others would unselfishly share this knowledge. Humanity as a whole might develop a sense of history recognizing both the common past of all human colonies and their divergent futures.

The time in which we now live might be recognized by all as a unique time of convergence, when all the earth’s people became culturally and genetically unified as inhabitants of the same planet, just before their dispersal into space. Once physically scattered, their natures would inevitably and irretrievably diverge.

In the end, humanity would be left with two prized possessions, its genes and its culture. Both roughly correspond to what the ancient Greek philosophers called “form”. All about the natural universe would be masses of gases and solid debris representing that those philosophers called “material”. For human life to be possible and for its forms to have meaning, such materials would have to be systematically converted into water, oxygen, food, and other necessities. The idea of form stamping its image upon worldly material, conceived in the 5th century B.C., might continue to be a theme of importance to our space-inhabiting descendants.

The above speculation assumes, of course, that the story of space colonization will have a beginning. This has scarcely happened yet. Humanity missed a great opportunity in the 1970s, when after the first expeditions into space and onto the moon, it lost interest in space exploration and valuable time was lost. Our material treasure was squandered on wars, individualized travel, and other luxuries that extracted precious minerals and consumed limited energy resources. Space-related projects were more concerned with gaining knowledge than preparing ourselves to live in the inhospitable environment of outer space.

To take the first step of creating a new home for our species, I would propose that humanity establish a permanent colony on the earth’s moon and that the chief occupation of that colony be to build an industrial complex that converts materials found on the lunar surface into materials needed for human habitation. We will need clean air and clean water and a variety of other chemicals. We will need a sustained source of energy that can be obtained in outer space. We will need air-tight compartments in which human beings can live. These must all be built with materials found on the moon or with materials that can easily be transported to that place.

It will be an immense technological challenge to manufacture all these products away from other earth with resources found in that extraterrestrial environment. Yet, humanity needs to do that, because the clock is ticking on our own foolishness. We need a hedge against human extinction, with our eggs in more than one basket.


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