So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…
Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!
Dr Mae Carol Jemison is a remarkable woman. Not only was she an astronaut, she is a medical doctor, a pro-space-exploration lobbyist and now she has been chosen to run the 100-year Starship project, an investigation into the logistics of a multi-generational mission beyond the solar system. She was awarded the role due to her contribution towards setting up the 100-year Starship symposium organised last year by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. Dr Jemison’s life-long interest in space travel inspired her to work hard towards achieving goals that might have seemed impossible when she was a child.
So … what does this study mean, in particular those dedicated people in the team leaving Earth aboard a generational ship? What must Dr Jemison consider while researching the logistics and challenges of such a voyage?
With current technology, we could probably build a generational ship right now, by hollowing out an asteroid and converting it into a self-sustaining environment. In a hundred years, who knows what innovations might be brought to the project. Anyone who wants more details about how a generational ship might be constructed should read Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. This article is going to focus on the people and culture.
A generational ship, as the name implies, is a vessel designed for journeys so lengthy that generations are born, grow up, have their own children, and die, all while living aboard the ship. The first generation has to be large, healthy, mentally stable, and genetically diverse with no inheritable diseases or defects, or the inbreeding would soon drive the population to stagnation and extinction. I would not qualify for inclusion in the first team, even with two degrees, as I suffer from asthma and diabetes, both of which have a genetic component. And – let’s face it – I probably would fail the psychological profile needed; team members would have to be of an even temperament, and able to subsume their individual egos for the good of the team (Spock had it right).
The biggest issue would be how to structure the society and culture of the ship so that the descendants of the first team would remain loyal to their task. After all, once the last of the Earth-born dies, it would be easy for Earth to become a myth and legend. In five hundred years, the occupants of the generational ship might cease to believe in Earth. This means that the mission must become a vital part of their culture, taking on a similar significance to a religion; after all, it would be based on faith.
Communications with the generational ship would become problematic the further they travelled. Once they were past the edge of the solar system, any real communication breaks down because of the lengthy delays in transmission. Even a crew sent to Mars would find the time lag hard to adjust to, as we earthlings are all used to nearly instantaneous communication.
There would most likely be a continuous communication stream between the ship and the home planet, but when they are light years away it would be no way that the communication could be called ‘news’. They would be as isolated as the original colonists to Australia or America, and would have to be fairly self-sufficient for entertainment. However, they would still be able to receive all the movies and books, music and art, and other cultural touchstones from Earth. In return, Earth would receive cultural works as well as research back from the ship. It could inspire a new Renaissance.
This aspects is just one small part of the big picture when planning the generational ship. I don’t envy Dr Jemison all the headaches and heartaches that must be a daily part of her life. But the fact that she is in charge of this project gives me hope that one day, mankind will be making some effort to reach the stars.
*The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Our Contributors!