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What Will It Take for Humans to Colonize the Milky Way?

arالعربية (Arabic) :هذه المادة متوفرة أيضا في هذه اللغة

In this radically diminished enviroment, rules would have to be enforced to keep all aspects of the experiment functioning. Reproduction would not be a matter of free choice, as the population in the ark would have to maintain minimum and maximum numbers. Many jobs would be mandatory to keep the ark functioning, so work too would not be a matter of choices freely made. In the end, sharp constraints would force the social structure in the ark to enforce various norms and behaviors. The situation itself would require the establishment of something like a totalitarian state.

Of course sociology and psychology are harder fields to make predictions in, as humans are highly adaptable. But history has shown that people tend to react poorly in rigid states and social systems. Add to these social constraints permanent enclosure, exile from the planetary surface we evolved on, and the probability of health problems, and the possibility for psychological difficulties and mental illnesses seems quite high. Over several generations, it’s hard to imagine any such society staying stable.

Still, humans are adaptable, and ingenious. It’s conceivable that all the problems outlined so far might be solved, and that people enclosed in an ark might cross space successfully to a nearby planetary system. But if so, their problems will have just begun.

Any planetary body the voyagers try to inhabit will be either alive or dead. If there is indigenous life, the problems of living in contact with an alien biology could range from innocuous to fatal, but will surely require careful investigation. On the other hand, if the planetary body is inert, then the newcomers will have to terraform it using only local resources and the power they have brought with them. This means the process will have a slow start, and take on the order of centuries, during which time the ark, or its equivalent on the alien planet, would have to continue to function without failures.

It’s also quite possible the newcomers won’t be able to tell whether the planet is alive or dead, as is true for us now with Mars. They would still face one problem or the other, but would not know which one it was, a complication that could slow any choices or actions.

So, to conclude: an interstellar voyage would present one set of extremely difficult problems, and the arrival in another system, a different set of problems. All the problems together create not an outright impossibility, but a project of extreme difficulty, with very poor chances of success. The unavoidable uncertainties suggest that an ethical pursuit of the project would require many preconditions before it was undertaken. Among them are these: first, a demonstrably sustainable human civilization on Earth itself, the achievement of which would teach us many of the things we would need to know to construct a viable mesocosm in an ark; second, a great deal of practice in an ark obiting our sun, where we could make repairs and study practices in an ongoing feedback loop, until we had in effect built a successful proof of concept; third, extensive robotic explorations of nearby planetary systems, to see if any are suitable candidates for inhabitation.

Unless all these steps are taken, humans cannot successfully travel to and inhabit other star systems. The preparation itself is a multi-century project, and one that relies crucially on its first step succeeding, which is the creation of a sustainable long-term civilization on Earth. This achievement is the necessary, although not sufficient, precondition for any success in interstellar voyaging. If we don’t create sustainability on our own world, there is no Planet B.

Scientific America - Kim Stanley Robinson