What would it take to develop the capability to send humans to another star system? That is the ambitious challenge taken up by the 100 Year Starship project. And they have set a deadline of achieving this ambitious goal within, as their name implies, the next 100 years.
Meeting the challenge of sending humans on an interstellar journey that, in all likelihood, will last thousands of years, requires a massive rethink of just about everything. Take something as simple as clothing. It represents a large part of our identities, but it is a major challenge in the closed system of a starship. Can we make clothing that will last the entire journey? If not, can we manufacture clothing on the starship? The answer is probably not, given the lack of new raw materials that the starship will encounter along the journey and the astronomical cost of bringing enough cotton on the starship to supply everyone with new t-shirts for a thousand years. Not to mention that the making of new clothing and the disposal of old clothing is an incredibly toxic process.
So what is the solution? Well given that a starship is climate controlled we could just abandon clothing all together. That would satisfy the technical hurdles but would run into a lot of resistance from most people who not only see clothing as an integral part of their identity that is so entrenched that giving it up just doesn’t enter into their train of thought, but also the cultural aspect of wanting to keep certain areas of our bodies private and hidden from others. So here we have an easy technical solution that flies in the face of what most of us consider ‘appropriate’.
And that is just clothing, one of the easier problems that needs to be solved.
But what do a bunch of naked astronauts have to do with Planet3.0’s core mission of exploring sustainability?
The clothing example above is actually good illustration. Many things we rely on become obviously unsustainable when done in the small closed system of a starship. What is less obvious is that they are still unsustainable when the closed system is scaled up by several orders of magnitude.
By any practical definition, our planet is such a scaled up closed system, but it is so large that we often don’t think of it as a closed system. Scaling down the system can help put the sustainability of the things we do everyday into a clearer focus.
Another critical area of sustainability is, of course, energy. Here too the 100 year starship project has goals that align nicely with what we need in order to achieve sustainability here on earth.
Developing the capability to generate the massive amounts of energy required in order to propel a starship to another star system within the small closed system of the starship would also mean that we have developed the ability to generate more than enough sustainable energy here on earth. Enough energy to satisfy any demands, regardless of how large the planet’s appetite for energy gets.
In fact the energy requirements of the 100 Year Starship are so large that it raises another problem. The amount of energy needed to travel to another star system is so large that if not used carefully could completely destroy life on earth. Think of the destructive power of nuclear energy multiplied a thousand of times. The destructive power of that much energy is hard to comprehend. Like many aspects of interstellar travel the scale is orders of magnitude larger than we are used of thinking about.
So one of the larger challenges involved is how we deal with ourselves.
We don’t have a governance model that is robust enough to survive the journey to another star system, a journey that could last a thousand of years. The effort required for solving this cannot be overstated. A cursory glance at even the most well functioning democracy, to say nothing of the level of governance in Washington DC, or the United Nations, shows how our current governance systems fall completely short of what is required.
But the benefits of building a more robust and effective governance model here on earth are obvious. In fact the lack of such a model is a major reason why solutions to the problems we have (including climate change) remain elusive.
In short by forcing ourselves to solve the problems inherent in developing the capability to send humans to another star system we develop the capability to live sustainably here on earth. Huge challenges are needed because we won’t get where we need to go (be it sustainability or another star system) with incremental steps. Giant leaps (for mankind) are required.
Framing the problem as developing the capability to travel to another star system is a creative way to spark people’s imagination and ambition towards developing our capacity to create sustainable systems here on earth.
There is a potential pitfall involved in such an approach. It is one of timescales. 100 years seems awfully ambitious in order to build the capability to travel to another star system. However, 100 years is far too long if we want to solve many of the problems we face here on earth while avoiding significant suffering. On the other hand, much can potentially be achieved if the project is managed effectively and real attention is paid to the problems facing us here on earth.
That being said there is something incredibly worthwhile in aiming for something better than what we currently have, especially when what we currently have is taking us down a path we know is disastrous, and we haven’t yet found how to change course.
We don’t have the same ambition for the future we used to have. We are still coasting from the large breakthroughs of 30-50 years ago, and the future certainly doesn’t have the level of funding it used to have.
We are the most materially rich people in history, yet our discourse is one of scarcity. If nothing else the 100 Year Starship project will be successful if it improves our level of ambition for the future.