Why There Are No Space-Faring Civilizations
Despite the populist hype of billionaire Sci-Fi fanboys and a perpetual stream of Hollywood entertainments to the contrary, humans will never explore the galaxy in person. In fact, we won’t even explore our own solar system up close and personal. This is not merely because robotic missions can do the job 1,000% better for 1/1000th the cost. It’s because of two fundamental biological reasons.
The first is gravity. Everything about our bodies is evolved to function under a gravitational acceleration at sea level of approximately 9.81 meters per second, per second. Our hearts pump blood up to our heads, fighting gravity every centimeter of the way. Our muscles and bones are as strong as they are because every part of our bodies is fighting gravity every moment of our lives. Our sense of balance, which orients us spatially, depends on gravity being constant in one direction only: straight down.
Without gravity, very bad things happen: the heart pumps too much blood to the head and too little to the lower extremities, leading to ocular distortions, crushing headaches, and nausea as the inner ear loses all sense of up and down. Our bones and muscles atrophy dramatically, even when hours each day are dedicated to exercises specifically designed with the intention of slowing down this decay. Put simply, our bodies are incapable of handling microgravity and despite the pictures of smiling astronauts merrily enjoying microgravity on the ISS, the harsh reality is that every single one of those astronauts pays a price very few of us would wish to incur.
This same problem would exist for any plausible alien species that evolved on any alien planet or moon. Should an alien life-form evolve under conditions of micro-gravity, it would likely be unable to cope with even modest acceleration. So either way, our hypothetical aliens would face the same problem we do.
The Sci-Fi fanboy response to this fundamental problem is either (a) to ignore it entirely, as per Musk and Bezos, or (b) claim that artificial gravity is the answer.
As Musk and Bezos are ignoring the problem we can likewise ignore them. So what about artificial gravity?
There are only two ways to create artificial gravity. The first is called “constant-g” which means that we accelerate our hypothetical space ship at a constant 9.81m per second per second (as Medium doesn’t support the correct notation, we’ll call this 9.81mps² from now on) for the first half of the trip and then flip it around and decelerate it at a constant 9.81mps² for the second half of the trip. Einstein’s insight that over areas too small to experience tidal effects, such acceleration would be indistinguishable from regular gravity means that in theory Earth-style gravity could be induced in such a manner. Better yet, because the acceleration is constant, relativistic speeds will eventually be attained. In just 12 years (in the reference frame of the spacecraft) we could travel across our Milky Way galaxy. In a single human lifetime (in the reference frame of the spacecraft), under constant acceleration, we could reach the edge of the universe that’s observable from Earth. An Earth upon which, in that frame of reference, billions of years would have passed.
So with constant acceleration we get a “twofer.” Earth-identical gravity and the ability to traverse vast distances within a human lifetime. Problem solved!
Except that there is no way, theoretical or otherwise, to achieve constant acceleration of this magnitude. No propulsion mechanism, theoretical or otherwise, can overcome the problem of mass. In order to power the continual acceleration, our imaginary space ship is constrained by Newton’s observation that any action in a vacuum requires an equal and opposite reaction. As for releasing the energy with which to impart momentum, we’re constrained by Einstein’s e = mc² equation.
In other words, to accelerate a mass of X by some amount of velocity we will need to discharge an equivalent amount of energy in the opposite direction. And that energy can only come from fuel. Which adds to the mass of our space ship. So now we need to expend more energy, which means we need more fuel, which means we’re now carrying even more mass, which means we need to expend even more energy, which means…
In other words, even with some imaginary technology that could convert matter into energy with 100% efficiency, there’s simply no way to get to 9.81mps² constant acceleration for any meaningful amount of time. Sure, we can talk about things like an Alcubierre drive but then we’re just as entitled to say that Hogwarts will invent the Spaciamus drive to solve our problem instead. In other words, running off to hide inside imaginary “solutions” is no solution at all.
If constant acceleration can’t provide artificial gravity, what about centrifugal force? We all remember the rotating space station in 2001 A Space Odyssey and everyone knows that this was the only Sci-Fi movie ever to have utilized a science-based series of technologies. Plus, it’s easy to find on the Internet lots of schemes to create artificial gravity in this way, from tethering ships together and spinning them around a central axis to building enormous hollow rotating cylinders on the inside of which humans will experience Earth-like gravity. So, problem solved!
Except the movies and the Sci-Fi books mislead us, as is the way of popular entertainments.
First, the good news: if a person stood perfectly still and did not move in any way whatsoever, then centrifugal force could seem to mimic Earth-style gravity. Unfortunately, here’s the bad news: if they made any movement whatsoever, they would instantly be overcome by nausea and be disoriented.
Why is this? Imagine throwing a ball up into the air here on Earth. If you throw it straight up, it will come straight down, pulled by gravity toward the center of the Earth we’re standing on. But under conditions of “gravity” induced by centrifugal force, a ball thrown straight up will arc and fall away from the person who threw it because unlike here on Earth there’s a second force acting on the ball: centripetal force. As our inner ear orients us by means of reference to the constant downward force of gravity, this means that any movement at all — even something as minor as turning one’s head — would result in signals from the inner ear (responding to the centripetal force) jarring dramatically with the signals from our eyes. At best this would lead to our hypothetical human vomiting in a majestic arc; at worst it could render them incapable of any controlled movement whatsoever.
The diagrams below show the difference between gravity (or constant acceleration at 9.81mps²) and a rotating object. On Earth there’s only one force acting on us: gravity. On our imaginary rotating artificial gravity environment there are two forces: centrifugal, and centripetal. And that makes all the difference in the world.
As an object with a very large diameter will not need to rotate as rapidly as an object with a very small diameter, some people think that if it were possible to construct a sufficiently wide rotating object the centripetal force would become less of a problem. But in fact this doesn’t help, because although a very wide object will indeed rotate more slowly in order to produce the same amount of centrifugal force at the boundary, the velocity at the boundary will be precisely the same, for any given amount of centrifugal force, as the velocity at the boundary a rotating object with a smaller diameter.
To see why this is true, imagine the Earth. If you stand near to the north pole, you’ll rotate at the same speed as someone standing at the equator: once every 24 hours. But your velocity near the north pole is a fraction of the velocity of the person at the equator. So no matter how wide we choose to construct our hollow rotating object, the centripetal force at the boundary will remain the same and the problem will therefore remain the same.
Perhaps this is why Bezos prefers to ignore the problem; it can’t be solved just by throwing money at it. As for Musk, he makes people with ADHD look like paragons of sustained concentration so he probably doesn’t even know the problem exists. But even if you don’t know a brick wall exists, it still kills you if you slam into it at 1,000 kilometers per hour.
Gravity, therefore, is one reason why human beings will never be a space-faring species. It’s also the reason why it’s highly unlikely any other species capable of developing suitable technologies would ever become space-faring either. All organisms are highly adapted to the environments in which they evolve and it is extremely difficult to sustain organisms outside of their natural environments for any significant period of time. Add it the problems of solar radiation, the deleterious effects of microgravity, and everything else associated with space travel and it’s apparent that Sci-Fi fanboy dreams are a very poor guide to the future.
There is a second major reason why we humans will never be a space-faring species: psychology.
Our brains are as much the result of selection pressures as our bodies. Like our bodies, our brains are highly adapted to life on Earth. As a primate group species adapted to foraging, we’re not well-suited to being cooped up in tiny cages. We become obese and we develop all manner of mental problems. Without access to natural cues like water and grass and trees, we become stressed. When forced to interact with the same small group of people for years without respite, we become irrational and angry, or conversely withdrawn and depressed. Worse still, our emotional hardwiring makes us competitive even when cooperation is the optimal strategy, and our intellectual limitations lead us to acquiring and then strongly defending irrational and harmful beliefs.
Imagine, therefore, a space ship upon which 200 hapless humans attempt to exist for years or even decades. Instead of looking to Star Trek as our inspiration, a more probable vision is depicted in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or perhaps the concluding episodes of some trash reality TV show.
It is difficult to imagine any species capable of making spacecraft not having equivalent psychological limitations, albeit likely somewhat different from those that control our own behaviors.
There are many other reasons why neither humans nor any hypothetical alien life form will spread across the galaxy, but the two cited here should suffice to prove the contention.
This does not mean, however, that there won’t be money to be made in enabling space tourism. A few days in microgravity, ensconced in a modestly comfortable environment with a small number of others, could be a very congenial way for the wealthy to break up the monotony of holidaying in the Hamptons or on a private island in the Bahamas. Sheltered in low orbit by the Earth’s magnetic field, the dangers of solar radiation are reduced to a perfectly acceptable level and likely no worse than a dozen trips in a private jet. Microgravity sex will no doubt become this century’s equivalent of the Mile High Club that was so popular among the early jet-setters of the 1960s and 1970s.
But beyond a few amusing days spent orbiting the Earth while watching one’s champagne bubble around one’s head, and after the inevitable disaster of Mars Colony One, we will accept the fact that robotic missions are the real future. And then we will expand our knowledge of the universe exponentially instead of wasting hundreds of billions of dollars on futile dead-end fanboy dreams.