20 Oct 2016

There Is No Planet B!

Submitted by Kimon

"Our Generation Ships Will Sink" is the title of the essay Kim Stanley Robinson wrote to accompany the release of Aurora, at Boing Boing, his "defense" that interstellar travel is much more difficult than popular culture and most science fiction makes it out to be.

Should we stop telling the story?

Maybe not. One of the best novels in the history of world literature, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun, a seven-volume saga telling the story of a starship voyage and the inhabitation of a new planetary system, finesses all these problems in ways that allow huge enjoyment of the story it tells. The novel justifies the entertaining of the idea, no doubt about it.

But when we consider how we should behave now, we should keep in mind that the idea that if we wreck Earth we will have somewhere else to go, is simply false. That needs to be kept in mind, to set a proper value on our one and only planet, so that a moral hazard is not created that allows us to get sloppy with our caretaking of it.

There is no Planet B! Earth is our only possible home!

He goes on detailing the many serious physical, biological, ecological, sociological, and psychological problems that might force us to focus on Earth instead, or as well.

There has been a lot of buzz around Elon Musk's recent announcement of Space X's space transportation plans that would turn humanity into an interplanetary species -- and all in a timeline very close to our present, actually close to the colonization timeline of the Mars trilogy! (the First Hundred land in 2027) There have been previous announcements, and it remains to be seen whether Space X's plans will really make a difference in the same speed that they have been innovating recently.

As could be expected, KSR was reached for comment. In an interview with Bloomberg, he tries to explain why he thinks the SpaceX Mars colonization plans -- as opposed to a model more closely resembling public-funded scientific outposts like the ones found in Antartica -- might be too ambitious.

It’s 2024. Musk figures everything out and gets funding. He builds his rocket, and 100 people take off. Several months later, they land (somehow) and have to get to work remaking a planet.
I have to note, first, that this scenario is not believable, which makes it a hard exercise to think about further. Mars will never be a single-person or single-company effort. It will be multi-national and take lots of money and lots of years.

Musk’s plan is sort of the 1920s science-fiction cliché of the boy who builds a rocket to the moon in his backyard, combined with the Wernher von Braun plan, as described in the Disney TV programs of the 1950s. A fun, new story.

What is the optimal distribution of skills among 100 people who could each afford $200,000 to $500,000 a seat for such a high-risk endeavor?
They would not pay to get in but would be selected and trained, as any astronauts are and need to be.

Has SpaceX vested authority in someone—or a group—to run Mars?
It wouldn’t be SpaceX deciding these things. 

Who’s in charge?
This would be an uneasy mix of legal rule from earth, following the Outer Space Treaty and the regulations of the organizing bodies involved (NASA, the UN, and whoever else) and local decisions made ad hoc by direct democracy.

Everyone wants sustainability and sustainable development. But it’s hard to define on earth.
Sustainability is quite definable and rests on bio-physical parameters and balances that can be measured and described. It’s an ecological equation of sorts, big but not impossibly complex. It tends to be messed up by what is often called economics.

What needs to happen for the Mars colony to live sustainably and give humanity the lifeboat Musk envisions?
It’s important to say that the idea of Mars as a lifeboat is wrong, in both a practical and a moral sense.

There is no Planet B, and it’s very likely that we require the conditions here on earth for our long-term health. When you don’t take these new biological discoveries into your imagined future, you are doing bad science fiction.

In a culture so rife with scientism and wish fulfillment, a culture that's still coming to grips with the massive crisis of climate change, a culture that's inflicting a sixth mass-extinction event on earth and itself, it’s important to try to pull your science fiction into the present, to make it a useful tool of human thought, a matter of serious planning as well as thrilling entertainment.

This is why Musk’s science fiction story needs some updating, some real imagination using current findings from biology and ecology.

He is not the only one with reservations. It's about funding, and new science. Indeed, new information on the lack of nitrogen, the presence of poisonous perchlorates (and the tough-to-disprove possibility that there's microbial life there) certainly brake the pace with which Mars could be colonized or terraformed -- which is a completely different task compared to just landing there. Further thoughts on the timeline of Mars colonization in the "Are We Alone?" podcast from 2015: "Mars-struck", from Astrobiology Magazine (direct mp3 link). Mars One was another Mars colonization project, and Robinson had also commented on it when interviewed about it in 2015.

...And colonizing Mars is nothing compared to the complexity of interstellar colonization! The feasibility or infeasibility of interstellar space travel for our mortal biological coils, the uniqueness of spaceship Earth and the necessity to make sure our civilizational development will become compatible with the life and climate that birthed it: these are some of the themes developed in Aurora-related interviews.

Aurora does incite debate. From this discussion between KSR and Paolo Bacigalupi (The Water Knife) and from an article/podcast in NPR -- tied interview with Andy Weir (The Martian) and Neal Stephenson (Seveneves).

"Aurora," has received a wide variety of responses "including some really, really angry ones."

my working principle was, 'What would it really be like?' So no hyperspace. No warp drive. No magical thing that isn't going to really happen to get us there

From an interview with Space.com:

The solar system is our neighborhood, and going into space itself, exploring the solar system, is actually part of planetary maintenance, you might say. I have a huge enthusiasm for the space program when it comes down to the solar system and exploring it for the health of Terran [Earth] civilization. It's all part of a larger argument to try and figure out what we should be doing right now, what's important.

There are a lot of people, even powerful, influential people, who seem to think that the goal of humanity is to spread itself. I want this book to make people think really hard about — maybe there's only one planet where humanity can do well, and we're already on it.

Much more in this online chat at io9 (reporting here), on interstellar civilization, Jackie's starship, the Singularity, Ship the Narrator:

If we could go, I think it would be a good thing to do. I’m just thinking that the distances are too great, the times are too long, we are looking more and more like planetary expressions, life as a planetary expression. I’m still very interested in inhabiting Mars, but this may take thousands of years, because of perchlorates and nitrogen lack, things we didn’t know when I wrote my Mars books. The stars, meanwhile, are much much farther away, we couldn’t go back to Earth for a sabbatical and get what we need there (assuming we need anything, which I admit is an assumption). So I wanted to make that point, which I do think returns our focus to Earth. Whatever becomes possible to later generations, it won’t happen without a healthy and sustainable civilization on Earth. Space offers no bolt hole or escape hatch, that just won’t work. Not even Mars!

I don’t think that going to the stars is absolutely impossible. It’s not in the category of time travel or faster-than-light travel. It just strikes me as much more difficult than we’ve usually been thinking. Possibly a project for the year 5000 when we’ve got everything on Earth and in the solar system well in hand. All the problems I’ve brought up in AURORA might be solvable over the long, long haul.

Possibly it would be best to send a terrarium, but it would go even slower, and the added length of time might overwhelm the benefits of the greater size. It would be a cost-benefit analysis, and possibly a solution for the year 5000 or something.

This interview with Public Books on Aurora goes further into the education system and sustainability:

Health, broadly regarded, means keeping the whole biosphere healthy, because we’re so interpenetrated with it. Something like the Leopoldian land ethic seems to emerge: what’s good is what’s good for the land. You’re happy when you’re healthy, and you’re only healthy when the biosphere is healthy (meaning all the other humans as part of that). That’s a kind of ethics, and then you have a politics and a guide to action. You have a project, and people need a project.

I sense that in asserting that humanity can’t inhabit the galaxy, much less the universe, and may only ever be healthy here on Earth, I’ve suggested a limitation that rubs some people the wrong way. They like to think of humans as transcendent, and once a religious afterlife is removed from consideration, the species going cosmic is the secular replacement for that religious yearning.

Some more audio interviews on the themes touched upon by Aurora:

  • The Planetary Society's radio show here (direct mp3 link)
  • The Verge's ESP here
  • ABC (Australia)'s Books and Arts here
  • Also from ABC, Outward Bound on humanity and staying sane in space! Podcast here (direct mp3 link) and article version here
  • Bonus: KSR describes his "top shelf" in music, as soundtrack to his writing: Clifford Brown, Astor Piazzolla, Steve Howe, Ludwig van Beethoven, Van Morrison!
  • Also, a short video recording from an Aurora reading and Q&A at the Sacramento Public Library, on Facebook.

Finally: This science fiction author's qualifications were sufficient that he was a reviewer for a Nature article on exoplanets! The paper/article, "Temperate Earth-sized planets transiting a nearby ultracool dwarf star", discusses findings of planets barely 40 light-years away (further than Aurora's 12 light-years, but still close in the grander scheme of things).

You can read the opening chapter of Aurora, along with some appropriate stock photos, on The Verge.

Next: Antarctica, China and Ecotopia.

Photo: SpaceX; not the Ares.