I thought this article “Why Not Space?” deserved to be noted, because it too elucidates the idea of this blog: that space travel is hard, the economics of space travel are not there, the human body is a fragile thing that will struggle to survive very long without massive engineering support.
Ask a random sampling of people if they think we will have colonized space in 500 years, and I expect it will be a while before you run into someone who says it’s unlikely. Our migration from this planet is a seductive vision of the future that has been given almost tangible reality by our entertainment industry. We are attracted to the narrative that our primitive progenitors crawled out of the ocean, just as we’ll crawl off our home planet (en masse) some day.
I’m not going to claim that this vision is false: how could I know that? But I will point out a few of the unappreciated difficulties with this view. The subtext is that space fantasies can prevent us from tackling mundane problems whose denial could result in a backward slide. When driving, fixing your gaze on the gleaming horizon is likely to result in your crashing into a stopped car ahead of you, so that your car is no longer capable of reaching the promised land ahead. We have to pay attention to the stupid stuff right in front of us, as it might well stand between us and a smart future.
Space is a hostile place for humans. It’s mostly empty, though not lacking in deadly ionizing radiation and cosmic rays. What few resources exist are so mind-blowingly scattered that they would seem to be utterly absent to the casual observer. Some point out that the open ocean is also hostile to human life, and conjure the image of a luxury ocean liner placidly plying the waters, oblivious to the surrounding harshness. If we can picture that, why is it such a stretch to imagine a luxury liner in space? It’s a gripping image, and would seem to counter worries about the cruelty of space. But let’s look at the oh-so-many ways the two situations cannot compare.
If the ship sinks, and you have a life raft, you stand some chance of rescue. The ocean is vast, but it’s a two-dimensional vastness teeming with human activity (compared to any realistic vision of 3-d space inhabitation even within the confines of our solar system). People have survived for months on the open ocean, subsisting on the elements around them. Running out of air is not a problem. Fresh water falls out of the sky as rain. Critters that are attracted to the cover of your life raft provide a source of food. I recommend the book 117 Days Adrift for a gripping account of a British couple who survived such an ordeal. Sometimes edible fish would actually jump into their dinghy. By contrast, a hamburger has never slammed into the side of the space shuttle in orbit, and I very much doubt that chicken nuggets are going to float up seeking the shelter of your space rescue pod!
The rest of the article is a fascinating read from a space scientist, no less.