Excerpted with permission from Monsters: The Hindenburg Disaster and the Birth of Pathological Technology, by Ed Regis. Available from Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015.
Pathological technologies are typically put forward, promoted, and developed despite the presence of substantial drawbacks or risks that, when considered at all, are commonly dismissed, downplayed, or passed over in silence by proponents. In the case of interstellar travel, the possible payoffs were substantially offset by a roster of downsides, dangers, and existential threats.
One category of risk arose from factors or forces external to the spacecraft—for example, collisions with objects in the interstellar medium. Collisions in space are by no means rare: by the end of the Space Shuttle program, for example, more than 100 shuttle windows had been replaced after impacts with space debris, some objects being as small as the fleck of paint that cracked the front window of STS-7 (the second Challenger mission) in 1983. After a while there had been such a rash of debris impacts that the shuttle, once it reached orbit, was intentionally flown tail-first to minimize the effect of collisions.
It might be thought that the interstellar medium is “empty space,” or a vacuum. To the contrary, the space between the stars contains volumes of interstellar gas and dust, along with cosmic rays, and possibly objects of unknown composition, size, mass, and density. And so it would be difficult to believe that on a journey of at least 4.22 light-years (the distance from Earth to Proxima Centauri) an interstellar spacecraft would meet with no other object whatsoever. But for a starship traveling at relativistic speeds, a collision with even a random small particle, according to Tom W. Gingell of Science Applications International Corporation, who did a study of the subject, would have the effect upon the spacecraft of an H-bomb explosion.
Since quickly diverting a massive spacecraft from its course would be impossible, it would be necessary instead to detect, deflect, or destroy the object within a matter of milliseconds before impact, by means of a system that would have to work perfectly and virtually instantaneously the first time out. But no such highly sensitive, fail-safe, and fast-acting detection and deflection systems existed or were in prospect.
A second category of risk consisted of threats arising from within the spacecraft itself to the physical and mental well-being of those aboard it throughout the whole of its interstellar journey. Since the size, structure, internal environment, and population of the starship were unknowns, any attempt at assessing what the probable onboard living conditions would be like was essentially an exercise in guesswork. Although there were numerous designs of interstellar craft on paper, there was one concept that had remained relatively consistent across time: that of a space ark. An early description of it was given by the British crystallographer J. D. Bernal in his 1929 book The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, a volume that Arthur C. Clarke once described as “the most brilliant attempt at scientific prediction ever made.”
In it, Bernal asked the reader to “imagine a spherical shell ten miles or so in diameter, made of the lightest materials and mostly hollow. . . . The great bulk of the structure would be made out of the substance of one or more smaller asteroids, rings of Saturn or other planetary detritus. . . . The globe would fulfill all the functions by which our earth manages to support life.” The spherical shell, he added, would have “twenty or thirty thousand inhabitants.”
As ahead of its time as it was, this was a concept with legs, because more than eighty years later, in Scientific American’s January 2013 “Future of Science” issue, anthropologist Cameron Smith wrote that “a Space Ark, a giant craft carrying thousands of space colonists on a one-way, multigenerational voyage far from Earth,” is “technologically inevitable.”
Neither Cameron Smith nor J. D. Bernal gave any reason to think that a space ark (also known as a Bernal sphere) was even technologically possible, much less “inevitable.” But Bernal himself acknowledged that life aboard “would be extremely dull, and that the diversity of scene, of animals and plants and historical associations which exist even in the smallest and most isolated country on earth would be lacking.” Life inside the starship would also be physically onerous, given the fact that these interstellar travelers would be confined to an artificial environment for their entire lives and would be subjected to an array of hazards, including cosmic ray damage and other forms of ionizing radiation, DNA mutations and cellular injuries, surface outgassing, epidemic diseases, possible mechanical failures (including the temporary or permanent breakdown of atmospheric, water, agriculture, waste recycling, or filtration systems), computer malfunctions and software glitches, crowding, lack of privacy, protracted isolation, boredom and unbearable tedium, trance states and depression, unforeseen emergencies, and every other source of misery and conflict that is found on earth (not excluding crimes of violence, murder, and suicide), although now with the further added attraction that the travelers would be locked up inside a vehicle ten miles wide, from which there was no escape, a craft that would be hurtling through a black void for years or decades, while out of real-time communication with the home planet and beyond any realistic possibility of rescue or outside assistance.
In addition to those physical, medical, psychological, and emotional dangers there would be ample opportunity among passengers and crew members for the rise of charismatic fundamentalism and/or other forms of religious fanaticism. After all, where human beings went, so too did their religions, even in the space age, as the history of American spaceflight has well demonstrated. During the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, and while in orbit around the moon, astronauts Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman took turns reading verses 1 through 10 of the Book of Genesis. Later, after the landing of Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, administered the Eucharist to himself during his short stay on the surface. As he later revealed to a Christian periodical: “It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.” So to imagine that religion would disappear aboard a starship was as much science fiction as all the rest of the improbable interstellar scenario.
Further, in order for a space ark mission to be successful, there would have to be some sort of onboard government, including a constitution and legal system, a police force, courts, judges, juries, and prisons, both for purposes of effective law enforcement and to avoid tyranny, mutiny, civil war, or other forms of chaos, unrest, or revolt. As human beings, we would be bringing all of our conflicts, differences, and sources of division along with us, albeit now while confined inside an inescapable pressure-cooker located somewhere in space. And as was well known from all earthly experience, governments and their various subsidiary elements would be subject to corruption, rebellion, replacement, and destruction.
Still, in the unlikely event that the starship made it all the way through interstellar space without hitting anything, without the crew members suffering mass sickness, hallucinations, or epidemic death, civil war, or descent into religious fanaticism or ordinary secular madness, what an embarrassment it would be for the voyagers to discover, upon reaching their coveted new home in space, Earth 2.0, that unfortunately it was already occupied by a race of intelligent aliens who were all too ready, willing, and able to protect their turf by blasting these intrusive space invaders to smithereens or, worse, vaporizing them into sheer nothingness.
One might suppose that this possibility would have been entertained and guarded against well before launch, and that the travelers would have verified that their prospective extrasolar earth was uninhabited, or at least that any natives in the area were friendly, warm, and charming, with a wide variety of interesting restaurants. But any number of difficulties would suffice to throw cold water upon that rosy picture. For one thing, since the extrasolar planet was an unknown number of light-years distant, there would be a substantial delay between the possible sending of an unmanned exploratory probe and the arrival back at home of its report, during which time conditions on the target planet could have changed to the point that it could have been colonized by aliens who had already exhausted its resources, turned it into a trash dump or a penal colony, moved it out of its orbit, or destroyed it altogether.
Other scenarios were, of course, possible. An exploratory probe could in fact fail to discover hostile natives because they were intentionally hiding themselves from detection or even posing as friendly in order to lure starry-eyed intruders to their doom. There was in fact no fail-safe way of knowing what the conditions would be like on the target planet before the starship’s actual arrival there, at which point it might be far too late for the space invaders from earth to go home again, or to go elsewhere.
Finally, supposing that none of these catastrophes ever happened and that our group of interstellar voyagers, or more likely their remote descendants, reached their destination safely and intact; what would they then do with the pristine and virgin extrasolar planet they colonized? Assuming that human nature had not changed in the interim, they would in all likelihood do with it more or less what the earth’s native population had long since done to their own home planet, which was a matter of common knowledge and considerable embarrassment to many.
But there was another, closer analogue to the probable legacy of human action on a another celestial body, to wit, our treatment of our own celestial companion, the moon. By the end of 2012, human beings had deposited approximately 400,000 pounds of man-made objects, debris, and space junk on the moon. Most of the total was spacecraft wreckage, the bits and pieces of more than 70 rockets that had landed upon or crashed into the moon, starting with the 800-pound Russian Luna 2 vehicle in 1959. In addition, there was the collection of objects left behind by the Apollo astronauts, who took more than pictures and left a lot more than footprints. Indeed, more than 100 items were abandoned or intentionally placed on the Sea of Tranquility by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin alone, including shovels, rakes, an American flag, geological tools, lunar experiment packages, reflectors, and the Lunar Plaque that read: Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.
But did we leave the place as good as, or even better than, we found it? Was the moon actually improved by our presence? Waves of later American astronauts left on the moon’s surface a succession of lunar landing modules and rovers, tongs, scoops, golf balls, twelve pairs of boots, television and still cameras, lenses, film magazines, lines and tethers, boxes, canisters, cables, filters, antennas, packing material, hammers, cockpit seat armrests, ninety-six bags of human urine, feces, and vomit, blankets, towels, wet wipes, personal hygiene kits, empty packages of space food, and various sculptures, pins, patches, medals, and miscellaneous other pieces of flotsam, jetsam, and junk.
This, then, was the situation. There appeared to be no good reason for going to the stars to begin with, and no good way to get there, particularly in any sort of reasonable, human time frame. A starship would confront ample physical dangers from without, while its population would face substantial hazards of their own arising from conditions inside the ship itself. The interstellar travelers could face further unpleasant surprises upon arrival at their destination.
If the trip were a multigenerational journey, then no one who departed on it would be alive upon the ship’s arrival at its destination, meaning that nobody who boarded the craft would benefit from the trip. Nor would anyone on earth who witnessed the launch, or helped pay for the craft, be alive to behold the ship’s grand appearance at the distant star system.
What, then, was the point of it all? In the annals of pathological technologies, there was no other idea that depended for its plausibility on such an extreme degree of juvenile aspiration, magical thinking, systematic denial, and sheer silliness than the imaginary technologies of interstellar flight.
It did not follow from this that manned spaceflight per se was inherently pathological, nor that any or all of the exploits in its past history fell into that category. The Apollo program, for example, did not meet the criteria of pathology, for two main reasons. Although it was wildly expensive, the cost was not out of proportion to its benefits, which included, among other things, clear proof that human travel to other celestial bodies was in fact possible. If humans were to migrate from the home planet, to Mars or elsewhere, then the moon flight was the first and most important milestone in that direction. Second, the risks of manned spaceflight were too obvious, substantial, and well known for them to be ignored, minimized, or papered over. Indeed, in the public addresses in which he made a case for going to the moon, President John F. Kennedy not only portrayed the moon flight as a stepping-stone to the rest of space but also acknowledged its difficulty. In his first “moon speech,” delivered to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, Kennedy famously said: “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
In the second such speech, at Rice University on September 12, 1962, Kennedy emphasized the difficulty of pioneering space travel: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other [difficult] things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” They were hard not only because they were scientifically and technically challenging, but also because manned spaceflights were risky ventures. Astronauts or others involved in the enterprise could die horrible deaths (which some of them did), the entire project could fail, rockets could get lost in space. Pictures of spacecraft exploding on launch pads were pervasive in the mass media, and the threats they posed to astronauts were impossible, even for politicians, to cover up or deny. Anyone who has read The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s legendary history of the Mercury program, will recognize the oft-repeated refrain, “Our rockets always blow up,” which, as a statement of fact, was only slightly hyperbolic.
The situation has not changed significantly during these early days of private spaceflight, a set of ventures that are neither large in scale nor all that expensive: the entire private launch industry is minuscule, far smaller in comparison to NASA-sponsored spaceflight than is private aviation as compared to commercial air travel.
Nor are the risks of private trips into space hidden from the public, ignored, or downplayed. Indeed, it would be impossible to do so: the fatal crash of Virgin Galactic prototype vehicle Space-Ship Two, the VSS Enterprise, in October 2014 was so widely publicized in all forms of media that any attempt to soft-pedal the dangers of commercial space flights would be ludicrous. For these reasons, “space tourism” is not even remotely pathological. Technologies may, of course, be criticized on other grounds than being pathological: they might be pointless, naive, poorly executed, silly, and many other things, but none of these faults need make them pathological enterprises.
The Space Shuttle and the International Space Station (ISS) are harder to classify definitively. Both have been big, expensive programs, and the risks of shuttle flights were minimized until the Challenger and Columbia disasters made that procedure impossible. There is also the problem that the scientific returns of both projects are disproportionately small in relation to their expense, and the likelihood of a big payoff is remote. The two projects seem to be mired in a loop of mutual justification: the shuttle exists to supply the ISS, whereas the ISS exists to justify the shuttle’s resupply missions, the whole circular operation existing mainly for the purpose of maintaining itself indefinitely as a going concern. (The principal scientific justification for the space station was to study the effects of long-term exposure to zero-gravity conditions on the human body.)
Traveling to the stars, by contrast, suffers from no such ambiguities or uncertainty. Indeed, it is a special case of manned spaceflight, more daunting than near-Earth spaceflight by many orders of magnitude. Star travel in fact occupies a special niche in the long career of human aspiration and desire. But although one of the most commonly expressed motivations for “going to the stars” is to perpetuate the human race, it is far more likely that an interstellar voyage would mean not the survival but rather the death of its crew. Arguably, the building and launching of a manned interstellar starship would be one of the most wasteful, expensive, dangerous, and foolish projects in all of human history—a pathological technology for the ages.