Traveling to the Stars, Part Two: Logistics and Obstacles

After reviewing the origin and purposes of the real universe, we concluded Part One of this three part series with this question: “What logistics obtain for traveling to the stars, and what obstacles are star travelers likely to face?” Let’s discuss some of those logistics, and ponder some of those obstacles…

The observable speed of light is 186,000 miles per SECOND. The greatest Earth-escape velocity yet attained by a man made device was that of the probe New Horizons, launched A.D. 2006. It reached 10 miles per second. That is staggering compared to the speeds that planes, trains, and automobiles can reach, but still 18,600 times slower than the unimaginably fast speed of light!

Voyager 1 – still voyaging out of Earth’s immediate neighborhood – attained a velocity somewhat greater than 10 miles per second, thanks to gravity assists from Jupiter and Saturn. Solar Probe Plus, scheduled for launch in A.D. 2018, is expected to achieve a whopping 120 miles per second thanks to the sun’s gravity. But like New Horizons those craft are unmanned, and in the case of Solar Probe Plus, not having the distant stars for a destination but the sun.

Nevertheless, let’s get a bit unhinged with sci-fi speculation. Suppose someday we can build a vessel able both to transport personnel and to reach what Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock would call a sub-light speed of 200 miles per second. That is “only” 930 times slower than the speed of light.

Now let’s sum up the math involved, and illustrate what we are up against. Light traveling at 186,000 miles per second from the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, takes about 4.3 YEARS to reach Earth.

A rocket with humans on board traveling at the velocity of New Horizons (18,600 times slower than light) would have an E.T.A. to Alpha Centauri of 79,980 YEARS (18,600 X 4.3) from the date of its launch.

Our imaginary rocket cruising at 200 miles per second would arrive at Alpha Centauri in 3,999 years (930 X 4.3). But wait…to our knowledge, the Alpha Centauri star system has no planets!

The recently discovered Trappist-1 system, which some believe includes habitable planets, is about 39 light years from home. So 930 X 39 puts our imaginary rocket’s E.T.A. to Trappist-1 in the year A.D. 38,290 if it could be launched in A.D. 2020. That trip time is the equivalent of all history since the time of Christ, multiplied almost 20 times!

Warp drives, wormholes, and “folding space” as in Frank Herbert’s Dune universe are purely hypothetical. So are long term hibernation or suspended animation technologies…and a sleep of forty thousand years makes Rip Van Winkle’s twenty year cat nap look like the twinkle of an eye! So let’s go back to the drawing board and work with a plan of sending live people, who obviously would have to reproduce along the way. It would be their descendants, not themselves, who would actually reach the Trappist-1 system.

Even if we generously allow a period of one hundred years for each fully conscious star traveling generation, that’s four hundred generations of people – being born and dying, breathing an artificial atmosphere, eating, drinking, and recycling every bit of waste. Offer a sustainable model for achieving that, and don’t forget to consider how they would deal with the remains of their dead! It appears that we must conceive of a vessel that would need to be sized at least on the order of the Empire’s moon-sized “Death Star” from the fictional adventures of Luke Skywalker and friends.

And let’s consider the socializing and government of our star traveling new ethnic group…for is that not what they would become? Would this society with no possibility of immigration or emigration be able to maintain its vision and its will to attain the original goal? Knowing human nature which has not changed in all our history so far, is it not more likely that the mission’s vision and goal would become obscured or twisted? A scenario in which a revolutionary contingent arises in the fifth or tenth or twentieth generation, far removed from the zeal and idealism of the first, seems quite plausible, no? What about crime, disease, and catastrophes so unforeseen that we can’t even foresee what they might be?

Suppose revolutionaries overthrew the establishment and either destroyed the vessel in utter, suicidal despair, or made an effort at returning to an Earth populated by their very distant cousins who only knew of the existence of the star bound portion of humanity as a chapter of history? Even allowing for communication with Earth at the greater speed of light, the further the vessel went, the less relevant data transmitted either way would be at either end…and we’re assuming everything is peaches and cream on Earth, not nuclear winter.

And what about the procreating that would have to be ongoing for all those thousands of years? What size population would be required to prevent devastating inbreeding? How would the artificial environment effect the human body and psyche over many generations? Can the most advanced lamp substitute for a day on a sunny beach or an evening under a romantic moon? And no doubt cabin fever would take on a whole new level of meaning…

Lastly, figuring out how to put the brakes on something traveling that fast would be a huge, final hurdle. But we’re dreaming unhinged, remember?

Will we ever travel to the stars? Whether you tend to say yea or nay, Passengers (A.D. 2016, directed by Morten Tyldum and written by Jon Spaihts) was a great flick! The motives and expectations involved in traveling to the stars will be discussed next week.

to be continued…

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