sci-fi vs. scientists

Originally published in full at Don’t Panic Online, along with loads of other stellar writing, though mostly not mine.
Predicting the Future: Scientists vs SciFi

Inspired by a collection of images NASA created in the 1970s detailing how to live in space, we decided to dive into the whole issue of space colonies and technology.

The concepts for the colonies were designed by Princeton physicist George O’Neill with help from researchers at Stanford and NASA’s Ames Research Center, which researches human life on earth and in space. Created as part of an initiative for imagining living in space, the images are simultaneously quaint and inspiring. They include drafts for the interior and exterior of the colonies, and designed space for approximately 10,000 people.

The above images are exterior and interior views of O’Neill cylinders, one of the most common type of space colonies described by science fiction writers. O’Neill’s cyclinders rotate, which creates an artificial gravity on their inner surface. O’Neill cylinders feature prominently in Gundam anime series, a few of the Star Trek novels, and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, among others. The drawing of an O’Neill cylinder features alternating columns of land and windows, which simulate life on Earth by allowing light and heat from a star into the colony.

This image depicts the interior of a different style of colony, the Bernal Sphere, which is a spherical living area. It also includes a human-driven airplane (the little orange hankerchief floating near the top of the picture).

Looking at these drawings, we couldn’t help but be reminded of Iain M. Banks’ The Culture novels. The series, which includes nine novels so far, describes living in structures known as orbitals. Orbitals are ring-shaped habitats which orbit stars, rotate about once every 24 hours, and usually have about the same gravitational pull as Earth. In a 1994 essay, Banks described orbitals thus:

“For one planet the size of Earth (population 6 billion at the moment; mass 6×1024 kg), it would be possible, using the same amount of matter, to build 1,500 full orbitals, each one boasting a surface area twenty times that of Earth and eventually holding a maximum population of perhaps 50 billion people (the Culture would regard Earth at present as over-crowded by a factor of about two, though it would consider the land-to-water ratio about right).”

He also imagined other space structures like “ringworlds,” also ring-shaped but smaller. These NASA designs have something of that sense of elegance and efficiency. This begs the question: what other correlations exist between science fiction novels and scientific research?

Interplanetary travel in Frank Herbert’s Dune vs. Interplanetary travel, space tourism and generation ships

In Herbert’s Dune, passenger interstellar travel is one of the most important infrastructure developments. It’s only with the ability to travel between planets that Herbert could create the rich political, social, economic and environmental dramas which define the novel. He describes Heighliner starships, operated by the melange-addicted Spacing Guild, which allow people to voyage between systems almost instantaneously using the Holtzman drive (which folds space, allowing the ships to travel quickly and directly). They can’t land, instead resting in planetary orbitals, while passengers and products are transported to the planet itself using ferries. These ships are critical to Dune, and allow the society described the novel to function.

Efforts to colonise other planets would rely on the ability for vast amounts of passengers and goods to travel through space. Space tourism is one of the first initiatives aimed at allowing average citizens to travel into outer space. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic project includes plans for passenger space ships, and the world’s first commercial space station in New Mexico.

Currently, Space Adventures is the only company to have sent paying tourists to space. Betwen 1998 and 2009, seven passengers have participated. However, while these remarkable developments allow passengers to orbit Earth, and the industry is expanding, there aren’t yet have provisions for travelling between stars.

Barriers to interstellar travel are huge, the first being that there is no known available destination. Other difficulties with interstellar travel include the cost of transporting people and things into space, the time required to travel between such distant points, and life support for extended durations of time. Without the ability to travel faster than the speed of light, it would take thousands of years to travel to stars and other galaxies. As that’s longer than most people’s life span, generation ships are often the solution. Passengers on a generation ship would know that they’d die on the ship when boarding, hoping only that their children or children’s children would reach the destination. The ability for passengers to reach space settlements or other planets would be critical to colonising space. But without an actual destination, anything beyond novelty passenger Earth orbitals are nowhere near possibility.

Space elevators in Arthur C. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise vs. Space elevators now

Arthur C. Clarke, one of science fiction’s most influential writers (partially because one of his inventions, the geosynchronous satellite – and thus satellite TV and GPS – became reality), imagined a new way to access outer space. In his 1979 novel, The Fountains of Paradise, Clarke describes the construction of a huge column which allowed the cost-effective transport of goods to space. In the novel, an almost-40,000 km glorified elevator rises to a satellite in geostationary orbit with Earth. Such a geosynchronous satellite as Clarke envisioned was created just 18 years after Clarke’s prediction. Because the imagined space elevator wouldn’t use rocket propulsion it would be an energy and cost-efficient solution.

The invention of carbon nanotubes in the 1990s made the construction of space elevators seem almost within sight. Since then, many organisations claiming to be working on a space elevator, including Google at its X lab, and Japanese construction firm Obayashi Corporation. When designing a space elevator, engineers need to consider navigational, environmental, and structural challeges. First, some provisions would need to be made so that aircraft spacecraft and satellites didn’t fly into it, and a method to deflect space debris would also be necessary. Also, there isn’t currently a material with the tensile strength or corrosion resistance necessary for the elevator cord. Though material technology is advancing, (the development of graphene, perfectly flat sheets of carbon with high breaking links, for example) the danger of unknown structural limitations and risks associated with failure is high. Though everything at this point is theoretical, some scientists claim we could have a space elevator within 40 years. Bravo to that!

Settlement on Mars in novels vs. Settlement on Mars IRL

Settlement of Mars has been described in a variety of science fiction novels, from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. In many of them, Mars is transformed to look more like earth, rather than humans adapting to the planet’s environment. Many of these theorised settlements require variations of “terraforming”, or restructuring the natural environment, an idea which has a long history in popular culture. Robinson details the terraformation of Mars extensively, including details about melting the polar ice cap, creating volcanoes, and adjusting the atmospheric pressure so that oceans can exist. While all of this sounds far-fetched, NASA’s scientists believe that Mars has the highest capacity for terraformation.

Plans include the releasing of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and raising the temperature to melt the poles. Russia were the first to land on Mars in 1971, after many failures (as detailed in our previous Mars article) and the exploration of Mars is in full swing. Though terraforming on Mars is currently the most feasible option, it’s still many years away from possibility.

So what can we look forward to in the future? A space colony designed by primary school children? NASA is currently running a competition geared towards young students to design a space colony. NASA believes that building space colonies “will be an evolutionary event in magnitude similar to, if not greater than, ocean-based life’s colonisation of land half a billion years ago.” For NASA, space colonization is still an active initiative, though it requires so many technological advancements that it probably won’t happen for many years. They estimate that it’s reasonable to expect the first space colony in 50 years. As they say on their space settlement site:

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that new ideas pass through three periods:

  • It can’t be done.
  • It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing.
  • I knew it was a good idea all along!”
laissez les bon temps rouler, space cadets,
the girl

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