MedHum Monday Presents: Can we Colonize Other Planets?

DailyDose_PosterWelcome back to the Daily Dose and our first MedHum Monday of 2015! Medical humanities does find itself, now and then, at the curious intersection between science fact and science fiction. After all, many of medicine’s advances began as the near-fictional dreams of innovators. Imagine telling someone from the early 19th century that you planned to replace their heart–or grow them a new organ from stem cells. They would suppose you had been reading Frankenstein. There are plenty of scientific achievements that would once have been well beyond our reach, but interestingly, today’s rapid advances leave us with a different sort of fiction. In 2015, and in the wake of the Mars landing and movies like Interstellar, there is a rising curiosity–and certainty–about our ability to colonize other worlds. Is it really possible? What might be the medical ramifications if it were? Today I have asked Dr. Richard L. Currier to speculate about just how possible it really is to leave this little blue world behind.

Can We Colonize Other Planets? Science Fiction and Scientific Fact

Richard L. Currier, PhD

This new year of 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of one of the first works of modern science fiction, a novel entitled From the Earth to the Moon (1865) by the French novelist Jules Verne, in which three people, traveling in an aluminum capsule shaped like a bullet, were launched into space by being fired from an immense cannon nine hundred feet long.

While Verne’s novel may have ignored some important scientific facts (for example, the acceleration required to blast a capsule into space from a cannon would have subjected the passengers to 22,000 times the force of gravity, killing them instantly), this book—and the numerous works of science fiction that followed—did inspire generations of scientists and adventurers to pursue the goal of traveling through space and visiting other heavenly bodies. In fact, it was scarcely more than a century after the publication of Verne’ s prophetic book that the Apollo Mission succeeded in landing three American astronauts on the surface of the moon.

After the Second World War, a vigorous literature of science fiction emerged, and Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and many other gifted writers produced a vibrant literary genre in which the recurring theme of space travel and life on other planets was typically portrayed as an exciting, even glamorous alternative to life on Earth.

This important body of literature doubtless played a significant role in inspiring the world’s nations to employ the thousands of scientists and engineers that have made space travel and extraterrestrial exploration a reality during the past fifty years. And among the most popular themes in the literature of modern science fiction is the idea that humans might someday colonize other planets.

At first, the notion of establishing human colonies on other worlds was portrayed as an expression of humanity’s pioneering spirit, but more recently this concept has been suggested as a solution to the looming planetary crisis that now threatens our world. If we are destroying the earth, the theory goes, we should simply move on to other planets, where we can make a new start and ensure the survival of the human species.

unnamedUnfortunately, this is where fiction and fantasy run up against the realities of scientific fact. In an excerpt entitled “Can We Colonize Other Planets” from my forthcoming book, UNBOUND: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink, I reviewed the many reasons why none of the other heavenly bodies in our own solar system would be capable of supporting human life.

Our moon is a dry, airless world of rock and dust, with temperatures that range from over 250 degrees Fahrenheit during the two-week lunar “day” to nearly 400 degrees below zero during the two-week lunar “night.” Mercury is an airless ball of iron and rock, with surface temperatures that range from 650 degrees Fahrenheit during its month-long “day” to 274 degrees below zero during its month-long “night.” Venus is smothered in rolling clouds of sulphuric acid, with an atmospheric pressure 92 times greater than that of the Earth at sea level and a surface temperature hot enough to melt most soft metals, including lead and zinc. Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus are Earth-sized cores of ice and rock buried under immense oceans of liquefied hydrogen and helium thousands of miles deep, with “surfaces” hidden in total and perpetual darkness.

An article published last month in the New York Times reviews a recent surge in enthusiasm for a mission to Mars, the “least hostile” planet for human colonization. At least 600 people have already signed up for a trip to Mars, even though they would never be able to return to Earth.

Image of the Viking 2 landing site on Mars, Wikimedia Commons

Yet Mars is a also frozen wasteland of rocks and dust, where surface temperatures average 80 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, the sky is black even when the sun is shining; its unbreathable atmosphere, 100 times thinner than the atmosphere of Earth, consists mainly of carbon dioxide. And to make matters worse, Mars is regularly pounded by gigantic dust storms which can grow large enough to envelop the entire planet and may last for months.

Surely it would be far more practical—and pleasant—to colonize the vast, uninhabited continent of Antarctica, where temperatures average only between 20 and 50 degrees below zero, the air is eminently breathable and rich with oxygen, and the skies are blue. But lacking the fictional romance of the Red Planet, there has been no general stampede to colonize the earth’s fifth largest continent.

But what—you might ask—about the “earth-like planets” that astronomers have been discovering in other, nearby solar systems? Could one of them provide a second home for humanity?

Unfortunately, even the closest of these planets is almost inconceivably distant. The passengers on a spaceship capable of travelling fast enough to reach the moon in 30 minutes would have to survive for nearly 24,000 years within an artificial environment before arriving at one of the nearest and most promising earth-like planets.

It is difficult to imagine how a small group of humans could survive inside the confines of a spaceship for roughly five times longer than the entire history of human civilization. It is even more difficult to imagine what the tiny population of such a spaceship would look like after more than seven hundred generations of inbreeding.

Wiki bio2 sunset 001 by Johndedios.  Wikimedia Commons.
Wiki bio2 sunset 001 by Johndedios. Wikimedia Commons.

To date, there has been only one serious attempt to create an artificial environment that could sustain human life: the Biosphere 2 experiment of the 1990s. The spectacular failure of that experiment revealed the extreme difficulty of creating a self-sustaining environment, even for as little as the 24 months that was the mission’s original goal.

From the outset, the gardens inside Biosphere 2 failed to provide sufficient food for the crew. All of the pollinating insects died out, leaving essential plant species unable to reproduce. Oxygen levels declined dramatically, forcing project administrators to pump oxygen into the enclosure from the outside, and the atmosphere of Biosphere 2 eventually became permeated with dangerous levels of nitrous oxide. Three-quarters of the animal species in the enclosure went extinct within 24 months, while cockroaches and ants multiplied into vast swarms, and morning glory vines grew wildly, smothering most of the other plants and trees. In a sobering report on the Biosphere experiment, scientists concluded that our present scientific knowledge and technological expertise is simply unable to create artificial life-support systems that can replace natural ecosystems.

Interstellar; release date Nov 7, 2014. IMDB.

Nevertheless, respected scientists, including Steven Hawking and Hakeem Oluseyi, curiously ignoring these facts, have endorsed the notion of extraterrestrial colonization as a solution to the problems of our man-made planetary crisis. It is a tempting notion, perhaps. But in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, Jason Mark reviewed the recent science fiction movies based on extraterrestrial colonization—including Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”—and concluded by quoting a placard often seen at climate change demonstrations: “There Is No Planet B.” It’s a refrain we would do well to remember.

Unless a society of the future can produce an artificial environment capable of sustaining human life indefinitely, the idea of colonizing other planets will remain a modern myth that will provide entertaining works of science fiction but will not square with the scientific facts. For now, there is no alternative to the task of protecting Mother Nature from the destructive effects of modern civilization. For the foreseeable future, the best place to experience the perils and pleasures of extraterrestrial colonization—outside the pages of a book—will continue to be your local movie theater.


unnamedRichard L. Currier earned his BA and PhD in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the  University of California, Berkeley, and he taught anthropology at Berkeley, the University of Minnesota, and the State University of New York. The author of feature articles, book reviews, and a ten-volume archeology series for young adults, Currier recently completed UNBOUND: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human,
Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink (Arcade Publishing, in press). He lives in Oceanside, California.

3 Replies to “MedHum Monday Presents: Can we Colonize Other Planets?”

    1. Hi there, Keith. Actually, I am quoting myself–it is something I said to a friend, and later decided to add to the home screen. I hope you like it? If you would like to quote it, feel free to simply say “Brandy Schillace, 2013” I imagine I’ll get it more officially in print eventually in one of the books.

  1. We have to colonize space eventually, there is no other option. One day, we will be hit by a rock big enough wipe us all out. Or a supervolcano will do it. Or a nearby supernova. Or our own sun will cook us. Or any of the other astronomically unlikely things that happen in the universe that, nevertheless, do eventually happen given enough time. Or we’ll just blow ourselves up instead. We have all our eggs in one basket, and if we leave them there it will be the end of us.

    Given the fact that we have to do it eventually anyway, life in space isn’t all that bad. Sure, all the planets we’ve found are duds. But if you apply a bit of imagination to the problem you find that the raw material exists out there for us to make a pretty good life for ourselves. It’s just a matter of time, energy, and technology. Some people are hard at work making it happen.

    Biosphere 2 was an experiment that revealed problems. Instead of fixing them we threw up our hands and declared the whole thing a folly. But your “sobering report”, while interesting, is nearly twenty years old. Have the sciences of biology and chemistry not progressed since then? Have we not launched a partially closed-loop space station since then?

    One thing I will agree with is that planets orbiting other stars, no matter how inviting, are off the table for the foreseeable future.

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