Confession Of An Interstellar Curmudgeon


I’ll just say it. Contact with aliens? I don’t think it’s gonna happen.

I mean ever. And I don’t even think it’ll be our fault. Cultures across the globe could join together in common humanity, throw all nuclear weapons in the waste bin, and pour all our efforts into a singular, courageous, global effort to travel through space and find an alien civilization. But it won’t work, because some things are just impossible. Space is just too big. The distance between star systems is just too far. The speed of light is too unbreakable. The fuel for energy it would take to get through space is just too much. And finally, our biology is too connected to gravity — not to mention air, warmth and all the other things you don’t find much of in interstellar space.

All these earth-like exoplanets we keep finding offer at best the teeniest, tiniest sliver of hope. So they probably have liquid water? Cool. But we don’t even know yet if any of those worlds have, say, a magnetosphere — yet another wonderful thing that helps make life possible on Earth. It’s perfectly reasonable to wonder if Earth-like worlds with magnetospheres are kind of rare. After all, Venus and Mars don’t have one.

It’s too possible for too many things to go wrong. Who’s to say it’s anything but rare for life to spring from the primordial chemical gruel, and then to gain a level of intelligence in which civilization is possible? Who’s to say other intelligent species will have the same yearning to meet other species as us? And most importantly, who’s to say that paying a visit is even possible. ‘Cause let’s not kid ourselves, that level of space travel will be a tremendous pain in the ass.

It’s not hard to get why. Depending on their location in orbit, Earth and Mars are anywhere from about 50,000,000 to 400,000,000 kilometers apart. Take that maximum distance, and the distance of just one light year is more than 20,000 times as far. The closest star is Proxima Centauri, which is over 4 light years away. So that’s over 80,000 times as far as Mars when it’s furthest from us. Now, in the Mars500’s simulated Mars mission (which is really cool, by the way) the whole there-and-back trip simulated 520 days — 250 to go to Mars, 30 on the Mars surface, then 240 to get back. Let’s assume our hypothetical trip to Proxima Centauri is one-way, and we’ll say 240 days is the amount it will take us to travel the maximum distance between planets in that time. I know, the planets move, so it’s not that simple — but this is all in the spirit of being generous to ourselves. Anyway, that means a trip to Proxima Centauri using the same technology would take at least 19,200,000 days. That’s over 50,000 years of space travel.

And this whole time, I’ve been rounding down.

I know it’s tempting to look at that, and say, hey: We’ve come a long way already since we were living in the wild and slamming rocks into dead animals to tenderize our dinner. We have jets and Google and water treatment plants and Morgan Freeman voice-overs now. So anything is possible! But I don’t see how any of the challenges we’ve overcome in our meager history are in the same category as traversing several light years of horrible resource-less nothingness to get to a star system that probably doesn’t have the alien life we’re looking for.

None of this is an argument that we shouldn’t even bother to try. I hope I’m wrong. Please, science, prove me wrong. I want us to find out as much about the universe before our species dies out, and if those discoveries give us some way to breach this impossible-looking barrier — then wonderful! But if our goal as a species is contact with alien life, it could be the let-down of the eon. We should be ready for that.

I think that we as a species tend to use our dreams as a cure for feeling alone. We like to bolt human faces onto the otherworldy stuff of our imaginations to fill that gap. That inclination shows up sometimes in our stories, faiths and art. But it’s in our dreams of meeting aliens too. Perhaps it’s wiser to realize that all we have is each other, and maybe that’s all we’ll ever have, right up to that future tipping point when the Earth can’t handle us any more.

Image: NASA


7 Comments on “Confession Of An Interstellar Curmudgeon”

  1. Denise says:

    Wormholes? Or, maybe they find us first? Or, maybe we discover we’re not the only “intelligent” life on earth…

    • Sean Treacy says:

      Aren’t wormholes are a little convenient? We’re can’t travel at light speed, but maybe we can use passages hidden in the fabric of the universe. It also seems to me that other intelligent civilizations out there would face the same dilemmas regarding their resources and biological constraints that we do. Or at least similar issues. It’s possible we haven’t been visited because we’re in some backwater valley of the galaxy, but it’s also possible they just can’t get to us.

  2. emilymosher says:

    Sigh. As things stand now, you’re probably right. Still, I can dream, right?

  3. Stephen says:

    First problem: radiation. But a 1 meter thick shell of water should go a long way towards solving that problem. Perhaps an electric and magnetic field outside of that could help even more.
    Second problem: gravity. Spin the spacecraft. The shell of water doesn’t have to spin. It doesn’t care about zero g.
    Third problem: recycling the material. This is tricky. Biosphere 2 failed. So Biosphere 3 has to be set up and made to work. This can be done on the ground. One issue is that the ecosystem has to be made to work. We really need gut bacteria. Do we need viruses? Can we do it with just vegetables? This has to be a generation ship.
    Forth problem: propulsion. Currently, we can do it with nuclear energy and particle acceleration. Is that enough?
    Fifth problem: a place to go. We know a number of stars that will eventually come closer to us. We could send probes to those places and get better info.

  4. Callie Leuck says:

    And this is another great reasoning behind my argument against living forever. I certainly don’t want to be stuck on what’s left of Earth as whatever cataclysmic doom apocalypses about me. Yes, apocalypse is a verb now.

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