The October cover of Scientific American magazine is headlined, “Will We Ever Live in Space?” But the corresponding article inside is headlined, “Why We’ll Never Live in Space.”
In fact, science fiction fans who dream about it often forget about the obstacles that still stand in the way: medical, financial and ethical. While NASA talks about a permanent base on the moon being in the not-too-distant future, and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk talk about colonizing Mars or mining asteroids, the reality, as these stories suggest, may be even further away .
The most frequently cited problems relate to health. The Scientific American article quotes Sonja Schrepfer of the University of California, San Francisco, who has studied what happens to the blood vessels of astronauts who spend long periods on the International Space Station: They become stiffer, and that partly explains the difficulty the astronauts have while walking upon their return. If they landed on Mars in this condition after eight months in weightlessness, there would be no one to help them. Theoretically, we could develop treatments to prevent this “rigidity” at the molecular level, but “do we want that,” asks Schrepfer: perhaps it is a mechanism to protect blood vessels. In this case, bypassing this “rigidity” could cause other medical problems.
Problems with vision, bones, muscles and the immune system are also on the list of medical hurdles that have not yet been solved after all the years of studying people and mice in weightlessness. Not to mention the potential damage caused by long-term exposure to solar radiation. Here, too, the astronaut could theoretically isolate himself in a specially protected room in a spaceship or on the moon. However, in the latter case, the astronaut still needs to have time to get there, considering that a solar flare alert would give him less than 30 minutes.
Space is expensive
However, a less frequently cited problem is cost. Elon Musk managed to create the illusion that a philanthropist would care, but he forgets that the private companies currently heading into space would not exist without the contribution of governments: they are state-owned Grants and contracts are required. “What is the business model” of colonizing another planet? asks Matthew Weinzierl, a professor at the Harvard University School of Economics. “Technical feasibility does not equate to a solid economic argument,” adds his colleague Brendan Rousseau.
Space tourism can bring in revenue, but there are not an unlimited number of millionaires who can afford a ticket for a few days in orbit, let alone an eight-month trip to Mars.
And the taxpayer doesn’t necessarily agree with it either. Everyone would like to see the colonization of space, adds Rousseau. “As long as we are not the ones paying the bill.” »And this is where the ethical aspect comes into play: Why colonize space? There are implications that might be called philosophical – expanding our knowledge, discovering new horizons – but these are inevitably confronted with the realities of the moment: solving the housing crisis here before, for example, housing is built on another planet.
Not to mention that life in Mars’ habitats will not be pleasant, at least for a long time – limited food and health resources, few recreational and cultural activities nearby, and the impossibility of going into the sun without heavy equipment. And the risk of dying – or of developing cancer or illnesses that involve bone loss or immune deficiency – will be much higher for those who leave the country.
These are arguments we rarely hear in science fiction, and they explain the dissonance between the catchy title on the cover of the magazine and the more realistic title within. “Space explorers,” concludes science fiction author and critic Gary Westfahl, “are often described as better and braver than those who stay on their home planet: they are the ones who advance civilization.” But “history shows no connection Between Travel and Virtue: Numerous scientific advances have been made by people who have not left their laboratory.