Has humanity stopped looking to the future with hope?
Sometimes it feels like we’re so embroiled in the struggle over whether we’ll despoil our environment or dismantle all our safety nets in the next few years that we can’t look toward what life might look like in decades, much less a century and imagine things better than they are right now. Yet looking toward our far future helps us think about things now in a new light. One reason is that trying to solve very big problems forces us to fix a lot of smaller ones along the way.
At SXSW Interactive, the most mind-bending panel I attended was hosted by the 100 Year Starship foundation. This nonprofit began as a conference in 2011 sponsored by NASA and DARPA, with the idea of launching a foundation devoted to a very big idea: what capabilities would humanity need to send a one-way mission to another planet within the next hundred years?
Astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison submitted the winning proposal, which envisioned a project devoted not just to the physical technology of the journey but also the social and cultural needs. Last year, the 100YSS held its first independent symposium in Houston, with presentations on everything from using hydrogels to fight bone mass loss to the heady question of what kind of clothes we’d wear on a voyage that takes decades, or whether we’d wear clothing at all! The forward-thinking group has already been invited to consult with the European Union at a conference about the future.
It’s become cliche to point out that we’re on a collective space voyage with a crew of six billion people, in a self-contained, irreplaceable craft. Our recent, space-going past proved that technologies developed for travel to outer space and the moon benefit humans on earth in near-countless ways. If we — not just NASA or the United States, but humanity as a whole — tackled the challenge of interstellar travel what might we learn about efficiently and ethically feeding, clothing, powering and preserving this world?
During the SXSW panel, Dr. Jemison, along with Dr. Jill Tarter, of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and LeVar Burton spoke philosophically about the challenges facing humanity and how a grand project could bring our world together.
Dr. Tarter told us that, “”We’re on the verge of being able to tell you where to look in the sky to find Earth 2.0.” So what do we do when we find it?
“There is an inextricable link between that which we imagine and that which we create,” Levar Burton said. So could imagining new stories — stories about interstellar travel — create a healthier, more peaceful Earth at the same time we prepare to leave?
Jemison quoted an African proverb: ”No one shows a child the sky.” Space is a part of all humanity, so will we answer its call?
Last week I interviewed Dr. Jemison about the project. Her staff at 100YSS cautioned me that with her busy schedule, she’d only have five or ten minutes. Instead, we ended up talking for almost half an hour. It seemed impossible — and unfair to FDL’s readers — to boil that down into just a few sound bites, so instead I transcribed our entire conversation below. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed having it!
Bringing all human experience to space
Kit O’Connell, FDL: I’ve been a science fiction reader all my life and it was amazing to see a panel where people were seriously talking about things I didn’t think anyone seriously talks about — what they fantasize about but not take seriously. One of the things that really interests me about the 100 Year Starship is that you’re not just focusing on science, technology, engineering and math but you really want to involve the arts. Can you talk a little more about why that’s important to you?
Dr. Mae Jemison, 100 Year Starship: The first thing is because the task for 100 Year Starship is to make sure the capabilities are there for human journey to another star, it automatically means you have to take into account the whole range of human experiences. It’s not the same thing as saying you just do food, air and water because that doesn’t solve our problems down here. We probably have enough food, air and water to clothe, shelter everyone on this planet in a decent fashion but we haven’t figured out how to do that right?
And even if you were able to do it in sort of a nominal fashion, does that actually take care of everything there is to be human? And it doesn’t. And so it’s just quite reality. If you’re going to have humans go somewhere you have to take those things into account. Even in space, even when I went up years ago, people got to take music with them that they listened to … you got to pick your own rugby shirts (laughs) which as someone who doesn’t wear rugby shirts all the time … but I got to pick the colors I wanted right? So even with these shorter stays, what makes people people is that they have cultural and other kinds of attachments to them. But if you go for longer periods of time, you’re going to have to think more about that. And also the fact that culture, the structure of the society is going to evolve as it gets further away from Earth.
Just like I couldn’t imagine that we would have known, even twenty years, how the world would have evolved in the face of the Internet. Now we’re talking about open source technology design and development.
K: That’s a very big change.
J: Yeah! And that’s here where we’re all in conjunction. So I think when you start to talk about people involved with anything, you have to think about all the things that are involved with people.
K: I guess it doesn’t make sense to send us to another star system if we’re not going to be humans when we get there in some fashion. There still needs to be that essential humanity.