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.
J: Here’s the deal. Say if you send a crew, you could say we got all over the technological hurdles — the closed life support systems, we’ve got that working exactly perfectly. You even build it big enough to have 2,000 people on it. And you have good genetic diversity and all of that. What happens when I just can’t stand you?
K, laughing: That’s still a small space to be stuck in for a long time.
J: Or the leadership starts to shift. Or everyone gets depressed because you don’t have enough sunlight because you didn’t take that into account — in terms of what we call Seasonal Affective Disorder which might become Continuous Affective Disorder. So what makes this different from my perspective is my background is very much in the heart of the physical sciences but I’m also very much involved with the social sciences, and when I was growing up I wanted to be a dancer — I did lots of dancing, and ceramics, and all of those kinds of things growing up and I know that they are important, they are very important. You can’t get away from it now — what was the first thing we wanted to do with computers? Make pretty pictures.
K: That’s true.
J: I just want to bring one other thing into play. The other reason this comes up as we start to talk about this, the other part of my background that brings this into perspective is that I was an environmental studies professor. I started working with technology and sustainable development, how do you design technology to be sustainable? This was years ago, before it was a common thing. The main thing I found as a disruptor in technological design, the reason we do stupid things to the environment is because of people — what people consider theirs, how they treat common spaces, the biggest disruptor is people. But people also bring an incredible wealth of possibilities. So you have to include all those things. That was one of the reasons when I first heard about 100 Year Starship that I thought “I know how to do this one,” because all of those things have to be included.
Looking forward: one hundred years and five years
K: On a different topic now — A hundred years is a long long time, and that’s one of the cool forward thinking aspects of this project. Do you have an idea where you want to be — where should the project be in five years? Do you have a vision for that?
J: So we’re working on that. Let me start off by saying, one hundred years, some people say ‘wow that’s really long.’ We run into some scientists, specialists who say it’s not going to happen in a hundred years. We’re just trying to make sure all the capabilities exist — so we’re not trying to launch a mission. We just want to see all the things that need to be in place if someone decides to launch a mission need to be there. And they don’t necessarily have to be things we’ve done they just have to exist somewhere, so our task is to keep track of all the kinds of things that are out there, the kinds of technologies that are needed, the kinds of understanding that’s needed, the financial aspects, the political will, all of those things we’re keeping track of.
So when I look at how do you time this is out, the first thing I say is we don’t have a technological roadmap, and I’m not even advocating that we look for a technological roadmap yet. Because if you spend time too much time looking and saying this is the way you go and these are things that will be developed for it and you say we’re going to use fusion or we’re going to use this kind of system, then one might overlook and stunt other possibilities, especially this early on, in terms of the exact technologies. But we can look at capabilities.
We know we’re going to need really great energy systems, so we’ll need to have a group of people focusing on and looking at exotic types of energy. Pushing and prodding in areas of energy that we haven’t known about before or really haven’t been willing to push.
We have to be looking at microbial systems. We know we’re going to have to grow food on the way and when you get there. Plants here on Earth have a rich system of microbes on their roots and structure and that’s what allows them to absorb the nutrients from the soil. We actually don’t know all of what makes up that microbial system. We have to understand much more about that.
So the reason I’m answering like this is because in five years what I look forward to is us having put together a research institute, which we’re calling “The Way” — because you have to figure out the way to do this. Having a transdisciplinary program that helps to follow what kinds of capabilities and technologies are out there, in some instances helping out to support or work on some technology or research that other people aren’t doing because it hasn’t hit the mainstream yet but it needs to be pushed and prodded. So having this new research institute founded that’s both physical and virtual. To have a global presence. So that we have advocacy in South Africa and China and different countries, in South America and Europe so that the idea of humans going to the stars becomes a global aspiration.
I think its something that’s there already but people have been afraid to talk about it. Even the folks who were in space — I know when I was an astronaut we would never talk about interstellar stuff. But there have been people thinking about it and I think whenever we look up at the stars we really imagine that. So really getting the word out that this is a reasonable global aspiration. And of course, fund raising, because these are the kinds of things that you need to have backing for and you have to have staff to be on the lookout for and make them happen.
The last piece is strong membership. We want people to be a part of this, whether its a part of the public symposium that we have, ongoing open projects that we’ll be doing, and through their own pieces.
So if we have people who know some interesting storytelling to the forefront — because this is a story and you have to tell the story. You have to tell the story in a way the lay public understands and you have to tell the story in a way the experts understand it.
So whether its a group of people who are very interested in telling stories, whether its people who are interested in working on antimatter engines … I’m finding out there’s a lot more work going on in antimatter and some really cool things going on out there. So you remember your science fiction stories — antimatter! You were almost afraid to say that in front of people because they may laugh at you.
K: Right, that’s such a nerdy thing! It’s so Star Trek, if you say we’re going to have antimatter propulsion, everyone looks at you like you have tape on your glasses or something.
J: But there’s some really cool stuff going on out there. It’s really about being able to have people involved in those areas where they can make contributions and making sure they have connections into this whole progran and project.
So five years from now a large membership, global presence, and global aspiration. A research institute developed and started and programs where people start to feel comfortable.
Here’s the thing: I use the term “suspend disbelief.” We have to have people willing to suspend disbelief long enough to actually try to move things forward. So we have to get to the point where it’s not something that’s completely unbelievable or completely unreasonable to approach.
I think I’m fairly down to earth and grounded even though I’ll try different things. My task is to be able to advocate for people suspending disbelief long enough while at the same time be disciplined enough to really look at the possibilities and figure out which ones do we pull in, which ones to prioritize, and making sure we don’t leave some outliers out there because everyone’s afraid to touch them. That’s my job.
Weaponizing space, or replacing war with space?
K: I have one more question for you. Firedoglake is a very progressive-leaning blog and one of the things which really inspired me about your panel with you and Dr. Tarter and LeVar Burton was this idea of bringing humanity together, moving some emphasis away from the machinery of war into a more cooperative effort, this great work of humanity idea. But what about people who are concerned about the DARPA origins of this project and whether there will be a weaponization of space through this kind of project. Do you have a response for that?
J: Here’s the thing I always say — technologies are just tools, that’s all they are. And who designs the technology gets to control what tools are developed. So that’s the reason for us to have more people involved, because we bring different perspectives. Society weaponizes only because we allow it too — that’s the reason why. So it depends on who gets involved. And so that’s one of the reasons my whole task on this is to open it up, so there’s more perspective on what happens and how we use it.
A lot of people think ‘Well I can’t really talk about space stuff.’ Yeah you can! It’s a human birthright. We’ve all looked up at the stars. All of our ancestors, in every setting around the world thousands and thousands of years ago noted the movement of the heavens, right?
What happens in space, whether the moon ends up belonging to some corporate conglomerate, depends on whether or not we all get involved to talk about this common human resource, this common human initiative.
I think also what may take place, and this is where that whole spectrum of human behavior or experience comes in: we need another adrenaline source. Humans, we need adrenaline, we need to be stressed and challenged — we need to run down the street, have our heart beat fast, have drama. We need that, that’s part of us.
So why not give ourselves something that isn’t destructive? That allows you to move further? That will give us that same kind of adrenaline rush. I can tell you, there’s nothing that makes our adrenaline flow more than a challenge like, gosh, we’re going to go off this planet, we can go to the Moon, we can go to Mars and another star system, we can explore and find out how we can optimize and meet our own potential through these challenges of distance and the unknown.
K: Do you think if we’re getting an adrenaline rush from being war like or violent it will help to give us another source?
J: I think it will help. I do. I know that sounds, that’s one of things that sounds so naive. But I think it will help. Because we like toys, we need something to do with them. So we need different toys. Even looking at video games — can we find games which are just as engaging which aren’t about blood and shoot ’em up and gore? I like action movies as much as the next of them, but we’ve gotten to the point where out action movies are about how gruesome we can make things and that’s not it — it starts to numb us to that effect.
One of my favorite quotes is from Will and Ariel Durant, who said, “The future never just happened. It was created.” And we can make that future.
K: I think those are all my questions. Is there anything else you want to add?
J: Just to make sure to note that who is involved makes all the difference in what is developed and how it is used.
K: Thanks so much. I really appreciate you taking so much time to talk with me.
J: Thank you! Keep in touch alright?
K: I absolutely will.
Photo by Kit O’Connell, all rights reserved.