Those of us who believe that humankind has a destiny among the stars are convinced that somehow, some day, a faster-than-light method of travel will be found. Warp speed. Jump ships. Convenient wormholes. Whatever will get us to other star systems and their planets in a reasonable amount of time. Physicists and mathematicians look at the formulae, pat us on the heads and say, “Good luck with that.”
The alternative is what became known in science and science fiction as “generation ships”: giant ark-like spacecraft meant to carry hundreds, or even thousands of people, many of whom might be born, live, and die while the ship is still in transit. The concept showed up in novels like Orphans of the Sky by Heinlein, The Songs of Distant Earth by Clarke, even TV shows like the early 70’s clunker The Starlost and parts of the movie WALL-E. After all, even optimistic estimates of near future technology place the travel time to the Centauri system, our nearest stellar neighbours, at more than a hundred years. The human lifespan is edging up to that figure, sure. But we wouldn’t launch a crew of babies, counting on them to build a colony at the end of the trip while in their final years of life. Other stars with potentially promising planets for colonization, like Gliese 581 and Gliese 667C are five times as far. So the spacecraft required would have to be self sufficient and support suitable populations for fifteen to twenty generations.
One of the popular arguments against such a project is that, by the time the first ships reached their goal, technological improvements on Earth would have produced faster ships that would have passed the original colonists and rendered them obsolete. Who’d want to take that risk?
Obviously there are a lot more problems with the concept than just technical ones. What’s the attraction in setting out for the stars knowing you’ll die in space before actually getting anywhere? What would give purpose to the lives of all of those people in the centuries between stops, and what guarantee could there be that they wouldn’t develop completely different priorities along the way, utterly changing the mission? They might become apathetic with no challenges to overcome, or turn to war amongst themselves because of the pressures of confinement and boredom. They might evolve in ways we can’t predict (especially if the ship isn’t completely shielded from cosmic radiation). A lot can happen in a few hundred years. Would such children of space even be recognizable as human by the time they got to their destination?
Still, if there were to be a suitable type of human being for such a long journey in a big tin can, they’d have to be people who are perfectly content with something like an urban environment, never seeing natural settings larger than an inner city park. They’d probably need to be easily occupied by non-physical activity, especially diversions generated by computer—as satisfied with virtual experiences as the real thing. It might help if they’re not overly ambitious, so they don’t get into conflict over things like leadership. Content to spend their time in smallish spaces, interacting in less personal ways, since large gathering areas would be at a premium.
Hmmm. Is it just me, or does that sound a lot like the millennial generation?
Maybe the generation ship idea isn’t dead. It was just waiting for the right humans to come along.