They will have to tightly control their population; both maximum and minimum human numbers will be necessary, and whatever system they devise to achieve this stability, it will not include individual unconstrained choice. Also, there will be quite a few jobs that will simply have to be filled in order for their life support systems to be maintained. Again, however they manage this issue, people will not be free to do what they want, or to do nothing. So in these areas of reproduction and work, generally regarded as basic to human meaning and political freedom, the society in the starship will have to rigidly control themselves. No matter their methods for achieving this control, they will end up living in some version of a totalitarian state. The spaceship will be their state, and to keep the spaceship functioning, the state will rule.
The psychological effects of all these constraints and problems, including the knowledge that Earth exists light years away, with a population millions of times bigger than the ship’s, and a land surface a trillion times larger, cannot be known for sure. It might very well feel like exile; it might feel like being born and living one’s entire life in prison.Kim Stanley Robinson
Many interesting points in this piece by Kim Stanley Robinson, meant to clarify his approach to the ‘generational starship’ theme in his latest novel, Aurora. This particular section reminds me of the short series Ascension I recently watched (hooray for global Netflix!), which does a good job of capturing these harsh restrictions of multi-generational interstellar travel and the side-effects on the lives of the characters.
There is no Planet B! Earth is our only possible home!
But wait: why is that so bad?
Here everyone has to answer for themselves. I’m saying it’s not bad at all; it just is, and it can be regarded as a good thing. And good or bad, it just is. That’s reality. We are not gods, and anyone who thinks of science as a magic wand, or even as a verb, is making a mistake, a category error sometimes called scientism. Drill down a little harder on these issues, look at the evidence; use the scientific method properly. Limits to what we can do will quickly appear around you.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t go into space; we should. We should send people to the moon, and Mars, and the asteroids, and every place we can in the solar system, putting up stations and swapping humans in and out of them. This is not only a beautiful thing to do, but useful in helping us to design a long-term relationship with Earth itself. Space science is an Earth science. The solar system is our neighborhood. But the stars are too far away.
I fully agree with him that we need to protect Earth’s ecosystem and that there are very hard limits to what humans can and cannot do in outer space – baring some phenomenal breakthrough in fundamental physics, there will never be a way to travel faster than the speed of light, or reach even the nearest stars in the span of a human lifetime. But I don’t agree we should forever give up on this goal. It sounds like the disenchanted speech of a tired old man who saw his dreams shattered one too many times. Interstellar travel may be a lot harder than we imagined half a century ago, it could take centuries to find the optimum solution, but when we do it will be one of greatest achievements of humanity.