Last week's article on Getting From Here to There in Science Fiction offered a brief look at several methods science fiction writers use to move characters about in their stories. Some of these involved travelling at speeds faster than the speed of light. Unfortunately, such technology exists only in the imagination and in the pages of science fiction. The cold, hard reality is that space travel to other galaxies will easily exceed the single human lifespan.
The key word to note here is "single." It is conceivable that a long-term space mission could be launched to other galaxies so that its completion will be witnessed by the descendents of the original astronauts; in other words, the trip will take multiple human generations to complete. This is where science fiction gets the term "generation starship." Science fiction has a long history of generation starship stories and, only very recently, it turns out that the idea of a multi-generational starship is one that is being actively worked on by some of the world's smartest people.
The 100 Year Starship Project
Earlier this year, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced a joint grant project for a private entity to work toward achieving interstellar travel within the next century. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton even backed the endeavor. The so-called 100 Year Starship project has a daunting task ahead of it, but they are off to a good start. They have identified many of the obstacles, both technological and otherwise, that need to be overcome.
What are some of the concerns? Funding, for one. This is a monumental effort of research and coordination—and that requires money. As with any space mission, there are also the usual problems to solve, but this unprecedented duration poses new challenges. One of the main challenges is coming up with enough energy to push a spaceship across the vastness of space, and then having the energy to slow it down once it arrives at its destination. It's going to require revolutionary thinking, and has the additional obstacle of overcoming human politics: The worry here is that the amount of energy capable of driving a ship to another galaxy can easily be used to destroy a country (not to mention the entire planet). Other concerns are the social and psychological ramifications of a group of people living together for an extended period of time, and that includes the dynamics of the group changing as new children are born. Would you say goodbye to everyone and everything you know to embark on a voyage from which you will never return? (The 100 Year Starship group is also looking at ways of circumventing the social obstacles by exploring whether humans even need to be present on the voyage or if they can be replaced by artificial intelligence. It's the latest thing in offshoring!) Other concerns range from legal implications, safety issues (cosmic rays in space are deadly), medical issues, philosophical and religious concerns, and more.
Why go to all this trouble? The 100 Year Starship project cites that such research will generate "transformative knowledge" that will greatly benefit the Earth and its people. They are also quick to point out that we humans need to push ourselves to do more. This massive undertaking is certainly a way for use to reach for the stars (quite literally!) and it also sparks our imagination... much like science fiction.
Generation Starships is Science Fiction
Perhaps science fiction can give us a peek into what life on a generation starship might be like. Several science fiction novels posit the idea that, over successive generations, people might forget they were on board a ship. Such is the situation in Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein, in which the hero is persecuted when he discovers the nature of their world through a secret porthole, and also that their ship is off-course. Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss is commonly identified as the first novel-length treatment of generations starships. Only the reader knows the entire story takes place on a spaceship; to the characters, their environment is all they've ever known and the ship's true purpose is lost to myth and legend. The Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel Ship of Fools by Richard Paul Russo features a generation ship on a centuries-long voyage where society has forgotten the nature of their environment and has devolved into class systems. Harry Harrison's Captive Universe also features a generation ship whose original purpose was lost to time.
Edmund Cooper's treatment of generation starships was Seed of Light, a novel about an epic, long-term voyage to find a habitable planet. The books of Gene Wolfe's tetralogy The Book of the Long Sun addresses the challenges faced by the crew of a multigenerational starship. Toby Litt's novel Journey into Space examines a mid-journey generation starship whose crew and passengers must cope with the realization that they will never set foot on either their home world or their destination planet. Stephen Baxter's novel Ring features a starship whose voyage takes five million years, though only a thousand years subjectively pass for the crew members on board because of time dilation effects. Pamela Sargent's young adult novel Earthseed features a generation starship carrying the last remnants of a doomed Earth. Learning the World by Ken MacLeod features a generation ship and first contact with aliens. Meanwhile, Greg Bear's Hull Zero Three features a protagonist who wakes up with no memory onboard a generation ship that has lost its way.
I'm not entirely sure science fiction can solve some of the challenges ahead for the 100 Year Starship project, but I bet dollars to space donuts that it can spark the imaginations of its admirable participants.
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a Hugo Award-winning group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews. He also likes bagels.