Space Travel & Survival

Space flights and the ISS

There are two types of passenger space flights: suborbital and orbital. A suborbital flight takes travellers to between 50 and 70 miles above earth and has a maximum speed of around 2,200 mph, while orbital flight requires a powerful rocket and a speed of around 17,500 miles per hour in order to put its passengers into an elliptical orbit a few hundred miles above Earth. The International Space Station (ISS) is 254 miles away.

In the high-end world of commercial suborbital flight, the Virgin Galactic journey involves ascent to 55 miles above sea level, allowing passengers to experience ‘several minutes of out-of-seat weightlessness and breathtaking views of earth’. The company Space Perspective plans to take people 20 miles up inside Spaceship Neptune, a huge silver balloon that will climb, glide and descend to the ocean over six hours. The trip will offer luxury facilities for eight passengers and the craft will be equipped to carry and facilitate scientific instruments.

The ISS is the world’s only microgravity laboratory. Its primary purpose is to support scientific research and other activities requiring the unique attributes of humans living in space. After more than three decades in operation, the ISS is now having structural problems and much of the original equipment is outdated. NASA and its international partners plan to decommission the station in 2031 after replacing it with privately funded facilities, so that they can maintain a constant presence in low-Earth orbit. Examples of the scientific missions to date include: A sample of lab-grown human muscle cells in tiny 3D printers transported to the ISS in a rocket to allow researchers to explore ways to prevent age-related muscle weakening; and a study of how weightlessness affects complex fluids.

Exploring the Moon

The first human-made object to touch the moon surface was the Luna 2 probe (Soviet Union) in 1959. The United States’ Apollo 11 was the first crewed mission to land on the Moon, with five more successful Apollo landings between 1969 and 1972. The total of twelve astronauts explored the lunar surface, set up experiments and returned with rocks for scientific study. The programme was not continued at that time, due to the exorbitant costs and limited support among the US public for further exploration.

Following a huge increase in private space companies, which are managing to drive down costs due to more efficient technologies, NASA now has active partnerships with the private sector and is recharging the Moon race with its Artemis programme (co-sponsored by the European, Canadian and Japanese space agencies). This initiative is fuelled by renewed international competition involving China, Russia and India, following from the expectation that the Moon holds key natural resources, which could underpin a human presence and kick-start a new industry (and/or international conflict) in space mining.

The cost of these future efforts might be reduced by radical ideas such as a lunar elevator attached to the Moon’s surface and terminating in high Earth orbit, with solar-powered robotic shuttles moving up and down the cable. Both NASA and the Chinese space agency plan to establish their moon bases by the end of the 2020s. NASA has commissioned a private company to design and construct 3D-printed lunar dwellings. The goal is to build the dwellings on the Moon itself, using natural lunar materials.

In advance of the next crewed moon landing (scheduled by NASA for 2025), the small number of astronauts who visit the ISS, typically for six months, are closely studied to investigate the effects of spending time in space. Without the downward force of gravity, fluids tend to pool in the head and upper parts of the body, which can make eyesight poorer. There is also bone loss and the muscles atrophy when they are no longer working against gravity, while difficulty in adjusting to floating in microgravity causes nausea, headache and vertigo in some people. The space scientists also experience significant loss of red blood cells, leading to anaemia that may continue for six months after they return to Earth.

Mars and beyond

A modelling report produced by academics, astronomers and computer scientists in 2022 has predicted that mid-to-late 2030s is a realistic goal for the first human landing on Mars. Prior establishment of a moon base is likely to be important for crewed Mars missions and the next stage of deep space voyages to the Asteroid Belt and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn are expected to take place in much later decades.

The best methods for penetrating deep space is another question, with one team investigating the potential of a laser-thermal propulsion system – where lasers are used to heat hydrogen fuel – that might take a spacecraft to Mars in just 45 days. In the Lifespinners novel, we are colonising Mars by 2048, much to the disapproval of 118-year-old DJ Johnny: ‘Mars is already piled with junk. It’ll be overrun and tacky in no time, a party planet and dodgy haven for criminals and bent tycoons with loot squirrelled away in space banks.’

Back in the present day, there are differing scientific, moral and philosophical views on whether we should venture into the outer reaches of space or colonise neighbouring planets. At one end of the debate, it is claimed that we need the insurance policy of a second planet, as species extinction is the norm on Earth and beyond that, the laws of physics have destined our planet for destruction. At the other end, it is argued that the scale of space is too vast, other planetary environments are too harsh and hostile, the journey is too daunting, mining of resources is too risky for too little benefit and much of the technology remains theoretical.

The solution to these rather large barriers, it has been suggested, may lie in the further development of knowledge and expertise in genetics, robotics and artificial intelligence, to the point where machine intelligence overtakes us and highly adaptive (and highly obedient) electronic entities are tuned to discover and design our post-human destiny in outer space.

Searching for aliens

Regardless of whether it will be biologically resilient or enhanced humans, semi-human cyborgs, self-improving machines or perhaps digital avatars that finally make it to Mars and beyond, there remains the tantalising open question of whether alien life exists in our galaxy or in the wider universe. To prepare for our first contact with intelligent extra-terrestrial civilisation, far-sighted scientists and humanists in Scotland have set up a Post-Detection Hub. The aim is to co-ordinate knowledge for assessing evidence and planning humanity’s response, based on international agreement and combining exoplanet science with global law and governance.

Astronomers working on SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) have been looking for radio waves or laser signals sent by a distant civilisation for more than sixty years. In this research, scientists aim to find technosignatures, rather than biosignatures that reveal traces of biological life. The search for deliberate signals remains one of the most popular SETI strategies, although it assumes that other civilisations want to make contact. It may be more likely that intelligent aliens will pick up the clearly artificial radio signals that we use to communicate with satellites and spacecraft. Other technosignatures include megastructures, such as massive solar panels, chemical pollutants and artificial light or heat resulting from industry or other processes. However, nobody yet knows what extra-terrestrial technology looks like and what kind of signals it might give out.

Space telescopes have increasingly powerful capabilities, with the James Webb Telescope able to carry out in-depth profiles of far-off exoplanets and infrared exploration to detect water and carbon dioxide signatures within a planet’s atmosphere. Estimates of the number of potentially habitable, Earth-like planets vary among astronomers and exobiologists, but all the figures are colossal (e.g. 20 – 100 billion in our Milky Way galaxy alone).

While astronomers, philosophers and others have long been openly curious about the possibility of extra-terrestrial visitors to Earth, it has generally been considered something of a fringe, science-fiction topic. In 2021, however, a US intelligence report included evidence from military aircrews of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) operating with far superior aerial abilities to our own. The resulting bill approved by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has rebranded UFOs as Unidentified Aero-space-undersea Phenomena (UAPs), indicating that they may be able to move seamlessly between space, air and water. While some will argue that it is pointless, reckless or simply a bad idea to reach out to unearthly intelligent life, it might conceivably already be with us, or at least on its way here.

A further twist in the search for alien life lies in the far-out idea that our whole universe is a computer simulation, with some unknown agent (maybe an advanced species) fine-tuning the conditions. The simulation hypothesis follows from the suggestion, first made by a physicist in the 1980s, that our physical reality is fundamentally mathematical and emerges from pieces of information, rather than being based on the fundamentals of space-time and matter.

Scientific proponents of the simulation theory argue that this may explain some of the curiosities of physics, such as the maximum speed being the speed of light, and the observation that the basic laws of physics resemble lines of computer code. A number of experimental approaches have been put forward to test this alternative version of reality and potentially re-order our thoughts and assumptions about the place, power and significance of human beings. While this mid-future issue does not arise in the Lifespinners novel, there are other mind-twisting forces at play, some of which could possibly have similar effects beyond 2048…….  

Edited Autumn 2023