colonists in spaaaaaace

I’m currently reading “The Fated Sky” (sequel to “The Calculating Stars”) by Mary Robinette Kowal and I’m really enjoying it. The characters are relateable and I love the story because it’s all about PEOPLE IN SPAAACE!

If I had one gripe to make about it, just one teensy-weensy little niggle, it would be with the McGuffin of the story, the idea that we colonized planets because global warming was going to kill us here on Earth, instead of doing it to beat the Russians to the moon.

The global warming in this story is triggered by a meteorite that zaps Earth just off the eastern coast of the United States in 1955, goosing the space program into high gear in order to establish colonies in orbit, on the moon, and on Mars and Venus before Earth’s biosphere becomes too inhospitable to live in.

It’s a trope that gets used a lot in science fiction stories, and it’s not a deal-breaker, as far as I’m concerned. If you’ve got a good story, I’ll suspend disbelief for a lot of reasons. I’ve got bookshelves filled with stories about traveling to the stars at faster-than-light speeds even though that’s pretty much against the most fundamental laws of the universe. I love stories about going to space. And I love the idea of an alternative history which makes America’s space program more than just a race to beat the Russians to the moon for the sake of national prestige.

But over the years I’ve gone off the idea that humans must colonize Mars or Vesta or whichever celestial body because the Earth will become inhospitable due to a natural or a man-made disaster.

There is no place in the heavens that will ever be more hospitable to human life than Earth. I mean, sure, we could go live on the moon, but we would have to live in caves to avoid an ugly death from long-term exposure to the sun’s radiation. And anybody who was on the surface of the moon to experience one of the sun’s frequent coronal mass ejections would be killed instantly.

I’m pretty sure the same goes for Mars. It’s got an atmosphere, but it hasn’t got a magnetic field, so the sun’s full radiation beats down on the surface all day long. I don’t know how long humans could stand up to that, but I doubt they could do it all their lives.

Atmosphere. The moon hasn’t got one. Mars has a tenuous atmosphere, but it’s so close to a vacuum as to make no difference. So whether we establish a colony on the moon or on Mars, everybody would have to live in airtight cans buried beneath yards and yards of dirt. Some of the cans would be small, some would be large, but I think exactly none of them would be large enough to make me feel like I was outside. I could live in a can for a while, but eventually I would have to walk under an open sky, and feel the sun and wind on my face. I find it hard to believe engineers would be able to build any structure big enough that it wouldn’t feel like an enclosed space. I don’t know how long I could live in an enclosed space before I went ga-ga, but I feel certain it would only be a matter of time before I collapsed mentally and had to be put out of my own misery, and I feel just as certain that most people are just like me in that sense.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people could live in an airtight can all their lives. But I doubt it.

It’s just one niggle, as I said. And as I said, I can suspend my disbelief because I enjoy reading the story. It’s a wonderful story.

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