Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Immortal Travellers

Unless a faster-than-light means of propulsion is developed, which is looking extremely unlikely, voyages to other star-systems will at best take centuries. For a crew of normal humans this would mean that those that left Earth would be long dead by the time the ship reached its destination. Only their distant descendants, after many generations had lived and died in the depths of interstellar space, would be alive to see the ship's destination.

A generation star-ship under construction in Earth orbit
Such a 'generation' ship may well be the only way humans could reach and colonise other star-systems. It would need carefully automated management of the human occupants to ensure that each generation is content enough to minimise the chances of conflict and mutiny - the occurrence of which would almost certainly doom the entire mission, and be fatal for everyone on board.

A generation 'worldship' capable of sustaining ten thousand occupants

The management of each generation would need to vary quite dramatically depending on which point of the voyage they were alive:

The Launch Generation

The initial occupants, born and educated on Earth, would have full knowledge of their origins, and of their fate on board the ship. This would be the generation most likely develop the psychological and behavioural problems that could endanger the ship and its mission. There would be no opportunity to return to Earth, and the longing to return to the space and luxury available back on the home world may become too much for a significant number on board. The crew for this generation would have to be selected very carefully indeed. Fortunately, this would be the one generation that could be monitored from Earth and a relatively timely response to problems given.

The Interstellar Generations

The first generation born on board, and all those born during the centuries-long voyage, would live in what I would call the 'planned ignorance phase'. They would be taught nothing of their origins, or their ship's ultimate destination. They would not even be taught that they are on a voyage. The ship's education systems would ensure this. They would be taught mathematics and language skills, and all the skills required to survive on board and maintain the ship, but nothing more. This would be crucial to reduce as much as possible the risk of unrest and rebellion. Enforced ignorance, however unethical and even cruel it may seem, would be important during the interstellar phase of the mission.

The Colonisation Generation

Only the final generation will leave the ship to set up the colony on the destination planet. They will be the first humans to experience life outside the ship since the launch generation (now their distant ancestors). The ship's education system would reveal their origins, the purpose of their mission, and what will be required of them. They will be the first to have free access to the vast knowledge store that was secured by the launch generation centuries before. So long as this explosive phase of education is started from birth it should instill a strong sense of purpose and adventure in the colonisation generation, and a sense of pride that they are that final ship-born generation. That should be enough motivation to give the crew the best chance of success down on the surface of the destination planet.

With careful design, the process of controlling the generations stages detailed above could be automated to a high level, with an artificial intelligence looking after all aspects of life support and maintenance, and directing the occupant's activities accordingly.

But there is an even better way to do this, and one that would, in my opinion, increase the chances of a successful colonisation mission, and reduce the risks of the occupant's society devolving to a tribal or even feral level, from which recovery would be almost impossible.

The Permanent Generation

It would be better to have on board a small team of humans that could oversee the generations, and that could adapt the running of the ship to circumvent any unforeseen events that are likely to arise. The 'permanent generation', as I call them, would have undergone life extending treatments before leaving Earth, rendering them biologically immortal.

An immortality treatment facility
This is not as fantastic a concept as it may first seem. Research is beginning to show that life-extending genetic treatments should be possible, and recent news reports suggest that the first such treatments could even be available within decades.

Such an immortal crew would be far fewer in number than the mortal occupants, perhaps no more than ten percent of the total, and they would need to be treated very differently:

  • The immortals would need to be segregated from the mortal occupants, with no physical or visual contact between them. The mortals would essentially have no idea of their existence, which would be necessary to avoid envy and a reason for mutiny and rebellion, or even religious adoration.
  • Due to their immense lifespans the immortals would need a lot more living space per person, compared to a mortal human. And that living space would need to offer a high degree of luxury and the stimulation of intellectual pursuits to maintain their physical and mental well-being.
  • The immortals would have full access to all the knowledge from Earth, and of their mission, unlike the mortals who would spend most of the voyage in the 'planned ignorance' phase.
  • Only the immortals would be able to look beyond the confines of the ship to allow for astronomical observations to be carried out - an important intellectual activity, and important for the mission's success.
  • The immortals would be in contact with Earth at regular intervals. This would be in direct contrast to the mortals, who would, after the launch generation had died, not even have knowledge of their origin.
The spacious communal area for the immortal crew
I believe that such a combination of a mortal and immortal crew on an interstellar colonisation mission is essential for a conventional spacecraft. Until we can harness the vast energies of antimatter, and develop suitable containment methods for it, such missions will take many standard lifetimes to complete.

We should not delay such colonisation missions until faster-than-light travel is developed. If we do it may then be too late to begin. The continuation of our species is the primary objective, and the longer we wait before launching missions to other star-systems the more chances there will be for us to be wiped out by a major catastrophe.

We are within a century of being able to build and launch a generation star-ship, and within decades of immortality treatments.

Such a mission should already be in the planning stages, and it should launch within the next century or two. Time is running out much faster than most people realise.

To read for free an epic and thought-provoking short novel about such an interstellar mission with an immortal crew element please read 'The Immortal Kings'