By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Chris Impey
Narration by: Julie McKay
After listening to Chris David Impey’s book, “Beyond: Our Future in Space”, traveling to other worlds seems distant and practically un-achievable. Impey cleverly begins his story about space travel as though the first human who permanently leaves earth is born in the 21st century. Impey’s novelist beginning is revisited twice, but the true subject of “Beyond: Our Future in Space” is the physics, astronomy, and observational cosmology of the present day.
One presumes Impey’s purpose is to encourage the possibility of reaching the stars but by the end little optimism remains with the listener. The daunting tasks of overcoming gravity, surviving an inhospitable environment, and leaving the only home humans have ever known proffers a gob of pessimism. Some minor relief is offered with a comparison of human migration across the continents in earth’s history but one questions the analogy. With that correlation, Impey speculates that history’s adventurers on earth have something in common with future adventurers in space.
The literal common characteristic of adventurers is a gene called DRD4. Impey suggests DRD4 alleles have evolved in 39 population groups that have historically migrated over long distances. These population cohorts are loosely classified as risk takers but, with a 7R evolutionary variant of this gene, human carriers have a higher incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and addictive behavior. Considering the variant, Impey fails to inspire confidence in “…Our Future in Space.”
Impey’s next noted difficulty of space exploration is escaping gravity. Current science shows fuel propellant is 80% of the weight of a rocket launch. Without a more efficient source of propulsion, sending thousands of people to another planet is a pipe dream. Impey notes that science is exploring alternatives like sail power, nuclear fission, radiation collection systems, and the physics of teleportation (via spooky action at a distance), but the evidence of success is either solely theoretical or highly probabilistic.
Political will for space exploration has dwindled since the 1960s. American government financing has dropped from 4.5% to well below 1% of the Federal Budget. NASA is nearly dismantled. Most research and development is being done by one-off entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Burt Rutan, and Robert Bigelow.
Part of the reason for the loss of political support is its cost. Current science shows it costs more than $1,000 per kilogram for human and/or cargo delivery to outer space. It is encouraging that reusable launch vehicles have potential for reducing that cost but space tourism seems a long way off. Until humans have wider experience with space flight, it seems unlikely a Columbus or Matt Damon will take a sail to Mars.
Impey makes the case for habitable planets in the cosmos based on current robotic, radio signal, and telescope explorations. He argues there is growing evidence of many planets orbiting stars outside earth’s solar system. From year 2000, the number of exoplanets (those orbiting stars) increased by more than 775 planets.
Impey goes on to explain space voyage and exoplanet living’s physiological effect on the human body. There is the detrimental effect of radiation, extreme temperature, lack of water, lack of oxygen, and reduced gravity. All of these space voyage and planetary effects on the human body discourage belief in “…Our Future in Space”.
However, Impey soldiers on. He revisits the novelist idea of the first space explorers by noting a future traveler’s Plato-like sociological training; science’s improvement of suspended animation, and big-brother’ psychological profiling to create a compatible space voyager team. Impey parenthetically notes several animals have been put in a state of suspended animation and revived; i.e. implying that humans could be put in a state of suspension for long space voyages.
As a fall back, Impey suggests an alternative to human exploration of exoplanets. He writes about advances in nano-robotics; i.e. minuscule components that can function as human substitutes for exploration of exoplanets. The reduced size of nano-robotics decreases payload weights and increase the speed and distance that can be traveled in space. This still leaves propulsion for great distances an issue but it mitigates human risk. The presumption is, with more information about exoplanets, political will for space exploration will increase. With better funding, the science for human beings “…Future in Space” is improved and space travel more possible.
Finally, Impey touches on Kurzweil’s singularity and the advance of Artificial Intelligence, where computers equal and/or exceed the capabilities of human beings. In Kurzweil’s world, either AI will explore other planets on its own, and/or AI will meld into the human race to mitigate all the negative consequences of space travel.
In support of Impey’s speculation: In ancient history, who would have thought human beings would sail for a new world when many thought sailing from land meant you would fall off the edge of earth? Maybe that is where space exploration is today. Impey’s fictional character arrives at an exoplanet with her team. She and her team are at the end and beginning of “Beyond: Our Future in Space”. Now that is optimism.