Don’t get too comfortable…

An artist's depiction of an extrasolar, Earthl...

An artist’s depiction of an extrasolar, Earthlike planet.. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All in all, planet Earth is not a bad place, but one day, no matter how much we like it, we might have to up sticks and leave. Maybe we’ll have polluted the place so much that it’s no longer viable to live here. Perhaps the water level will rise so far that there’s no dry land. Or NASA could detect a large foreign body hurtling towards Earth at an alarming rate and Bruce Willis is not returning their calls. Let’s hope it doesn’t involve mushroom clouds.

Read any science fiction novels or watch any films and it’s almost a given that sooner or later, the human race will colonise other worlds. As worlds go, planet Earth is just about perfect. Unfortunately, it’s in the minority. If we want to be choosy about where to migrate to, we need to travel a very long way before we get there.

Unless someone comes up with technology that can move us many orders of magnitude faster than we can today, the only way to get to our new home will be to launch a ship on which people are born, grow old and die many times before the ship reaches the destination. That’s assuming they make it. Space is a hostile environment and there’s no shortage of cosmic debris moving at frightening speeds. A rogue meteor could be the difference between a nice day’s space flight and hard vacuüm.

Not only that, but they will need to pack for every eventuality. Unlike my wife, I can pack for a couple of weeks away  with a case no bigger than a shoebox. If I forget something, it’s easy enough to go and buy whatever I need. When you’ve been in space for 30 years, nipping back home for a new toothbrush or spare parts is impractical.

The crew need to be entertained too. For a long space voyage, half a dozen DVDs are not going to cut it. What are they going to eat? I can imagine that ration packs washed down with recycled urine gets real old real quick. With people cooped up in close proximity for so long, discipline will become an issue. Someone needs to keep the peace.

Depending on the target planet, the journey might be the easy bit. What if we land on LV426?

I do hope that someone, somewhere is quietly working on all these challenges. The time to start trying to solve them is not 72 hours before the asteroid hits.

Shrinking the world

Long-journey

Long-journey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used to think that the world was absolutely enormous. As a child, whenever we went anywhere as a family, it was usually by bus or car. Buses are not the fastest mode of transport on Earth and neither of my parents were speed freaks, so even when travelling by car, every journey took an absolute age. It didn’t help that cars back then were particularly unreliable and that dad used to buy cars from that twilight zone between bangerdom and scrapyard. Inevitably, on any lengthy journey, the chances were that we would break down extending the journey even further.

Like most children, I was given a globe for Christmas one year. As I looked at the tiny pink specks that made up the British Isles, I used to find it incredible that it took us such a long time just to traverse our tiny island. I used to look at other places on the globe and wonder how long it would take to get there.

Easyjet and Ryanair had yet to turn the airline industry upside down, so air travel remained the pursuit of the wealthy or business travellers. Our regular trips to Ireland involved getting to Holyhead, which meant an extremely long train journey or an even longer car journey. Once you got to the ferry terminal, you had another six hour trip across the sea. It didn’t stop there – we had to then get from the port to where we were supposed to be. It felt to me like an epic voyage every time.

Back in those days, if you wanted to get a message to someone, you had two choices – by telephone (a landline naturally) or by post. I was amazed when I visited a friend at Durham University when I saw email for the first time. My friend asked me to hang on for a moment because he was in the middle of a conversation with someone in Japan. Intrigued – I watched him as he typed away on his keyboard and sent a message. Moments later – he got a response – from Japan! I was astonished.

Things have sped up so so much. How far do you think that Amazon would have come if they quoted “please allow 28 days for delivery”. Everything is pretty much instantaneous. With the power of the Internet and Google, the instant after you ask yourself a question – you can find the answer to almost anything. I can’t help thinking that all this near instant gratification comes at a price. We have ever shorter attention spans. Will people actually manage to finish reading books in the future ?

Once upon a time, when you were at a loss for things to do, you would tend to daydream. Nowadays, most people reach for the smartphone and log into Facebook.