Why Humans Will Never Conquer Space

Imagine this scenario:

You are confined for nine months with three other people in a windowless craft the size of a small motor home. You are speeding through a lethally airless, frigid outer space. You eat only prepared food from packets. Hygiene is minimal. You cannot take a bath, and the craft grows more and more fetid with the exudations from your bodies. You are weightless and must exercise hours a day in an ultimately losing effort to maintain your muscles and bones. Your eyesight becomes blurry. You might even go blind. You are aware that, at any moment, a critical system that provides air, water, and heat could malfunction, requiring you or one of the others to repair it.

Earthbound astronaut

You are speeding away from your home hundreds of millions of miles away amid utter blackness. You can only contact your loved ones through communications that impose long delays. You are far from any clinic, with only one trained medical caregiver, little diagnostic equipment, and a limited supply of pharmaceuticals. You are bombarded by radiation that could kill you immediately or ultimately give you cancer.

After the nine months, your craft descends on a roaring pillar of flame to land on a desolate, airless, radiation-blasted surface with lethally frigid temperatures. Upon landing, you must instantly transition from weightlessness to gravity, your muscles and bones weakened. Nearly crippled, nearly blind, traumatized and depressed, you must immediately begin to perform complex tasks crucial for your survival.

After a month on the planet surface enclosed either in the lander or a spacesuit, you are launched once more for a nine-month voyage home. However, even with the promise of home, on this return voyage, you will continue to suffer whatever medical and psychological problems built up on your outbound voyage and your stay on the surface.

This, in brief, will be the experience of a mission to Mars, and in fact any deep space voyage.

This book explores in depth not only the medical and psychological impacts of human deep space travel, but also the politics, economics, ethics, science, and technology behind human deep space exploration. It reveals that deep space travel is a “serial killer,” as are lunar and planetary exploration. That is, they are like the serial circuits of old-time Christmas tree lights, in which the loss of one defective bulb extinguished the entire string of lights. Likewise, in deep space, the loss of one system component—oxygen supply, temperature control, food, water, or radiation protection—means catastrophic failure of the entire system, ending in death. And in deep space, or on the Moon or Mars, there is no option to quickly return to Earth. Reaching safety may be weeks or even years away.

Similarly, a lone medical catastrophe amid untold possibilities can end in death, or cause debilitating problems that leave an astronaut non-functional. Any organ—heart, lungs, immune system, brain, or eyes—could be the source.

Space is also a synergistic killer. That is, such phenomena as microgravity, radiation, stress, and isolation not only exert their effects alone—but in complex interactions impossible to mimic on Earth, or even in orbit or on short-term deep-space missions. For example, the space environment has triggered reactivation of latent viruses in astronauts, causing them to be shed viral particles into the air. Such reactivation over time could lead not only to a viral infection in crew members, but to secondary physiological effects such as loss of balance and impairment of judgment.

Another dilemma is that, in a cosmic catch-22, it is impossible to do experiments on the effects on people and machinery of long-duration, deep-space travel, except by mounting long-duration, deep-space missions. But those missions cannot be safely mounted without understanding those effects.

And should such missions be foolishly launched, the sample size for experiments—that is, the number of astronauts or mechanical systems studied—is so small as to make findings statistically meaningless. No drug trial would pretend to be legitimate that had only dozens, even hundreds, of test subjects. Any legitimate clinical trial requires many thousands of subjects to even begin to detect the small-but-significant side effects of experimental drugs due to environmental, genetic, and other differences among people.

For example, there is evidence that some people may have a genetic predisposition to swelling of the optic disc of the eye that occurs in astronauts in zero gravity. This swelling contributes to the blurry vision experienced by astronauts during and after space missions. Screening for such subtle differences is impossible, given the stunning complexity of human genetics. So, astronauts on deep space missions—with its combined weightlessness, radiation, high carbon dioxide atmosphere and other alien conditions—could well be prone to medical problems that cannot be predicted.

This book will reveal that space travel is a voyage into a black hole of ignorance. Indeed, an extensive review by scientists of space travel’s health effects concluded that “there is an urgent need for expanded research to determine the true extent of the current limitations of long-term space travel and to develop potential applications and countermeasures for deep space exploration and colonization.” These research needs ranged from radiation effects, to the deterioration of blood cells, to the effects of dust, to blood sampling methods, to the ideal space diet.

While the popular perception of the space program is of ingenious engineers, heroic astronauts, and sophisticated machinery, there is a far darker and more complex reality. Certainly, the space program has seen its crowning successes. Legions of satellites have enabled global communication and Earth observation. Sophisticated planetary probes have revealed new knowledge of the solar system. Space telescopes have brought new understanding of the universe. And, the International Space Station, has yielded invaluable data about the effects of space travel on human physiology.

However, these successes have masked the reality that plans for human deep space travel are unworkable. This book will show that human deep space travel is a dead end—that it will be inevitably thwarted by prohibitive political, economic, and technological barriers. It is also a deadly end, presenting perilous, even lethal, medical risks that make it in the end, fundamentally unethical.

Despite these realities, human space travel has been promoted by a cadre of cosmic cheerleaders who have a selfish interest in seeing human space exploration beyond Earth orbit. In that promotion, politicians, advocacy groups, and the aerospace industry have discounted or even ignored the profound barriers to human space travel. NASA has tacitly acquiesced to this hype, even while its own research and internal reports realistically assess the profound medical and psychological barriers to such missions. To these advocates, human deep space travel is a dream. And indeed, it is like a dream: illogical and murky.

The book also reveals how popular media have conveyed false notions that space travel is viable and even romantic. And how science fiction movies, TV shows and games have spun thrilling adventures in which technological barriers have been magically overcome—in which radiation does not exist and gravity does; and in which oxygen, food, and water are plentiful, with no explanation of how such comfortable conditions were achieved. Such tales have promoted an unrealistic and even harmful vision of the human future in space—how “seeing is deceiving.”

While this book takes an editorial position, it is based on the best scientific knowledge and insights. The scientific literature on space travel—including scientific papers and reports from NASA itself—contains data and conclusions that have been largely glossed over by most media coverage and books about the space program.

In contrast to the pie-in-the-sky schemes of NASA and its acolytes, this book outlines a sensible space program whose payback in economic and societal benefits make it worthwhile and humane. That said, this book’s title—Earthbound: How Humans will Never Conquer Space—is slightly misleading, in that humans will, indeed, conquer space. However, we will not do by sending humans, but by dispatching an armada of artificially intelligent robotic planetary probes and landers that can explore space much more cost-efficiently and without the ethical burden of costing lives.

While this book might be damned for crushing the dream of human deep space travel, when the dream turns out to be a nightmare, it should be exposed as such. This book will not kill the human deep space program; reality will. This book only reveals the inevitability of its demise.

And finally, this book addresses the issue that the race to space—and the naive belief that humans can survive off-earth—ignores or discounts our planet’s rich and essential ecosystem services that support our very existence and which have fostered our evolution.

Deep space is, in the end, the Foolhardy Frontier.