Future Tense

The Spacefaring Paradox

Deep-space human travel is a lose-lose proposition.

A rocket takes off with fire and smoke below it.
SpaceX’s Starship SN15 rocket prototype launches on a test flight from SpaceX’s Starbase test site near Boca Chica Village in South Texas on May 5. SpaceX/YouTube

If there’s one collective lesson gleaned from the COVID pandemic so far, it may be the shared difficulty of being isolated in one’s own home—whether alone or with family members or roommates. The stresses of quarantine included crushing mundane routines, personal habits hypostatized, and all too familiar views (stove range, bathroom mirror, that solitary tree outside, changing while nothing changed). As Amanda Mull wrote in the Atlantic, after working from home for a year, her “wallpaper has begun to yellow.” When space closes in, humans tend not to thrive. It can drive us to the brink of craziness.

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I’ve been thinking about this problem in relation to SpaceX and its rapid advancements throughout the pandemic, including the most recent successful launch and landing of its largest rocket, Starship. This was a prototype of the ship that Elon Musk intends to travel to the Moon, to Mars, and eventually beyond. In “crew mode” it will be able to carry up to 100 passengers. As Marina Koren reported for the Atlantic, Musk suddenly seems a lot closer to his goal of making humans “a multiplanetary species.” If there was something vaguely cathartic or even inspiring in Musk’s tenacious drive to perfect the SpaceX Starship, especially during the pandemic, it may have been the fantasy of more space, out there, beyond the constraints of Earth, which were felt so heavily in 2020.

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Yet there’s a paradox lurking at the core of SpaceX.

Before SpaceX will take passengers to space, the company plans to offer “Earth to Earth transportation.” These would be ridiculously quick rides around the world—for instance, London to New York in a half-hour. The idea is to launch the rocket with paying travelers above Earth’s atmosphere, then speed around the globe and land promptly at the destination. As the SpaceX website boasts, “Imagine most journeys taking less than 30 minutes with access to anywhere in the world in an hour or less.” (Of course, this “anywhere in the world” really means major urban centers with an appropriate landing pad and equipment to service the rocket, but we’ll let the hyperbole slide.)

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If achieved at commercial scale, this would turn the airline industry upside down—or at the very least, it would be a massive disruption for airlines that rely heavily on long-haul flights. No other airline or aircraft manufacturer is currently developing a similar mode of transit. A company called Boom recently made headlines for its attempt to bring back supersonic commercial flight, with a plane that is reminiscent of the Concorde, but for flyers on a budget. Yet SpaceX’s Starship flights, if realized, would make supersonic feel like the slow train.

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The rationale for speeding up long flights, naturally, is that it is widely understood that people do not like to be in cramped airplane cabins for more than an hour. The less time, the better. The history of commercial aviation has been a race to shorten the time from origin to destination, and make more efficient all the steps in between. Still, there are some things that can’t be fixed. No one likes a tarmac delay or a long flight involving an annoying seatmate or constant turbulence. Time stretches out and plays tricks on the mind, when you’re sitting in an airplane.

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Here is where the paradox enters. The same Starship that promises faster air travel around our planet—eliminating those pesky five-, 10-, or 15-hour flights—is also the aspirational repository for Musk’s would-be passengers to Mars. In other words, the Starship cabin is not ultimately intended for trips “under an hour,” but in fact for journeys of multiple months. If you think air rage is bad on a short hop from Las Vegas to San Diego, just wait until your seatmates are there beside you for weeks on end, in the black void of space. SpaceX describes the interior of these craft as including “private cabins, large common areas, centralized storage, solar storm shelters and a viewing gallery.” This makes it sound not so bad. Still, there’s no getting around the blunt truth of containment over a long period of time. Those “large” common areas are likely to shrink the longer the trip takes.

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Then there’s sleep. Between 2007 and 2011 the European Space Agency worked with Russia to simulate the conditions of a trip to Mars, particularly as a psychological isolation experiment. Called Mars500, the longest part of this study ran between 2010 and 2011, and revealed a significant degradation of the simulacral explorers’ sleep patterns. While on wide-body airliners, a business class cocoon seat can deliver comfort (and even luxury) during an overnight flight, such ergonomic palliatives won’t be as easy for a yearlong journey. Space travel to Mars is supposed to be a bold and daring adventure. But what if it ends up feeling more like a superlong red-eye flight?

For years, Musk has compared his rockets to airliners, using the familiar sizes and thrust capacities of Boeing 737s and 747s as reference points for his future-bound ships. These comparisons circulate on social media, by way of making SpaceX craft both more graspable and more impressive. But the analogies are telling. As much as the goal is to reduce the time of feeling trapped inside a cramped cabin, the endgame is in fact more of this time. And let’s be honest: A hab on Mars is not going to be a whole lot more spacious than the interior of the ship.

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If the dream of space travel involves new horizons and feelings of unbound freedom—to explore, to discover, to spread humanity—a nightmare lurks just around the corner of consciousness. There will be no real “arrival” on this fantasy trip: It’s enclosures and pressurized chambers all the way down. When it comes to human space travel, the destination really is the journey. And the journey will be long, and claustrophobic. As far as “quarantine” goes, spacefaring may feel familiar to those who lived through the COVID pandemic—and certain survival tactics may crossover.

Musk wants to send humans to Mars (and beyond) because he believes that the species is doomed on Earth, sooner or later. This bleak assessment belies two haunting presuppositions: The miserable masses will wither on a climate-scorched and ecologically damaged planet back home; meanwhile, the spacefaring select will find themselves in a whole new purgatory of cramped isolation, en route and wherever they “land.”

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The wish image of habitations on other planets is for simulated environments that feel as good as—if not better than—our home planet. The reality is bound to be precarious and highly contingent—no matter how awesome and intact space settlements might appear in artistic renderings. The motivation for spacefaring is, at least for Musk, premised on a desire to escape a planet in limbo; but the alternative is hardly a safe haven. This is the paradox of spacefaring: It’s a lose-lose proposition.

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As anthropologist Lisa Messeri has found in her research on planetary scientists, ideas about inhabiting outer space can tend to revert back to making sense of our place on Earth. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, one of the arguments for space exploration is to improve life back home. Yet as SpaceX moves closer to sending humans beyond the space station, beyond the moon, it’s worth pausing to consider the real implications of these endeavors. We’re already spacefaring, in a literal sense of the term. We know what it feels like to cram ourselves in tight vessels or rooms, and we don’t generally like it. And as the pandemic gradually (hopefully) subsides, our interconnectedness as a species and entanglements with other lifeforms has been made vivid. The adventures and challenges of spacefaring are right before our eyes, the spinning ground on which we’re already standing.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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