io9 and Gizmodo have launched Space Habitats Week, and all I can think is, “Why?” Oh, I understand the scientific challenge, and I don’t begrudge the goal, but there’s absolutely nothing about space that’s tempting to me, and here’s why.
I’ve read about Dyson spheres and floating environments, and I’ve thought about how neat it would be to float around every morning instead of walking. It just wouldn’t be anywhere near worth it. To me, life in space, as a concept, seems like a bewitching con. It’s one of those depressing nightclubs - the ones at which people have to fight tooth and nail to get in, and the fight is a way of distracting them from realizing there’s no reason to be in there in the first place. Only the smartest, the most disciplined, the most physically resilient and multi-talented will get to live in space, but “living in space” consists of nothing more than sitting in an industrialized habitat, taking selfies and watching their bodies deteriorate.
And we know that, no matter what, bodies deteriorate in space. To me, the main draw of a life in space would be watching the slow break down of my entire body with a morbid curiosity that occasionally spills over into horror. Even short stays eat away bone mass and redistribute fluids enough that your face puffs up. Over time, being exposed to the high energy particles will up the cancer risk every single day.
We would be able to float in microgravity. That sounds like a beautiful experience and if someone wants to develop Channing Tatum’s anti-gravity rocket boots from Jupiter Ascending, I’d be all for it. But taking a break from gravity isn’t the same as living permanently without gravity, so that every single moment of your life becomes a technical challenge, from going to the bathroom, to washing your hands, to drinking tea. We’ve all seen the videos of astronauts having fun eating floating food, but they weren’t really having fun eating floating food. They were very, very carefully letting small objects loose in a dangerous environment, and they were keeping track of every last M&M, because if one gets in the wrong place, they might all die. So when you think about life in space, look around you at the loose papers and pens on your desk, and the bit of mayo that spilled out of your sandwich. Then think about how much fun you’ll have being neurotically tidy every moment for the rest of your life.
Here’s the thing: I can see space from my house, and it’s never looked like a lot of fun. Don’t get me wrong, I realize that physically, there can be a lot going on in, such as cosmic rays and quantum foam, but the thing about both of those things is that they do such an excellent impression of nothing that, for such a long time that we thought they were nothing.
The main draw of space has always been the fact that we could see stuff hanging in it, out of reach. Some of that stuff turned out to be impossible to get to, and some of it turned out to be things we couldn’t approach too closely even if we could get there. But it was actual stuff. And if people want to spend most of their lives being uncomfortable on a ship traveling to that stuff, I can understand. But just hovering in space without the stuff? Even Star Trek injects energy beings and murderous pseudo-gods and weird fake-pregnancy-inducing presences into their pure space episodes, because otherwise, why bother? You’re just in space. Any habitat you construct in space is a habitat you could construct on Earth. The only thing space adds is the never-ceasing possibility that the tiniest problem could kill you and everyone around you. If you want that on Earth, just keep an exotic pet or buy an old Pinto.
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t love to go up to space for a visit, provided I could be drugged to the gills during both the outgoing and returning flight. And I’m not saying that I don’t admire people who are working to achieve their dream of life in space, or even just promoting the dream. But I don’t see the point of just being in space.
For me, space should be the journey, not the destination. I can understand living in space on ships traveling the distances between stars and planets. These people are dedicating their lives to explore a new place, even if they probably won’t be around very long when the ship finally gets there. Similarly, I can understand enduring the deprivation that new, harsh environments force on their inhabitants to slowly, with great determination, build a new world.
In the end, that would be the only thing that would make me interested in living in space as a concept. Is there a way to take a life in an extreme environment, endurable only with constant outside support, and turn it into the kind of permanent world that we’d get if we were to colonize Mars, or set a course for the nearest inhabitable exo-planet? If not, living in space just seems like a competition to see who can hold their breath the longest.