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NASA Simulation einer Marsstation auf Hawaii
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Johnston/TU Ilmenau

Will space colonies fail without diversity?

July 20, 2017

Space travel sounds super, doesn't it? But do yourself a favor and know what you're getting into. That's advice from astronomer, Neil F. Comins. He's written a timely guide for would-be Mars and moon colonists.


DW: You have written one of the most comprehensive, accessible, and it has to be said *sober* guides to space travel in the 21st century. In places it makes the idea of space travel seem quite off-putting. So let's set out your stall: how do you feel about space travel? Are you for or against commercial space travel?

Neil F. Comins: The short answer is that I am in favor of space travel, with the caveat that people need to know what they are getting into. Yes, it can be a lot of fun, I'm told, by my astronaut friends. But there are hazards and they can be long-term. If you go into space and get a dose of radiation, you may be able to come back and have that radiation not affect you in the long-term. However, it might. I have known people who have had problems with bone-loss as a result of time in space, and recovering from that can be a real problem.

So I do believe that space is the next frontier, and we can start now - evaluating the good and the bad of going into space, and coming to a reasonable decision. Space tourists, but also colonists, will have serious challenges, because our bodies are not built for any of the domains in space where we could head. But given time and engineering, scientific understanding, and possibly evolution, I expect we will be able to live off-Earth.

Evolution is a word on the tip of my own tongue, because I think it's one of those areas where there appears to be a dearth of research - how we will, or will have to, adapt to life in space. Try asking NASA or ESA for answers on research into biological evolution in space and the response is very mute. It's as if you're being laughed off the end of the phone. Even little things like sex in space, there's not much research. But for settlers, sex will be very important. Shouldn't we be researching things like evolutionary biology in space, how we can adapt and perhaps become different beings?

Neil Comins Professor für Physik und Astronomie sowie Autor von
Comins: "If a space colony needs us, but they don't want to listen to us … how is that going to work out?"Image: A. Küykendall

Yes, I really believe that understanding both how the present version of humans can function effectively in space, including things like sex, and enjoying other activities like eating food, is incredibly important for the short-term. I also believe it's important we find out how radiation or diminished gravity, where you weigh less than a normal human, how those environmental things would effect long-term development.

For example, if people start having children on Mars, where you only weigh slightly more than one-third as much as you do here the question is then, how will those young life forms grow up? Will they be physiologically different? That's a very important thing. Of course, we can't do that on Mars yet, because we don't have the colony there and in that sense we can't do all the things necessary to know beforehand, what it's going to be like.

But they are already doing some things. In the not too distant past one of two identical twins went into space and his brother stayed on Earth, and after an extended period in space [Ed.: it was about one year and the astronaut was Scott Kelly, International Space Station commander, Expedition 46], the brother came back and they compared the two brothers. I have not seen any discussion about the results of that, but the point is that they are doing the kind of work that will ideally provide the information we may need.

But it's interesting that you say there are things we cannot know in advance. I wonder whether we indeed need to know everything in advance. I say that because at one point in the book I got concerned we were about to witness a filtering of humanity, a new eugenics. It's where you write about "getting along in space," and how there are psychological tests to check who is best suited to space travel. I'm worried that filtering candidates by looking for certain psychological markers, and only allowing certain types to go, will mean space populations will turn out very mono. They won't have all the types that make societies what they are here. But we'll also potentially prioritize the fates of a few over a majority. This is especially a problem if, as we are often told, we need to get off-planet for the survival of our species. Some won't even get a chance to survive. Surely there's a risk in that?  

Yes. And that's a really deep question.

USA Mars Simulation auf Hawaii
Scientists try to simulate on Earth what life will be like on Mars - isolated and cut off - but we won't know everythingImage: picture alliance/dpa/DLR

The issue of how societies would develop in different habitats off-Earth - colonies on Mars or on the moon, conceivably even colonies on some of the asteroids or the moons of Mars - given that the people who are going to be allowed to go are going to be a more homogeneous mix than we have on Earth, that is, I believe, going to effect the societies in those colonies. Because of the lack of diversity, the homogeneity, they may go in a direction which the rest of us, or most of the rest of us, feel would be a very bad place for us to be and, by extension, for them to be. One could think of political or religious belief systems, especially in this day-and-age, and if the small groups were unable to maintain diversity and acceptance of different beliefs in that group, much less compared to the rest of us, then that, I believe, would be a real, deep problem for humanity. What we would do in that case is an incredibly complex question.

Obviously you're not going to annihilate the group and you're not going to stop supporting them because they have different beliefs, that wouldn't be right either, I think. But finding a way to work with them, to understand different points of view than they have, or that they developed in isolation. It will be important that there is a continuous flow of communication in both directions.

That's one of the things that can help alert people back on Earth that there are problems developing in the community, for one, and for us to provide feedback to them, to help them understand where they might be going and how it might be dangerous for them.

I've heard this idea before: at some point the space colonies will realize or feel, unless communication continues, that they are no longer connected to Earth at all … our laws, customs …

And as they are changing … say they stop consuming sugar and as a result something happens biologically, if we know that's the consequence based on experiences here and we share that with them in a way that they can understand it's not threatening to them, that we're trying to help, then I think, I hope, we would be able to minimize - I doubt we'd be able to stop anything - but minimize the potential dangers of their societies becoming so separate from ours that we can no longer interact, because among other things, in any given colony in space, the challenges for survival entirely on their own are extreme now.

Hopefully we will come to a point where they are self-sufficient. But if they need us and they don't like us, and they don't want to listen to us … how is that going to work out? That's one of the challenges I think we should be facing sooner rather than later.

Neil F. Comins is professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Maine and former NASA scientist. His books include "What If the Earth Had Two Moons?" and "Heavenly Errors: Misconceptions About the Real Nature of the Universe." His latest, "The Traveler's Guide to Space - For One-Way Settlers and Round-Trip Tourists," is published by Columbia University Press.

Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI, the mind, how science touches people, European perspectives
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