Building a Generation Ship? It’s a Bad Idea!

A generation ship is an interstellar ship designed to travel at sub-light speed, taking hundreds or thousands of years to reach nearby starts. According to the panelists of the “Let’s Build a Generation Ship!” panel, the technical difficulties, not to mention the complications of human psychology, would leave such a voyage riddled with risk. This thought-provoking panel on the Science Track in Hilton 209–211 on Friday at 8:30PM covered topics ranging from the dangers of radiation on the body to the threats posed by humans living and working in the confined environments of a ship traveling through interstellar space, doing jobs they most likely don’t want to do, and living in a highly structured environment that prioritizes survival of the human population onboard, as well as maintenance of the ship, over individual freedoms and desires.

To begin the panel, Bob Novella highlighted issues involved with a generation ship. Water would be extremely valuable, because you’d have a limited supply that you’d be constantly draining as you traveled. A generation ship would have to be completely self-sustaining because there wouldn’t be places to stop for supplies, fuel, or anything else needed to keep the ship going and people alive and healthy. Furthermore, the generation ship might feel like a prison ship. The population couldn’t leave and go anywhere. They’d have to do jobs that they may not want to do because the job had to be done, like ship maintenance, or everyone would die.

Assuming technology availability to build and sustain the generation ship, the discussion moved to how many people would make the trip. Reasonably, the number would need to be in the hundreds to have enough people to procreate. And you’d need to start with a very diverse population and tell people who they needed to procreate with to keep the population healthy. However, you really want a population in the thousands because accidents or other catastrophic events would inevitably kill off some of the ship’s crew over the voyage. Sending lots of embryos, along with fertilization technology, would also help in lieu of a larger crew.

Beyond basic survival, the next complication with a generation ship is how the society aboard the ship would operate. Do you raise children communally? How do you educate them? How do you choose jobs as children grow to adults? You could test children’s capabilities to determine what they are good at, but that doesn’t help motivation to do the job. Rae Pendergass, the panel’s moderator, asked “How do you help with motivation?”

Panelist Lali DeRosier’s response, “Mind Games.”

If you choose to use a journeyman system for developing kids for jobs, then you end up with a caste system, with people doing certain jobs having a higher social status than others.

The panelist’s also discussed rites of passage and how important they are to society. The importance of rites of passage was underscored during covid when so much of society was shut down. High school and college students couldn’t have public graduations, or go out and apply for jobs. These missed social rites of passage led to increased anxiety. And if you have a diverse population aboard the generation ship, the rites of passage would vary widely. You’d need a military-type society where no matter the diversity of the population, the military rites of passage take precedence.

The panel wrapped with a series of Q&As with the audience. One person asked what sorts of flora and fauna should be brought on board a generation ship. The answers were algae and fungi. Algae because it’s photosynthetic, it can pull carbon dioxide out of the air, and you can eat it. Fungi because they can be used to create lots of useful chemicals for a variety of uses.

Due to the earlier discussion the earlier discussion of the importance of procreation to the survival of the crew, a question was asked about members who didn’t wish to procreate. Bob Novella indicated that people wouldn’t be permitted to join the crew if they weren’t willing to participate in procreation. However, fertilization technology could be used to aid in this.

So if a generation ship is too risky, what is the solution? AI and 3D printing. A good alternative to the idea of an enormous generation ship would be a data ship, which could be the size of the panel table. The data ship would be controlled by AI as it travel to a new planet. The AI would build the necessary infrastructure to support a population, then the AI would 3D print new human beings from genetic material, and you have a new human population on a new planet. Of course, then who would raise the newly printed humans?

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