Go Interstellar? No—go Orbital


InterstellarInterstellar opens in theaters this week.  Its premise is that the Earth is becoming a global dustbowl, making it impossible to support the human race; so a band of astronauts heads out and through a wormhole to find another planet for human colonization.  (A non-spoiler-y review of the movie precedes this post.)

Would this be the best solution for human survival?  Not necessarily.  Physicists Gerard O’Neill and Tom Heppenheimer worked out a more practical solution four decades ago: Build artificial habitats and put them into orbit around the Earth or Sun.  This idea was described in O’Neill’s book The High Frontier and Heppenheimer’s book Colonies in Space, and it’s the idea I used as the premise of my novel Verdant Skies.

Bernal SphereFollowing O’Neill and Heppenheimer’s logic, I postulated a group of cities in Earth orbit, commissioned by the United Nations.  The U.N. plan was to move most of the human race to the satellites, taking the immediate pressure of human life off of the planet.  Earth would still be an immediate source of resources, but as life on the satellites would be more efficient in their use of resources, Earth would not be under as much pressure to support them.  The intent would be to improve the state of the planet, severely restricting pollution and environmental damage, and restoring the planet to as close to a healthy and pristine condition as possible.

Under this plan, a small population of workers on Earth (to limit their environmental impact) would handle the extraction and pre-processing of materials (including foods) that would be periodically sent to the satellites on ground-to-orbit transport rockets.  The satellites would use Earth’s resources, but in a more efficient manner due to their enclosed ecosystem and need for efficiency.  Resultant waste products from the satellites would be largely recycled and reused; that which could not be recycled could be jettisoned, to burn up in Earth re-entry and return, in its component elements, to Earth’s ecosystem; or, if deemed too hazardous, fired at the sun to burn up harmlessly there. The Moon could also be pressed into service, providing some materials for construction, and possibly more basic chemicals and elements for survival.

This makes sense, as we obviously know all the things humans need for survival are right here, on Earth.  If we venture to another planet in another solar system, we may discover that it is lacking one or more of those needed elements, potentially jeopardizing or dooming our ability to survive on another world.

In Verdant Skies, the plan implemented by the U.N. found itself running out of funds before it could be finished.  The result was the completion of two satellites by the U.N.—the satellites Verdant and Tranquil—a third by a cooperative deal between the U.N. and the countries of Africa and the Middle East—the satellite Fertile (with the idea that the satellite would be dedicated to the citizens of Africa and the Middle East exclusively)—and a fourth satellite—Qing (Chinese for “Lush”)—financed and constructed solely by China (and occupied only by Chinese citizens).  In the end, only the four satellites were built and occupied, and though they could supported a large population, it was only a fraction of the human population that the U.N. had wanted to move to orbit.

Yellowstone eruptionIn the novel, this puts humanity in a very tenuous position when the globe is threatened by the unexpected eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera.  In an ideal situation, the successful completion of the U.N. plan, humanity would have been able to ride out the Earthly disaster from orbit, subsisting on its stored supplies, possibly in an emergency rationing state until the crisis was over; then return to Earth when the environmental disaster had calmed down.  The much smaller support population on Earth would have hopefully been able to ride out the disaster (or even retreat to the satellites to wait it out), then rebuild damaged systems and resume support operations for the satellites.  Even if environmental conditions on Earth were so serious that support workers had to wear protective gear in order to survive, Earth would still be accessible as needed.

cover of Verdant SkiesBut in Verdant Skies, the much larger population on Earth simply wants to escape the destruction of Earth’s ecosystem by evacuating to the four orbital satellites, even though those satellites don’t have the resources to hold any significant amount of refugees.  This puts unworkable pressure on the satellites, and leads to the incredible chain of events in Verdant Skies and Verdant Pioneers.

Maybe someday we’ll see humanity attempting to build and occupy orbiting satellites like Verdant and the others… in real life, or at least, on the silver screen.  (And hopefully in a manner that makes more sense than in Elysium).

In the meantime, we can watch Interstellar… then maybe read Verdant Skies, and decide which seems more likely.

(Yes: That was a challenge.)



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