Interstellar Travel Is a Lot More Than Rocket Science

Rachel Armstrong's vision of the future requires existential questions.

Teodor Petrov

Rachel Armstrong wants to build starships. The professor of experimental architecture at Newcastle University in the UK is obsessed with the notion that humans will leave Earth to inhabit other planets. For her, the concept of starships is not merely a technological question, but a philosophical and existential one.

This is nowhere more clear than in the way Armstrong makes the distinction between the “fast route” and the “slow route.” The fast route is the pathway to interstellar space that tries to figure out how humans can build something that can make it to a home beyond our solar system. That kind of project is heavily tied to an understanding of astrophysics, engineering — and not much else.

The slow route instead envisions humans as an interplanetary species. For that, humans need to better recognize how to change their entire way of life, preparing for life in a completely foreign region of the universe.

Armstrong’s new book, Star Ark: A Living, Self-Sustaining Spaceship, delves deep into the anthropological issues that surround interstellar travel, forcing the reader to comprehend just how different space travel will be when entire civilizations are forced to adapt to a life off of Earth. Inverse spoke with Armstrong to learn more about her book, the slow route, and what she envisions the future of humanity to be.

What a starship might look like.

Frederik de Wilde

Since we last spoke at the end of 2015, a lot has happened in the research and development of technologies and designs that are aimed at helping allow us to conduct interstellar travel. How have these developments affected the work that you and your colleagues are doing right now when it comes to considering interstellar travel and starship architecture?

I think it reinforces the need to take the subject more seriously from a human perspective, and not just to focus on the technology. The main thing that working through Star Ark achieved was to bring in other voices into the debate. I think that there has been incredible focus and interstellar travel is being taken seriously. At the moment, [the Breakthrough Starshot initiative] is a microcraft design, but they are actually being built and prototyped. They are not just incidental consequences of other more important space ventures now.

I would say Musk’s work in particular is really raising issues about habitability and the environment. We are now entering a phase of ecological space development. The idea that we could go and buy a house on Mars one day raises all those kinds of questions about habitat.

Once you’ve got colonization and settlement, you’re no longer talking about a machine, you’re talking about people and how they’re going to live and coexist and work together. Previously the systems for that have been pretty modern. Even when you look at space operas, they are centrally controlled social systems that impose a single order on the society. When thinking of how starships will be inhabited, I would I would say we are looking at Babels, not Utopias — which are incredibly modern. . They assume certain kinds of technologies are going to fix certain kinds of problems for certain kinds of peoples. They are not inclusive. So therefore, it’s really easy to write about a dystopia.

So what’s the answer for ensuring we don’t fall into these type of traps?

That [involves] understanding the differences between people. It’s inviting a diplomacy, a tolerance, a kind of common decency, shared ethics and mutual respect even when we disagree, founding principles for establishing culture. Without culture there is no coherence for a technology. Unless it’s a vanity project, no one is going to sign up to Musk’s invitation to come and settle on Mars — they don’t know where they are going, they don’t know who their neighbors are going to be. It might appeal to a few libertarians but quite frankly, who wants a libertarian next door? They’re looking out for themselves and in extreme circumstances we are almost certainly going to have to rely on each other. If we want genuine markets to be established and genuine tourism, there has to be these kinds of inclusive and participatory conversations about what these societies could be and what they have to offer.

I think that’s where Star Ark really tried to raise the conversation about an interstellar culture. I think that question has been with us since time immemorial. We’ve all looked to the stars at some point and gone “wow,” it makes us feel that we can achieve more than the everyday.

Right — the book seems to make a comprehensive exploration at interstellar travel as it pertains to all facets of our future lives, and isn’t limited to just the technical challenges of spaceflight.

You’ll notice in the second part of the book that there are people with very different philosophies as to what off-world living might be. So you have people like Kevin Warrick who’s talking about a very mechanistic view of the body, the traditional cyborg as it were with implants. I think a lot of people in the space community would probably see it as reality. But then we also have got artists like Sarah Jane Pell who’s talking about life surviving under extreme conditions, and becoming some other kind of entity that may not necessarily identify as human. The idea of an “explorer fish” — it’s quite a striking one.

You’ve got people like Krists Ernstsons, who are saying [that] perhaps the unfathomably colossal distances between us and the next constellation prove to be so challenging that we actually have to think about conscious solutions. [These] may not invoke classical forms of embodiment, but actually conjure mind presences like seeds. Imagine the Starshot project with some kind of quantum mind going out into interstellar space — dematerializing the body in some way or entangling it with a physical reality of another kind.

We need to rethink these frameworks for imagining ourselves in these spaces, which is more of a cultural engagement. But it has impacts back on Earth, and I think that’s what’s really interesting. What it helps us with [is making] an imaginary transition towards what it means to be an ecological species.

I was wondering if you could tell me more about the philosophical and existential approach to interstellar travel and how that translates into the way we should be thinking about developing these kind of technologies. How do those abstract issues into what becomes tangibly engineered and built?

We are taking the bottom-up route to assembling a starship really. The reason for doing that is because there are so many variables about why we might build one; who might build one; how we might go about it. It does seem kind of science fiction-y to kind of say that, well this is the starship Enterprise and that’s what we are going to build. But it’s fantastic that the kinds of quantifications and technical specs give this an idea of the size of the materiality of one of those things. And with that, you get this impression that that’s a lot of money and its a lot of stuff that we have to move.

If you think about the kind of technologies and cultures we have access to, we’ve gotten to an age where prototyping is something we do constantly. There is a kind of modularity and a collective synthesis that is at least partly driving technological innovation, and I think that the “slow route” comes up with the perfect solution to get us to the stars where all the starships are based on so many different things for us to survive. We need the ecology expertise; we need the technological expertise; we need the sociological expertise; we need so many things in order for this to really work.

So we need to create the flexible platforms from which we can then start creating the next generation of prototypes — which might be biospheres, Musk’s transport system, lava tubes, etc.

I chose the slow route. This is going to draw on lots of people. It’s not about trying to create a community of experts — it’s taking that culture of the maker and the enthusiast and the amateur and trying to bring that together into a platform for synthesis with the experts and the commercial realm.

I have no problem with people making money — the problem is that it becomes so exclusive that you are creating marginalized groups that can never participate in a society or civilization. It’s not about utopias; it’s about babels. The slow route is an invitation for the bottom up synthesis of a starship. But it also appreciates that we are not there yet.

So how does this all unfold then?

Our first phase will be to leave the terrestrial environment. Then we move into planetary mode of habitation — how to grow a potato patch on Mars. Then we can think about the spatial ordering of the next realm — maybe it’s Europa’s orbit, maybe we’re actually looking at the Oort cloud as manufacturing center or Silicon Valley of space.

My own work in the experimental architecture tries to embrace this idea of continual change and the idea that we will actually change and adapt not only in ourselves but in the technologies around. What we don’t want to do is put a lot of investment into something that becomes a huge white elephant which has taken so long to build that nobody can actually use it.

The slow route requires an interdisciplinary, inclusive community of stakeholders that includes private companies, space organisations and academia to work together. I think that one of this book’s successes is that professionals and academics contributed equally in their knowledge-sharing. Interstellar conversations are regarded skeptically by the professional space industry, who consider themselves to be “space professionals” and generally regard interstellar challenges as something that’s indulged by sci-fi enthusiasts, which should not be taken seriously. But really, our work involves people who are working professionally, like architects or engineers who deal with designing ecosystems, or artists conducting actual research — not just making work that is about an aesthetic and a spectacle. They are saying something about living a certain way. So, the construction of life in space is very complex and requires people to work together despite their differences.

It’s not about going to a place that’s very, very far away. I think in some ways our very, very near environment has become very, very far away. And it’s created such disenchantment that I think some of us are giving up. Like why should we vote? How did we get here? How do we actually start to make those reconnections so that we bring the best out of ourselves? We need projects, even if they are ones with longer term goals, and to appreciate that our problems aren’t going to get fixed overnight. I think it’s important to create a human civilization that isn’t out to tear itself apart. We are going to need that if we are ever going to leave our world. This is why the slow route has to do with a way of life as opposed to a technological fix.

I understand the book is kind of a synthesis of a lot of what you have been working on with Project Persephone, and so I want to know more about what that work has entailed and how you plan to move forward in the next year or two.

So, one of the things that Persephone has done is create experimental space. We’ve been working with synthetic soil types — how to make synthetic soils like the organic condition.

The most interesting part is bringing radical bodies into that space. So, we’ve been working with performers of a circus: if we have different regions of space that are differently enabled by different laws of physics and apparatus then the militaristic notions of good conduct in space are very different to what a contortionist would experience. So, we’ve been doing interesting work with a Swedish professional circus group. A lot of that has been lead by Rolf Hughes. He’s been really developing the critique of inhabiting space in radically different ways through practices found in the circus arts.

Kitsou Dubois is a dancer who worked in free fall with the Arts Catalyst, and when you watch a professional dancer move in free it is a very different movement to the astronaut’s or engineer’s movement. Non-acrobatic bodies, doggie paddle when they are out of balance, whereas Dubois responds differently, by starting to extend her limbs fully - rather than contracting them protectively around her body. Even though they were just like 90 second bursts, a completely different movement emerges. When I’ve been holding design tutorials and workshops, it’s kind of interesting how students never thought about space in the ceiling. We were once looking at health centers on the Moon, which students responded to by re-presenting an operating table that was very classically like the one you’d expect on Earth. They didn’t make any use of wall space even though it was one-sixth of Earth’s gravity.

That was where the idea of performance professionals came into play. We are looking at venues like the Palais de Tokyo in Paris to explore these artistic and architectural research and develop literature around that. We very much encourage other people to get involved. We want people to occupy spaces as if they were starships. The Institute of the Future on the West Coast came up with the idea that we could inhabit buildings as if they were starships and have a look at the dynamics at the cultures and exchanges that would come of that. That would be another phase in thinking about how quality of life is critical.

Those people that are going to get on Musk’s rocket don’t care whether it’s reusable or not. But they will care about their quality of life. If they are going to give their jobs on Earth and move to Mars, will they for example, be able to cope with the darkness in an underground home built in lava tubes? People are resilient and can accommodate these new environments but they have to believe that their efforts are worth it. This is different than just relocating suburban values, there’s a value to changing potentially everything they know and care about. We are trying to sketch out what some of those things might be.

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