Enclosed Space

A restricted view of the universe in Heinlein’s classic.  Published by Mayflower Books 1965.

A restricted view of the universe in Heinlein’s classic. Published by Mayflower Books 1965.

Space travel will involve long periods in enclosed environments. That is, unless a means of instant teleportation across vast distances is invented, but there’s no sign of that in the near future. And being in an enclosed space is not comfortable for many people. Claustrophobia, the anxiety disorder arising from fear of being unable to escape from a closed-in place, may be an extreme consequence, but even milder variations can eventually lead to serious medical conditions unless properly treated.

Fortunately, the majority of the population doesn’t suffer from claustrophobia in a severe form. There’s also plenty of evidence that people such as submariners, or astronauts on the International Space Station, can survive reasonably comfortably for many months in fairly small spaces. But an important factor is that they know that they can leave that environment within a fairly limited timescale. Likewise, the first journeys to Mars might be manageable, but the effect on humans of really long-distance interplanetary travel, where the possibility of leaving an enclosed space is extremely restricted (or effectively nil), is something that will only become clear with experience.

And the consequences for generation starships travelling between the stars could be much worse – one generation after another being born and dying aboard a single spacecraft before the ultimate destination is reached after a journey of centuries, or even millennia. However, we can probably rely on two enduring traits of humans. First, on the positive side, they are remarkably adaptable to circumstances. Second, perhaps rather more cynically, they have a strong tendency to ignore things they’d rather not know about, or which represent a threat.

Put all that together, and we might believe that the outlook of interstellar travellers in the long term would be increasingly limited to what’s going on inside their spacecraft. What’s outside, and even the intended goal of the mission, is not relevant. In due course, the spacecraft becomes their world.

Such has been the premise of several memorable science fiction stories. Brian Aldiss’s first novel Non-Stop from 1958 described primitive humans living on board a starship, but with no knowledge of its true nature – to them, it was the universe. Things had gone wrong when an epidemic on board caused a breakdown of society many generations earlier, and the mission went seriously wrong.

A highly effective image of losing understanding of the true purpose of a generation starship appears in Robert Heinlein’s 1963 novel Orphans of the Sky. In 2119, the Jordan Foundation sponsors a trip to Proxima Centauri, but a mutiny results in the loss of most of the officers, and the descendants of those who remain degenerate into a superstitious society. They go through the ritual processes to maintain the Ship, with no idea why, and their concept of an entire universe is limited in every sense to one spacecraft, albeit a large one. The idea of something “bigger than the Ship” is meaningless.

Inevitably, some develop a religious awe for an obscure meaning behind it all, aiming to “bring closer the culmination of Jordan’s Plan, the end of our Trip at our heavenly home, far Centaurus.” Others try to live in the real world, with no time for fanciful theories of some original purpose behind their existence. “They were realists. The Ship was the Ship. It was a fact, requiring no explanation. As for Jordan – who had ever seen Him, spoken to Him? What was this nebulous Plan of His? The object of life was living…it was as simple as that, no mystery to it, no sublime Trip and no Centaurus.”

We need to be careful before suggesting that modern humans would be too sophisticated to fall into such error – there are too many comparisons with current attitudes in everyday life to say that it could never happen. And, in any event, it would certainly prevent any tendency to claustrophobia.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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