Our kindly planet fits us well, but space ships will need a great deal of tuning to even approximate the easy environment we evolved into. This story began as nonfiction, then developed its own logic and now is fictional—though not very much so.
Richard A. Lovett
Wow, so that’s a 3D camera? I had no idea they were so tiny. When we’re done, do you mind if I look at it more closely?
Yeah, I guess if our eyes can do it on that scale, technology can too. And I suppose my team has been doing something similar — though in our case we’ve been packing the Earth’s entire biosphere into a 400-meter torus . . . or at least the essential bits it. Enough to support the folks who’ll be spending big parts of the trip awake.
Since I’m not one of those people, I’ve got to eat whenever I can. Can you pass me one of those donuts? Munching may not be the most polite way to do an interview, but I need to put on another thirty pounds before launch or I’ll be cut from the crew.
No, eating that much is not fun. I wish people would quit thinking it’s some kind of luxury. One donut is a treat. Maybe two. But in four weeks, there’ll be no more need for me until we reach the other end . . . and it’s a lot less resource drain to have me plumped up enough to see it all the way through in hybo, rather waking up every few decades to fatten up all over again. The docs tell me I need to go in at 365 pounds, minimum. Most of my crew is going to be closer to 425, so there’s no way I’m asking for an exception. Especially since it’s only by the skin of my teeth that I’m going at all.
Yeah, hybo. That wasn’t in the press pack? Technically, I suppose it should be hiber, but that sounds too much like hyper, which — do you know Greek? Too bad. The point is that hyper-metabolism isn’t what we want. But by the thousandth time you say induced hibernation, you’ve got to shorten it. We wound up with hybo. It started as a typo for hypo-, which would be correct in Greek, then just kind of stuck.
But that’s not what you really want to know. You’re not the first reporter who’s approached me, even if you’re the first I’ve had time to talk to. You want to know why I’m going.
If you’ve done your homework, you already know part of it. After Molly died and Alice . . . did what she had to . . . there really wasn’t much left here for me. That’s when I made a late request to be part of the crew. I wasn’t sure they’d let me go. Not because of the psych issues of losing my wife and kid — half the crew have something like that in their backgrounds. It’s a one-way trip, and even if we could come back, who’d want to, 468 years in the future? Could you imagine Queen Elizabeth — the original one, as in Shakespeare’s — walking into this room? Forget the 3D camera, the ride up here from Earth, the hotel airlock, everything else. What would she make of your shoes? There’s not a stitch of leather in them.
It’s a one-way trip. I do not want to come back here 468 years from now.
The problem getting on the crew was that I had to convince the mission planners that I was needed. Sure, I’m in charge of designing the life-support system. But I’m a systems engineer, not a mechanic. If something goes wrong I’m not the guy to fix it. What I had to do was convince them that when we get there, I can help plan habitats in whatever conditions we find.
I know, the Kepler XII folks think Terra Nova will be a lot like Earth. Continents, photosynthesis, nothing overtly toxic in the air. But hey, Antarctica is Earthlike. So’s the Sahara. We’ve got to be prepared to be flexible. Flexible enough that I eventually convinced the folks in Houston I might be worth my weight in hybo. And I suppose if something ghastly goes wrong, there might be reason to wake me up. But that’s something I’d rather not think about because anything that would require redesigning the system en route would be really, really bad.
But none of that’s the real reason I wanted to go. Not even Alice and Molly, though without losing them I’d never even have voiced the idea, let alone seriously considered it. No, just between you, me, and the camera, what I really want is to know if it works. I mean, I gave everything I had to this project for seventeen years. Could you spend that much time on something, only to watch it fly away forever — and never know?
You could? Hmm. I guess that’s why you’re in journalism and I’m in starship engineering. I care a lot more about what happens two or three centuries from now than who wins the next World Cup. Or the next election — unless they threaten to shut off my funding — which, I guess, is a good attitude for someone in charge of designing life support for 234 years.
So how does it all work? Perfectly, I hope! But first, can you pass me another donut? Or maybe just slide over the box. Those probably have about 350 calories each, so I need to eat the whole dozen. Did you know I used to be a marathoner? Not the type who naturally beefs up to 365 pounds. But maybe that’s one of the reasons I made it onto the hybo crew, because once I reach target weight, I’m nearly half fat, and as long as I don’t die of a heart attack between now and then, that’s a good thing. I just wish the pre-hybo drugs made me want to eat like a bear. It’s going to feel really good to wake up skinny.
But where was I? Oh, yeah, 234 years. Not 233 or 232. “Almost” only counts in . . . well, you’ve probably heard that one too many times.
What I’m in charge of is more than just food. My department is “Habitat, Engineering, Longevity, and Life Support.” Did you know some idiot once called it HELLS? That was in an official document before one of the PR folks pointed out it sounded more like what we wanted to avoid.
Planning life support for 234 years isn’t something you just sit down and do. It comes in stages.
The first question is how many people to plan for. You’d be surprised how long it took to decide. When I came on the project back in ’95, hybo wasn’t on the table, so we were still thinking in terms of an entire, multi-generation culture. There were studies suggesting we could make do with as few as thirty people, but more would be better because it was going to take six or seven generations to get there — enough to get awfully inbred. And while stations in the outer Solar System seem to be socially stable with crews of only a few dozen, nobody’s ever tried to make it work for centuries.
Still, thirty was a starting point. Could we do something on the scale of the Kuiper Deep station, for ten times longer than anyone’s ever lived in the Outer System? That was the question. Plus, it didn’t take long to realize a sperm bank was the solution to inbreeding, which meant our real constraints were psychosocial.
But there had always been was an elephant in the room — something everyone knew but didn’t want to talk about: none of the initial crew would live to see the destination. Nor would their kids, grandkids, or great-grandkids. Entire generations would be born, live, and die in a volume the size of a not-all-that-big sports arena.
At the time, I figured, okay, if you have to do it, you have to do it. Then I married Alice. She got pregnant, and I realized there was no freaking way I’d condemn my daughter to live her entire life in a damn flying Space Needle. It either had to be bigger — which meant hundreds or even thousands of years longer in flight — or we needed something else. You know the answer, of course, because I’m eating the donuts to prove it.
It started when Chen’s group at Malawi Tech put a chimp in hybo. The idea wasn’t totally new — more than a hundred years ago a lab in Seattle, Washington, found that mice could be put into a hibernation-like state with a low dose of hydrogen sulfide. That’s right, rotten-egg gas. It was exciting because mice, unlike bears, bats, ground squirrels, hedgehogs, snakes, toads, etc. — don’t normally hibernate. But it turned out that hydrogen sulfide didn’t work in larger animals and that was the end of that line of research. Chen’s discovery twelve years ago — using a cocktail of metabolism-suppressing drugs and gradually induced hypothermia — was a real game changer. And yeah, that’s hypothermia, not hyper-. Hyperthemia is heatstroke. See, there’s a reason we didn’t want to call it hiber!
Where was I? Gads, that’s what my grandfather always said in his old age. I’m only 48. Why the hell do I feel old? Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that a month from now, if I gain enough weight — could you give me that éclair? — you’ll be a century or more dead.
Cute? Yeah, I know. I practiced that line. Meanwhile, maybe you should just pass me the whole box.
And, for real now, where was I?
Chen, that’s right. Thanks. Initially, she was interested in using short-term hybo to stabilize trauma patients until they could get to a hospital, but she quickly realized it could be useful in space, where help can be months away. She even got a couple of governments to approve testing it on prisoners. “Sleep off your years” was the offer. Ethical? I don’t know. All I know is it’s why I’m now eating donuts.
No, I don’t think spending time in hybo will somehow make everything magically better. Molly is dead. See, I can say it. Dead. Not gone ahead. Dead. If there’s another life, I’ll see her then. But for this one, she’s gone. Like Alice, though in Molly’s case I at least know where. The last time I talked to Alice, she was in Pretoria. About as far away as she could get without learning a new language. And no, I don’t know what she was doing there. By then I’d given up. She wasn’t coming back any more than Molly was, and I’d already applied for a berth.
No, not to forget. To move ahead. And, as I told you, to find out if it worked. Or, I guess not wake up if it didn’t. But I assure you, I am not suicidal. I want to wake up. I want to find out what’s out there. But if it turns sour despite our best efforts? Check out the Pilgrims. What were the chances they’d reach a rock on which to land? Something more than half of them died in the next three months. Sometimes, you roll the dice.
There’s no way you can fly a ship 234 years with everyone asleep. There’s got to be an awake crew. Thirty at a time, apparently, if the social-stability folks are right. And they need life support.
Anywhere off-Earth, the basic needs are pretty . . . well . . . basic. You must have seen the “Never forget where you are!” posters plastered all over the place up here. There’s one right behind the door.
 Harry Jones (NASA Ames Research Center), “Starship Life Support,” SAE Technical Paper 2009-01-2466, doi:10.4271/2009-01-2466 (2009).
 Li, Jia; Zhang, Gencheng; Cai, Sally; Redington, Andrew N, “Effect of inhaled hydrogen sulfide on metabolic responses in anesthetized, paralyzed, and mechanically ventilated piglets”. Pediatric Critical Care Medicine 9 (1): 110–112, (January 2008), doi:10.1097/01.PCC.0000298639.08519.0C. See also, Haouzi P, Notet V, Chenuel B, Chalon B, Sponne I, Ogier V et al., “H2S induced hypometabolism in mice is missing in sedated sheep”. Respir Physiol Neurobiol 160 (1): 109–15 (2008). doi:10.1016/j.resp.2007.09.001. PMID 17980679.