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Deep Space Best Explored by Family Groups, Scientist Says

Cathy Keen
February 19, 2002
 
Forget Starship Troopers and steely-eyed astronauts—the right stuff for spaceship travel to faraway solar systems is more likely to be a family affair conducted by mom, dad, the kids, kinfolk, and generations to come, says a University of Florida anthropologist.

Families have the kind of natural organization—and just as essential, the motivation—to take on the unique stresses likely to occur on space trips of 200 years or more to settle remote planets, said John Moore, a UF anthropologist who spoke to a meeting in Boston of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the subject Friday.



"We are much less likely to go crazy in space and much more likely to accomplish our interstellar missions if we send crews into space that are organized along family lines," he said.

With clear lines of authority between parent and child as well as older and younger siblings, families produce a division of labor that can accomplish any kind of work, Moore said. More important, they offer the rewards of marriage and children, he said.

"Whenever colonization is done on Earth, it's always by people looking for a better life," he said. "All of the colonizations that I know about as an anthropologist have been done by families, especially young couples."

A Russian cosmonaut has warned that situations such as the proposed Mars mission, in which seven heterosexual adults sit shoulder to shoulder for nine months provides "all the conditions necessary for murder," Moore said.

Mulling such issues is not farfetched. Experts predict such a space mission as early as 2080, Moore said.

While the fortitude and physical conditioning of John Glenn and the Apollo astronauts, made legendary in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, was needed to fit into early small space capsules, spacecraft size no longer is a constraint, making candidates of overlooked groups such as midwives and handymen , Moore said. "For a space crew that is going to colonize and reproduce for many generations," he said, "a midwife is just as important as a propulsion expert."

"Polynesians Knew They Weren't Coming Back"

In researching the best way to send Earthlings off toward Alpha Centauri, Moore drew some inspiration from the ancient Polynesian seafaring custom of young couples setting out in canoe flotillas on long voyages across the Pacific Ocean.

"They didn't know where they were going, but with the trade winds blowing them in one direction they were pretty sure they weren't coming back," he said.

Starting with a population of childless married couples also works best on board a spaceship because it gives the initial crew a few years to adjust to their new surroundings without the distraction and additional responsibility of caring for children, he said.

People may be horrified at the idea of children living and dying in space, with their only images of Mother Earth coming from pictures and videos, Moore admits. But parents continually make choices affecting the course of children's lives, he said.

"We change jobs, we move to Chicago, we emigrate to a foreign country," he said. "The decision made by parents to join a space crew is not different in kind from decisions made by parents on Earth, only different in degree. If educated properly, I think kids in space might one day say, 'Gosh, I'm sure glad I'm on this spaceship and not back on old yucky, dirty Earth.'"

A starting population of 150 to 180 would best sustain itself at the same rate over six to eight generations, while fitting into the geometric contours of a spacecraft, Moore said. Every person would have the opportunity to be married—with a choice of at least 10 possible spouses within three years of their age—and to be a parent, he said.

Ideally, the group should share social and cultural values. "Having some people accustomed to monogamy and others to plural marriages would create some confusion when it comes time to marry off the sons and daughters of the first generation," he said.

Designing morals for people on such a fantastic voyage is problematic, Moore said, because ultimately earthbound designers would have little influence once the crew is on its own. "If the space crew inaugurates a system of lifetime slavery for some and privilege for others, there is little the planners on Earth can do to prevent it," he said.

Returning crews might park in space for a couple of years to learn what happened on Earth while they and their ancestors were away, Moore said. The precedent dates to New Bedford whaling days, when men who had been gone for several years moored the ship and waited while people in the community came on board to tell them who had died.

"Once they got used to all the changes," he said, "they got off the ship and went home."

Cathy Keen is a writer for University of Florida News
 

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