It’s a fact that the Human race is a remarkably resilient and adaptable species, able to settle in every corner of the world, on land and water, in the air and even in space if they so desire. And it’s a damned good thing, too… because, if humans plan to go to space, they’re going to test the limits of their resilience further than ever before.
When we talk about someday visiting and even settling on other planets, many people imagine worlds much like Earth that, with a little taming, will allow us to stroll through groves of exotic purple plants, lie down on iridescent moss and enjoy the alien equivalent of lightning bugs and hummingbirds flitting around us. It’s a romantic notion, but there’s little chance of humans ever finding a world like that… even the “Earthlike” planets we’ve so far detected either are lacking an atmosphere we could breathe, or their size creates a gravity that would crush us, or the local star creates radiation we couldn’t withstand.
Even our nearest neighbors with habitation potential, the Moon and Mars, have been determined to have particles on the ground… dust… that will be very hazardous to human health, requiring us to develop significant ways to scrub that dust off of exploring astronauts or risk potentially fatal respiratory and exposure problems; and, of course, little or no protection from solar radiation, which may make quaint notions like terraforming effectively pointless.
What this means is that, in order for humans to go to the stars, they will most likely have to get used to living in tin cans for the rest of their days, for protection against those hazardous environments out there. And not just in the space ships we envision will take us to other planets. Even once we reach those planets, we may have to either remain in our protective ships in orbit, sending down short excursion modules (or drones) to extract needed resources… or, if we’re very lucky, we may be able to put a sealed habitat on the planet that we’ll still have to remain inside for our entire lives while we take the occasional spacesuited excursion to the surface, or just let drones do all of our outside work for us. The above scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey may be the best we can hope for when it comes to living on other planets. Once we leave Earth, we’ll probably be leaving grassy fields, peaceful wooded groves and relaxing beaches behind.
With that in mind, we’d better give serious thought to how much nature we can bring with us, and how hospitable we can design spacecraft and habitats that we may never leave. No matter the difficulty, it must be considered, because human well-being depends on occasional access to relaxation and de-stressing, and nature provides that to humans in a big way. And if we can’t bring nature with us, we’re going to have to develop some other relaxing outlet to create mental and physical balance, whether it’s a physical environment, a convincing virtual space, a relaxing activity, or a pharmaceutical solution (or a little bit of all of that).
Large enough ships (not necessarily as large as the orbital habitats featured in my Verdant novels, but something with large enough interior spaces at least) may be able to provide compact natural environments for its occupants. Small parks, perhaps with grassy meadows or lush gardens, will give the occupants a place to stop and relax. Habitats should also contain greenspaces… their size may depend on the number of occupants, so people can use them and not feel crowded.
Of course, if we stay out long enough for new generarions to be born, they will have less of a problem relating to terrestrial environments that they’ve never visited (though, if they don’t like living in your habitat, may hold a grudge against your having taken them away from that environment in the first place). But even if they’ve never been in a relaxing glade or waded through a pond, their bodies may still respond to the same sights and smells that their ancestors enjoyed; soft, grass-like floors, nature sounds or floral-perfumed air could still provide them a sense of calm, as our bodies have learned to process these sensations over thousands of years of living among them.
This will be tricky: Space ships and habitats will be closed spaces; and nature has a way of taking over closed spaces in unforseen ways. So far we haven’t demonstrated an ability to keep nature controlled or contained in closed environments… but it’s something we need to figure out. The natural environment plays a large part in maintaining healthy humans, and we’ll be better off physically if we don’t try to remove the things in nature that make us what we are. Maybe that will dictate how large our ships and habitats need to be (or the limits to how small we can make them) in order to maintain our optimum health: Maybe it will be easier to balance larger spaces, the larger, the better. Or maybe we’ll be able to devise a “pocket” version of nature, limited in scope but more controllable and still health-supporting… a space-mobile encapsulated arboretum of sorts.
Making sure humanity has a level of comfort as we move off Earth will be vital to our survivability, and can’t be written off as a luxury we can do without. Hopefully we’ll have the equivalent of parks, greenspaces and other relaxing environments that we can escape to as desired. If we can’t bring or simulate these things as we travel out into space, humanity might not make it very far.