Welcome to Void

One of the major problems that modern materialistic civilization faces is that of diminishing resources. How and from where to get more for the ever hungry world? Will the civilization die off for want of resources? Can we (the West) maintain our position if the earth’s belly is emptied? Such are the questions that worry the West which will be the most to be affected.

For the scientists, however, this is a minor problem. They look beyond the millennium, beyond the stars, deep into Time and Space. For example, the prospect of our sun burning out its energy, getting reduced to the size of the moon, and refusing to shine any further – an event expected in another five billion years – is a problem of some interest to the scientists. For, if that happens, it would mean cessation of all life on earth which happens to depend on a single vital process: photosynthesis. If the sun went cold, the plants would die taking the animals and humans with them to the dust. This prospect was something that disturbed the scientists (some time back, now they are busy with other things). So they offered several solutions. One is interesting to hear. They suggested, (one of them was Doral Froman, the technical associate director of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in the 60s), that we humans, (absolutely capable of playing the role of God – and better for that) could beat the cosmic plan by moving the earth out of its orbit, put it on a course of blissful journey through the space (blissful because it would be a nightly thousand year journey during which you will eat plastic), and eventually place it in orbit around another star. And, when that star also fades, pull off the bus from there, travel up further, and tag it on to another star. That could go on forever and life would thrive for eternity. The idea was to use half of sea water as fuel and replenish it from time to time at stop stations at other planets as the earth passed by them.

But, that problem nearly solved (for those who would rather place their trust in the scientists), the short-term problem still needed to be addressed. In fact, it would remain a nasty recurring problem because the resources on earth would not last a fraction of the five billion years. The diminishing resources must be replenished now from other planets in other planetary systems – if there are any. Space travel, and not earth travel, must be first addressed. But, disturbingly, and the distances being what they are (you mention them in light years so as not to remind of the realities too often and too coarsely), some scientists, (Edward Purcell in 1960 was one of them, although, to admit, only an occasional one here and there who spoke out), were raising the alarm that space travel might not become a reality after all. Why? For several reasons (although he dealt with only one or two that we know of). One was the life-span of the humans. It was too short for such long journeys. It might take, even if travel speeds could be increased to 90% of light, a hundred years if not centuries for a round trip to another planetary system.

But the biologists, as confident as the astrophysicists, the cosmologists and the space scientists, couldn’t be beaten and left behind in tall claims. They said the space scientists could move the earth to new stars, if they so wished. But in the meanwhile they could also plan long distance space travel to solve the immediate resource problem. Any biological problem encountered in this connection could be forwarded to them on a piece of paper for solutions. In this case, they had a solution to the imaginary problem of the space travelers themselves going cold during long journeys. In fact, they were a little modest, for, they had two solutions. They would make space travelers go into hibernation, (by freezing them) and then quicken them after a couple of centuries. Another was no less modest. They would make humans live forever. These solutions would allow them travel out as far away as they wished and be alive and kicking when the spaceship hatchets are opened after the termination of the journey a couple of centuries later. (Perhaps they knew the spaceship would never return). In our modesty we forgot a third solution. The biologists would create a new creation, full of life, but a different life, like us, but different from us, incapable of dying and especially suited to space travel. No, not robots. But living creatures. (Wait and see).

Such were the talks across the podiums and in some serious science works during the best part of the last century. Einstein was alive. Enthusiasm was high. Carl Sagan was the spokesman. Belief in science and scientists was of the absolute degree. There was no need for America to give up its civilized role and invade the Middle-east for oil. (It was getting difficult by the day to be pretending about civilization and all that stuff anyway). If scientists could put you on the moon in just about a decade after Sputnik I was in orbit, they could as well bring you fresh stocks of anything that went short, from anywhere in the universe. So, swallow it for the moment that the blasted Arabs, (and more blasted Iranians), had been placed on patches of earth that have seas of oil beneath. (Another evidence that God did not exist. A God could never be unjust). In the meanwhile, why do things that would make the genealogists trace back your origin to Huns and Goths? Go ahead boys, book tickets for space travel.

So the boys got busy with the plans, as the first step, to colonize the moon. Soon it would be teeming with colonies and people would be traveling up and down just as they travel between continents: in hours, bringing down material from the mining station. The skeptics were reminded: Did you imagine you would set foot on the moon in half a century after the Wright brothers first flew their aircraft for half a minute? Real estate agents were invited to bid for land on the moon. (The craters on the moon, the reasons why they were there – and some as big as an island – were enthusiastically ignored). Did somebody suggest: How about colonizing the Sahara, the Gobi, the Empty Quarter or the Siberian deserts, right here on earth? After all, there is no crater-causing bombardment from space nor any shortage of fresh air!? Or, how about colonizing the north and south poles (covering an area some 20 million km square) instead of traveling all the way to icy Mars? Of course apart from ourselves, a few other voices must have said that, but mutely for us to have heard. Some objections were also raised against ambitious plans to build – as the American Physicist Gerard Kitchen O’Neil suggested – space stations, orbiting the moon, housing 10,000 people apiece, fully sealed from all around, with walls lined with soil from the moon, self-sufficient in every respect (and far away from the blighted earth of Tess of the d’Urbervilles). What were the answers to these silly suggestions and objections? Look! Don’t waste the scientists’ time over simple problems like colonizing the earth’s vast tract of deserts or the icy north and south poles. Come to us (or send a slip) for what you consider impossible. It is impossibilities that interest us.

Nevertheless, the cat wasn’t going to remain in the bag for long. The truth was spilling out. Time was passing. Decades were slipping. Einstein was dead. Nothing was happening. What was the problem? Well, space travel wasn’t going to be easy. Err, that was being modest, again. Out with it loud. It wasn’t going to happen.

What were and are the problems? Briefly, as under.

Food supply was one. Ordinary canned food won’t do. It’s too heavy for long journeys. Compacted food in the form of perhaps tablets is the answer. (For those who hate canned food, it offered an attractive alternative for the exciting thousand year journey). Yet, around half a kg of such food per person, per day would be the minimum to carry. Add up about 3 kg of water and a kg of oxygen per person, per day: so said Asimov. That totals to about 4.5 kg. Round it up to 5 to account for other weights. How many persons shall we put into the ship? What with the mining to be done there, fifty is a small, but essential number. And how long the journey? Well, let’s initially plan for the impossibly short 100 year journey (More about this later). So 50 x 100 years x 365 days x 5 kg, is equal to a mere 9 million tons.

So, you have a space ship sitting on its launch pad weighing 9 million tons ready to take off. Right? No. Wrong. You need to add up the fuel weight. It is said that a man entered into an expensive Jewelry shop and was told, “one million,” when he asked the price of a ring. Startled, the man said “phew.” Then pointing to another ring in the show case he asked, “and what about that one?” “well,” said the salesman, “that would be two phews.” So you phew twice over 9 million tons, and try to lift the space ship while we look into some other problems. (The total payload in terms of fuel for 100 years journey at the speed envisaged might leave you phewing the best part of the night).

Let us look into the speed problem. Let us remain steadfast with the journey time as 100 years. In so doing we are of course a bit generous with speeds. At present speeds – 25,000 km per hour (7 km per second) – we shall reach the nearest planetary system about 25 light years away in 100,000,000 years. It is another thing that the scientists are not dead sure that there is in fact a planetary system like ours at that distance. Some data, (what if it is obscure?) suggests (remember discovery of life on Mars?) that there is one. But nobody is betting on it. (Millions of closer stars have no planetary system). But, once again, these are minor problems. If you didn’t find one after traveling 25 light years, you could move on. After all, the universe is 15 billion light years across. There is enough room for the adventurers.

There is another hitch though. With every increase in speed, the weight of the craft and of the occupants would also increase. That means every acceleration will require additional engine size, power and fuel. Yet, it might be remembered that whatever the size of the engines and whatever amount of fuel it carries, once in space, with its weight increased due to its own speed, the engines would before long fail to accelerate the craft any further. Attaining the ideal speed of light, therefore, is a pipe dream: so says Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. (Many scientists are angry with the theory on that score. What does he mean by setting limits?)

But, let us not be so timid at the start. Let us increase the speed (you like it or not) to the maximum affordable. 300,000 km a sec. could be unattainable without the object itself becoming light. But we could settle for less than that. Let us say we can somehow achieve 90% speed of light. Yet, acceleration is a problem. How long will it be before you reach that speed starting from zero? Well, at best you can accelerate at the rate of 1 g (the gravitational force at the earth’s surface). Anything more at every second would shatter the delicate brain nerves. But let us assume even with 1 g, every second, for straight 24 hours will not shatter the nerves. (And don’t you protest at so many assumptions). At that generous rate of acceleration it would take 1 year to attain the 90% speed of light and another year to decelerate. So, you need 4 years merely to accelerate and decelerate.

Yet one cannot go too fast either. 90% of light is something. At that speed the craft will smash against the one per cubic centimeter hydrogen particles floating in space along with other occasional free lunch stuff. Experience with atom-smasher plants (particle accelerators) tells us that these objects will crash through the windscreen, through the occupants and through everything else, and out – at the speed of light. What would they leave behind? The dust cloud you might see would be the remnant of your dear space ship.

Any more problems? Yes. We did not discuss the fuel problem in full. We spoke of the fuel required for the lift off. Roughly some 18 million tones. If the planet you arrive at is, say, twice the size of the earth, don’t land. For, you will never be able to lift off because of the increased gravitational pull. (But, if it is all gas, as some planets can be, then, never mind. You are permitted to land). In any case, what about fuel for the journey? It is estimated that for acceleration alone (not later journey) the fuel requirement will be 500 billion, billion, billion, billion tons (Walter Sullivan, We are not Alone), for a suitable spaceship size. So somebody suggested nuclear energy. But nuclear power cannot lift the spaceship from the earth. You still need chemical energy. However, if that problem is overlooked for the present, nuclear power could do its job in space. But, you will have to lift off whole of the nuclear power plant; along with, of course, a mere 1000 tons of uranium pile. So Carl Sagan suggested (before the American Rocket Society in 1962) using hydrogen energy gathered from space as the craft moved forward. (Let’s not talk about the nagging lift off problem any more). But some calculations showed (after the talk and after the news flashes) that the hydrogen gas collector will have to be of diameter 2,500 miles for sweeping in enough hydrogen to accelerate the craft to a respectable speed.

One another problem is that of “time dilation.” It is estimated that an interstellar journey lasting say two decades, undertaken at the speed of light, would be for the earth-dwellers a few hundreds years. If you went further into space, change the hundreds to millions. That is, if you went out for a hundred years, millions of years would have passed over the earth.

Communication of course poses no problem. If you travel 25 light years, the answer to your urgent questions will come back after fifty years of you making your appeal. But in 50 years you hope to be back. So, why communicate?

Finally, (we skip some), when you have at last reached the planetary system 25 light years away, don’t be surprised you find nothing there. For, everything in our universe is on the move. The planetary system that your radio telescope and some computer printouts suggest is there, would have packed and left for a party by the time you reached there, whenever you did, or sucked up by a Stephen Hawking black hole. Welcome to void.

Such are the realities that the scientists successfully kept back from the non-specialists for decades. The Qur’an however made no unambiguous statement about the impossibility. While indirectly acknowledging future air travel (6:125), it clearly maintained about interplanetary travel (55: 33): O you family of Jinn and men!  If you can pass beyond the edges of the heavens and the earth, then pass through!  You shall not be able to pass beyond without authority!”

The “authority” is that of Allah, who also said about the human beings (20: 53-55), “(It is your Lord) who made the earth a cradle for you, threaded therein paths for you, and sent down water out of heaven.  And then We brought forth thereby many species of diverse plants.  Eat and pasture your cattle.  Surely, in that are signs for men of understanding.  From it We have created you, to it We shall return you, and from it We shall bring you out a second time.

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