The Science of Choosing Space Pioneers

Image Credit: NASA Ames

Image Credit: NASA Ames

I often ask others if they would live in space or on another planet if given the opportunity. More often than not, the answer is in the affirmative. But what if you were given the chance and actually wanted to go, but were declined because you weren’t selected by a computer algorithm as one of the lucky space travelers? Or worse, what if you were declined because of your cultural background or because your genetic profile was deemed inappropriate?  What about those that do venture off to live in space or on other worlds…will they suffer the types of loneliness that individuals experience in major cities here on Earth today? These are the questions that I thought I’d delve into today.

Loneliness in Space

Overcrowding is a major concern in many parts of the world today. People often feel like they’re being shoved into boxes that they don’t really fit into. Since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, a great number of individuals have felt as if they are all alone in the world. Large cities don’t make for the best of neighbors. Even though other members of the human race surround people, they’re seldom able to make any genuine connections with those who live close by. This sort of a problem is only worsened by the prospect of space colonization.

The feeling of loneliness is usually portrayed as being experienced by those who are truly without anyone near them. However, individuals can actually become lonelier when other people that they don’t connect with show up within their circle of friends. Of course, in many cases, these people don’t even really have a circle of friends in the first place.

While one person adrift in space might be able to comfort him or herself with the idea that others are back home on planet Earth, ironically the same cannot always be said of someone who were to live in a colony habitat. If other people surrounded that same individual, he/she would probably end up experiencing increased feelings of loneliness — just as so many do in cities around the world today.

This is something that’s been observed by Earthbound psychologists for decades, but it would possibly worsen in orbital complexes and on colonized worlds. Sci-fi writers have long stressed the importance of choosing the right colonists for space missions based on genetic profiles. But it seems that culture and the ability to work together are actually more important indicators of who should go off together into the great unknown.

Un-natural Selection

Using some sort of computer algorithm to select candidates for space travel is probably the worst idea I can imagine. This is a common trope in many pieces of fiction, but engineers working on global cities might have actually found a better way to psychologically equip generations of space pioneers. They have suggested that those who are culturally similar to people they live with might very well make the best partners. Seems like common sense, right?

Source: NASA

Source: NASA

While this sounds reasonable, it opens up an entirely new thought process for those who are planning generational space missions. If colony ships are set out on extremely long voyages, people will want to be with those that they have bonded with or care about. Letting a community choose who they want to be with the same way that they always have on Earth might be the best idea.

Genetic selection might sound logical and some people have suggested that it could produce the best stock for other worlds. However, this is a throwback to the sort of eugenic thinking that predominated the early 20th century. It was a mistake here on Earth and the same holds true of space. If space colonies are ever actually going to solve population problems, they need to be able to function much like regular cities do today. By letting people live in space the same way that they always have on Earth, the average citizen is far more likely to adapt to others in an acceptable manner.

There are those who would say that this limits diversity, but in reality it doesn’t. Genetic selection programs and the like would actually seek to create a race of space colonists who are in some way similar to one another. This would limit diversity, and would also have the side-effect of making a civilization less resistant to disease or similar catastrophes. For instance, one colony of microbes could wipe out an entire colony if it were built in such a way. The same could be said of a generational space mission attempting to reach another star system.

Humanity has never been perfect. It is these imperfections that very well may help our species to survive in space in the future.


Yusof, N., & van Loon, J. (2012). Engineering a Global City: The Case of Cyberjaya Space and Culture, 15 (4), 298-316 DOI: 10.1177/1206331212453676

Saaty, T., & Sagir, M. (2012). Global awareness, future city design and decision making Journal of Systems Science and Systems Engineering, 21 (3), 337-355 DOI: 10.1007/s11518-012-5196-z

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