Evacuating Earth in Hollywood Movies: The Passengers (2016)

The Passengers, 2016
The Passengers, 2016

Since the dawn of man, people look for the stars with amazement and curiosity. And since we realized the real nature of those shining dots on the night sky, we started to think about traveling to them. In the last decades, we – for the first time in history – can think about the subject more or less specifically, in a certain level of technical details. However, it seems that the actual trip to the stars is hundreds of years away. But what if we will not have the luxury of the possibility of waiting until we are ready? What if the interstellar journey will be the only chance for the survival of the mankind? There are a lot of dangers which can threaten the existence of life o this planet – an asteroid on collision course with the Earth, super volcano eruption, near supernova or unsustainable climate change.

The Hollywood has been playing with the “Leaving Earth” scenario for a long time and at the end of the last year, The Passengers hit the theaters all around the world. In this movie, a huge spaceship carrying more than 5,000 people is on its way to a distant world to colonize it. As the journey will take 120 years, people are traveling hibernated. However, because of a malfunction, one crew member woke up 90 years earlier. But how realistic the movie is?

As the distance even to the closest star is hard to imagine, any interstellar journey will be extremely complicated. The physics tells us that nothing can move faster than light. Achieving speeds of a significant fraction of the speed of light is not principally impossible but in a case of macroscopic objects, the energy needed to accelerate them would be incredibly high. In „The Passengers“ movie, the spaceship was propelled by several nuclear fusion reactors. It is definitely the good source of energy but we are just at the beginning of the process of its tame. The international project of the fusion reactor – ITER – is under development but is still far from completion. And the reactor will be huge, we will need something much smaller for a  spaceship.

However, even with a spaceship able to move as fast as this, the journey to the stars will take decades or, more likely, hundreds of years. So, there are two options for us: build a multi-generational spaceship or hibernate the crew.

In the first case, grand-grandchildren of the original crew will arrive at the final destination. Obviously, the technical obstacles would be also tremendous. The greatest problem would be to hold the environment in the spaceship stable for hundreds of years: it means almost 100% and multiple recycling of everything. Are we able to achieve it? Not yet.

The hibernation of the crew (the way authors of The Passengers used) seems like a good idea which will save the resources, it can bypass (or rather say it can minimize it) the problem with the huge self-sustainable environment and it should be also more acceptable for the crew because it can be complicated to motivate people to board the ship without a chance to see the end of their journey. Obviously, there is a problem – we don´t know how to hibernate people. Surely, there is a research into this but we are still very far from achieving induced hibernation in humans.

So, what can we take from the movie? It shows us one possible way of how to travel the great interstellar distances. It can also serve as a mirror to us, we can realize our limits thanks to this movie. The truth is that we are not ready, at least from the technical point of view. And we should have doubts about our preparedness on the mental level as well. With our behavior to the environment on Earth, and with our behavior to each other here on our home planet, maybe we should not colonize other worlds for now.

If an apocalypse will become inevitable, we will have no other option than to try it. It would be the greatest challenge the humankind has ever faced. Do you think that we can succeed? And do you think that we are worth of getting other chance elsewhere?

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