As painful as it may be to hear, the more I dwell on it, I don’t believe there could ever be a galactic empire similar to what we see in fiction. The rationalization for of this is due to Faster Than Light Travel, or lack there of.
My argument isn’t about space colonization, it is about centralized government spanning multiple star systems. The colonization of distant star systems is very possible. We might technologically be able to do it within our own lifetime, even if humans never actual attempt interstellar travel for centuries. Perhaps some other Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, or ETI, in the Galaxy has already colonized other systems?
Without going into any great detail about the Drake Equation or the Fermi Paradox, many respected scientists believe that Extra Terrestrial life in the cosmos is possible. Some believe that there may even be intelligent life on other planets. Theories about how much life there could be, contrasted with the fact that we have zero evidence of ETs has left scientists and laypersons baffled. Some scientists have worked out the math, believing that it might only take a million years to completely colonize the Galaxy using only sub light speeds. That figure may sound huge, but the Milky Way is only thought to be around 12 - 16 Billion years old. In two or three hundred years, a race could have set up colonies on a hand full of planets. Perhaps an ETI, or several have already done this, but how much contact and influence could those star systems share?
Without Faster than Light Travel, or FTL, Hyperspace Jumps, Warp Drive, and Ludicrous Speed, the pace that we transverse the galaxy is a snails crawl in comparison to its vastness. To date, every proposed method of FTL has been deemed improbable to impossible. Even the darling Alcubierre Drive, the closest theoretical parallel to the warp drive used in the Star Trek Universe, would theoretically not only require an astounding level of energy to warp space time, some believe it would also utterly annihilate the target destination when the ship drops out of warp.
To create a Type 2 or Type 3 Empire, one would imagine the need for swiftness in travel from system to system. Star Wars and Star Trek have Hyperspace and Warp Drive respectively. Any emergency on a distant system could be addressed in days or weeks. A colony is under attack by another race, a natural disaster is destroying a city on another world, a disease is ravaging the population in another star system, all these can be addressed by military, disaster relief or medical convoys using their fictional method of FTL from neighborhood star systems. In most science fiction, these time scales are similar to what the historical mariners had to endure. In the age of sail, transportation around the globe was usually in the range of weeks or months between distant locations. However, without FTL the distance and time between planets is much, much greater.
In the series, Firefly, travel times between colonized worlds also feel equivalent to Age of Sail, or even Wagon Train time scales. This is was a show about space cowboys after all. In this Verse, there is no FTL, yet a tyrannical, centralized government is spread out over several worlds. The Alliance functions because this all takes place within one massive and complex star system. There are five stars total, but they all orbit one massive white, super giant. While such a dense and habitable system may be improbable, these worlds could still be traveled to using sub-light speeds with acceptable time scales. Distances between separate star systems are much greater.
Of our top five closest neighbors, Proxima Centari and the binary Alpha Centari A and B are all about 4 light years away. Bernard’s Star is 6 ly, Sirius is 8.7 ly, Epsilon Eridani is 10.8 ly and Tau Ceti, our closest solar equivalent is 11.8 light years away from Earth. The time scale for traveling these distances at sub light speeds is plausible, not in months, but in years. And these are the closest stars, the vast majority of known exoplanets are much, much farther away. Due Einstein’s understanding of Relativity, we know that speed and can alter time. Light speed may technically be the limit to how fast things can go, but relativity will start adding time dilation even as you approach the speed of light. How fast we may ultimately be able to travel will depend on how much time dilation is deemed acceptable, and also how much energy it would take to achieve that fraction of light speed.
What I am ultimately getting at is, there would be no way to centrally govern multiple star systems, let alone a whole galactic empire without FTL. Say we could travel half the speed of light, ether consistently, or as an average from a gradual accelerating / decelerating method of propulsion. To visit a planet in the Tau Ceti system, which has a star very similar to our own Sun, and may have the closest earth-like environment, would take almost 24 years. That time table is within a human lifetime, maybe even for a return trip. But, if there was a colony in that system, how could Earth mandate any policy or administrate? How could aid be sent in time if there was an emergency? With that kind of time scale and distance. If a colony or establishment were under attack by an alien race or separatist system, how could a military be sent to defend the colony in time? If it was a totalitarian Empire, how could it send a military envoy to maintain order and keep the systems in line? Perhaps most importantly, with such vast distances and time traveling between systems, how feasible would it be to collect taxes or for commerce to be exchanged between the core world and outer systems? That last one might be the biggest factor, and also hits on why interstellar colonization might always be tough projects to fund.
Much of the exploration and colonization in the modern age was all about commerce and profit. Setting up colonies in Jamestown, Virginia was meant to be a business venture for England. The Spanish conquest of the Americas was fueled by the lust for gold and silver. With out FTL, there would never be a time when an interstellar colony could to turn a timely profit. We may still gain in scientific discoveries, and quench our human need for exploration, but any hope for profit beyond our solar system would be such a long term investment, it would likely never attract investors. Unless some sort of Unobtainium was discovered, any such projects would be a huge and impractical investment.
Does that mean human, interstellar exploration is a waste of resources? Absolutely not! Future generations may have different priorities than we do. A great deal of fiction begins with the premise of needing a new home world, because we damage our Earth beyond repair. Tragically, we are doing well on our way for the first part of that scenario, but are nowhere close to where we need to be technologically to attempt a mass relocation. Most don’t believe a mass relocation could ever be a viable solution. It will always be cheaper and easier to simply take care of our Biosphere first. We need to take care of our fragile planet, and reach for the stars as a civilization. Humanity needs to find new worlds, boldly go where no one has gone before, without an economic or disaster motivator.
Even if we could not branch out a centralized ruling power or federation of support among various star systems, we could still seed humanity though out the cosmos. Seed colonies could begin by sending generational ships to distant star systems. Each ship might not only be able to produce and replicate its own goods and equipment, but even other vessels. These great generational ships would be huge and incredibly expensive. They would almost be massive space stations likely hosting hundreds of people. The raw materials required to build them would necessitate the mining of asteroids in our solar system. We are clearly far away from this level of development, and very far away in regards to public opinion for funding such endeavors. For shorter trips, several crew members may be born, some might die before the destination is reached. For longer missions, several generations would be born and die off before the ship reaches the destination. None of the original crew would survive a long distance interstellar mission. The colonist of those new worlds would be the descendants of the original explorers, themselves never having experienced their own home world. These seed worlds might start with a mandate similar to that of it’s home world, a constitution and a similar set of laws, but it would have complete autonomy to evolve independently. Perhaps some colonies may choose to be separatist, never intending to stay in contact with their home world. Just like the Pilgrims at Plymouth rock traveled to the new world to create a new society based on their beliefs, these worlds would be funded by those who wish to live in a society that contrasts with the government of their home world.
Without Faster Than Light Travel, Humanity could never branch out across the galaxy, but it may still scatter seeds. Each new world would be an isolated civilization, cut off from their home world. Even communication between worlds would be difficult and subject to the speed of light. In time a civilization’s memory of their home planet, and various sister colones that had been seeded before them, might fade into myths and legends.
An earlier version of this article was originally published on, The Nougat Center.