My Facebook friends often take short vacations, so it’s easy to get a sense of transit times and travel conditions. But it wasn’t until one of them took a long weekend to go from New York City to Easter Island and come back did I realize something strange about our world. It’s probably cheaper, faster, and more reliable than ever to travel as a human these days to pretty much anywhere else there is another human. We are at some sort of optimal triple point of travel. And though it is likely to get more optimal in the near future, if and when we venture into space the tide will turn.
The antipodes are lovely this time of year
Try booking a flight from NYC to Perth, Australia. Or Buenos Aires to Shanghai. I’ll guarantee you, all under $2000 and in under 2 days if you really wanted to. And the travel will be very standardized, you will be in airports and planes the whole way. That’s so incredible, but we barely give a thought to being able to travel so easily to literally the opposite point on the globe. Sure it may be beyond the means of a remote Tibetan herdsman to travel to meet some remote Patagonian herdsman, but at worst that’s a weeks journey using fairly reliable plane, bus, rail and car services that would, at most, require a small group of herders to crowdfund. The point is, in history it was not so.
Before the 20th century, going between continents was a one way trip for the vast majority of travelers / human cargo. For instance, the trip across the Atlantic was long for the European indentured servants that made it to America in the 18th century, at least 3 weeks sailing. That’s enough time for the weather to abruptly change the likelihood of your arrival, or for disease to kill you on board. And it was expensive, it took about 3 years of labor to pay for your one-way voyage. For most non-merchant travel of considerable distance, it was intended that you start an entirely new life at your destination. Even for the upper classes, a once-in-a-lifetime religious pilgrimage was all the tourism you could expect. It was nothing like nowadays, when children of Chinese peasants travel to see Paris, and no one thinks that is weird.
The solar system has a speed limit
All this is possible because of two trends: technology getting better and the average person getting richer. Both of these are likely to continue in our lifetimes, and affordable 1 hour travel between NYC and London is within the realm of possibility for me to see at the end of my life with modest technological and economic gains.
But what about when we go beyond our tiny sphere? Technology may turn the Moon into a vacation spot, but Mars? Even with the feeble predictive mind that I have, it seems highly likely that the vast majority of voyages to Mars would be one-way for quite some time. Even at the very fastest currently known to science, we couldn’t reach Pluto (which we learned this week may have water ice for us when we get there!) in faster than 5 and a half hours. The speed of light cannot be breached by our man-made trends.
It is speculative, but I think that the average time/cost/ease of travel between yourself and any other person will hit a minimum at some point. Perhaps there are people alive today that will witness it. In the year 3000, we could look back at the 21st century and wonder, “Wow we were so utterly connected back then! I wonder if anyone at the time knew it?”