By crossing the galaxy near instantly, space doorways like the one in Stargate could be the best way to explore space. But this technology comes with serious consequences.
Imagine being able to cross the vastness of space with just a few footsteps. Instead of having to build a spaceship and overcoming all the challenges of interstellar travel, you could get from one end of the galaxy to the other by dialing in the right coordinates and walking through a preset gateway. But even though this method of travel is clearly the fastest and most efficient way to get around, it might not necessarily be the best, especially when you consider the potential downsides involved.
Stepping Through the Stargate
Best popularized by the 1994 movie, Stargate, the technology involves a large circular gateway. Dialing the multi-character coordinates of a corresponding gateway, located practically anywhere in the galaxy, establishes an Einstein-Rosen bridge (aka a wormhole) that’s stable enough for people to walk through. That way, a squad of soldiers, explorers, and scientists are able to travel to distant worlds near instantaneously.
Stargate led to the 10-season television show, Stargate SG-1, which in turn led to multiple spinoff shows. When taken together, the Stargate franchise indicated that there is a network comprised of thousands of gateways just waiting to be discovered. Humanity only found a fraction of them, but they include the holy grail of stargates – the original one found aboard an Ancient starship that is christened Destiny. However, the Destiny’s flight across a distant galaxy was cut short as the franchise reached its conclusion in 2011, when Stargate Universe was canceled after two seasons.
The idea of using a gateway network to traverse the cosmos is one that has appeared in multiple science fiction universes, with one of the most prominent being the 1985 Carl Sagan novel and subsequent movie, Contact. In it, an alien race catches the first television signal powerful enough to break through the Earth’s ionosphere (which happens to be Hitler’s opening speech at the 1936 Summer Olympics) and sends a return message. The encoded signal includes tens of thousands of pages of data, including instructions on how to build a massive machine that will let them travel across the reaches of space.
In more recent years, games such as Mass Effect have tweaked the idea of an interstellar network, but the concept is very similar. Instead of setting up Einstein-Rosen bridges, mass effect relays transform ships and their occupants to a state of zero mass, which is then launched across the galaxy at faster-than-light speeds and reconstituted by a destination relay.
What all these franchises have in common is that they rely on fixed faster-than-light travel networks that were constructed by a mysterious long-vanished alien race. So, exploring the network comes with multiple challenges, including…
- Figuring out the alien technology and its language.
- Mapping the network.
- Exploring the network’s destinations.
- Dealing with aliens that might also be using the network.
That’s a list that would likely take humanity centuries to complete, but that’s part of the adventure, right? Well, that’s putting things lightly.
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First Problem, Travel Delays
The problem with using alien technology is that it’s practically impossible. Apart from maybe accidentally bumping into an “on” switch, humans would have absolutely no idea where to begin. The aliens might be ten-feet tall with wings and tentacles, so their technology would be tailored to suit their biology. Maybe they could see colors that humans can’t or vice versa. So, that big red button could mean anything. Press in case of emergency, self-destruct, or call for room service.
Similarly, good luck learning the language. In the movie Stargate, the gateway symbols use Egyptian hieroglyphs that correspond with constellations. But real-life archaeologists were only able to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs after the famed Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799. If it weren’t for that discovery, the symbols on the gate would have remained completely alien. Similarly, the machine instructions in Contact would have been indecipherable if they didn’t modify the encoded message to reveal a language primer.
Even if scientists were able to overcome the language barrier, there’s still the matter of building the gate. In Stargate, the incredibly resilient ring was already built and just needed to be powered up. But in Contact, Earth had to build the mysterious $25 billion machine on its own.
Not to mention, scientists weren’t completely sure what the machine did and how it worked, yet the world’s governments were expected to work jointly to construct it. There are so many things wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to begin. For example, it’s difficult to know if the human engineers built the machine to spec or if they used the right materials. It’s possible that the gateway network could use an element or alloy humans haven’t discovered yet. For instance, mass effect relays use an exotic substance called Element Zero, which had to be discovered and studied before being put to use.
At the very least, you can rely on the government to cut corners on construction. In the movie Contact, Dr. Ellie Arroway’s seat becomes detached from the pod and slams into the hull's interior wall. If she hadn’t unbuckled herself to retrieve her free-floating compass, she would have been crushed and killed. It makes you wonder what other flaws the human-made machine might have.
Second Issue, Travel Hazards
Exploring an interstellar travel network comes with some fairly self-evident issues. The main ones are that you have no idea where the gate leads, why it was established, and who/what else might be using the network. The destination could be inhospitable to human life, home to a hostile species, and/or the corresponding gate could have malfunctioning controls.
Stargate’s first destination was conveniently inscribed on the outer ring of the gate. It led to a planet ruled over by a hostile alien race called the Goa'uld that once enslaved humanity. It turns out, the slaves rebelled against their alien oppressors and buried the stargate to cut off their connection. By re-establishing the link, humanity unwittingly invited these technologically superior overlords to return. Oops. Following that theme, the TV shows involved having to deal with a multitude of hostile alien races.
In Contact, the realization that extraterrestrial life exists and there’s a way to reach them sparks global chaos and controversy. Governments and scientists had to try to figure out the aliens’ intentions. Receiving an invitation to tour the galaxy or being deceived into building our own doomsday device are both equally probable scenarios. Faced with this conundrum, extremists destroy the first machine and kill its crew, forcing the travelers to use a secretly constructed secondary machine.
So, there are variables to deal with both at home and off-world, but they don’t end there. For example, the aliens don’t have to be hostile to be dangerous. Going to new worlds and interacting with alien lifeforms also means transporting microscopic organisms back-and-forth.
There’s a chance that alien environments would be incompatible with Earth’s microbes and vice versa, but that’s unlikely if the humans themselves can walk around without space suits. Therefore, these travelers could be responsible for bringing an alien plague to Earth, or for wiping out an alien species by bringing our diseases to them, much like the Europeans did when they landed in the Americas. Setting up a decontamination room could help, but the human body contains billions of microorganisms. There’s no getting around taking them wherever you go.
Third Roadblock, Interstellar Monopoly
There’s also the problem of ownership and control. In almost all of these cases, the gateway technology could not be easily replicated. Even with Contact, it took half-a-trillion dollars to build two gates, and that doesn’t account for maintenance, security, and personnel training, which pushes the cost up even higher. But the investment would be worth it because whoever controls it would have a monopoly on the galaxy.
We can compare stargates to the US railroad monopoly of the 1800s. Built from scratch with government support, the railroads brought wealth and prosperity to the cities and towns they touched, but far more so for business magnates such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, who controlled almost all of them. By making sure there was little to no competition, he was free to pull in all the profits and determine who got to use the railroad and who didn’t, thereby controlling trade and much of the economy.
The same would go for whoever has access to an interstellar gate. They would have the power to explore the galaxy, gain information and technology, and monopolize all the resources and rewards. If these relationships ever lead to trade, then whoever controls the gate stands to have unimaginable wealth.
Most sci-fi stories are secretive with the technology. For example, the government controls Earth’s one and only stargate in SG-1, and exploring the network is a secret military and scientific project. But in Contact, a rival government secretly constructs a second machine in a kind of Cold War effort to control the technology for themselves. All of these secrets would indicate that humanity isn’t ready to take to the stars, which is the conclusion reached by the aliens in Contact, who are looking for allies to help them reverse entropy in the universe. Yeah, humans definitely aren’t ready for that.
Exploring the Network
There are numerous hazards and quirks that must be dealt with when working with alien machinery. For example, it is revealed that a stargate bridge can only be traveled in one direction, the gate dialing out to the destination gate. Walking into a stargate in reverse leads to total obliteration. Some poor red shirt had to discover that unique design issue.
Taking all of this into account, these gates are still the best method for space travel, no matter the risks. Following the path of a long-disappeared alien race, understanding their technology, meeting aliens, and perhaps helping to stop entropy are tasks that are well worth the costs and effort. Humanity just needs to prepare for it.