Science Fiction’s False Assumption?

Since the earliest days of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon the public has assumed the future of mankind included space travel.  The inherent assumption was humans would extend the range of civilization into space, across planets and moons, and then out to the stars.  I’m starting to wonder if that’s a false assumption.  From commitment to landing, the United States went to the Moon within a decade.  We spent the next four decades going nowhere.  Why?

Answering that question could take volumes.  Most people’s quick response is money, but our society waste billions upon billions with little effort.  It’s obviously not technology, we have that in spades.  Nor are we lacking in visionary scientists and dreamers.  Have we reached the limits of our frontier exploring impulses?  Could the dreams of space civilizations be built on false premises?  Science fiction presents thrilling fantasies that are endlessly entertaining, but does anyone really want to live them?

When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut because I loved science fiction.  Since then I’ve read dozens of books by and about astronauts and it’s quite obvious I don’t have the right stuff.  I couldn’t even be a mission specialist.  I would love to live that life, but in all honesty I never had the intelligence and drive.  Could that be a clue to science fiction’s false assumption?  Space travel is for the very elite, the very best, the most driven, the most focused, and that leaves the rest of us ordinary folk off the crew list.  Would NASA get more money if it reserved seats on their spaceships for normal people?

When it comes down to it, there is only one reason to build a space civilization, to protect the human species from extinction.  And since most of humanity wants to go to heaven rather than Mars they don’t buy that reason.  Leading normal lives of marriage and family is far more important to people than living in space.  All the astronauts had emotional conflicts between missions and marriages.  Few people would leave their families if offered the chance to colonize the Moon or Mars.

I now wonder if the premise that the future always includes men and women living in a space is just a false assumption.  That somewhere back in time we developed that premise, a false one, and we’ve all been working off that bad hunch ever since.  The reality is living in space is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  We won’t know if it’s impossible until we try. We blithely assumed it was possible, but that might another false assumption.

The other day I wrote “Is Colonizing the Moon Possible?” and I have received some interesting email comments.  Some people don’t believe we’ll ever build industries on the Moon to make a colony self-sustaining.  Others have suggested that the reason why science fiction never portrays the pioneering days of building a lunar civilization is because people don’t care about such boring details.  If you asked a 1,000 high school kids if they wanted to work  at manufacturing steel would any raise their hands?  I was hoping in my essay that if we rephrased the question by asking how many would like to design a robot to produce steel panels on the Moon a few might raise their hands.  But that might be another false assumption on my part.

Most science fiction fans love the dream and tell me it’s just a matter of waiting for the right time, that conditions will be different in the future.  Is that another false assumption?  I’ve been waiting forty years for something new to happen.  In all those forty years there have been endless books and documentaries predicting the glories of space travel that are just around the corner.

I’m constantly watching HDTV documentaries with beautiful animations of astronauts building habitats on the Moon and Mars.  They are quite awe inspiring!  I’ve been watching such futurist documentaries since the 1960s and grew up admiring paintings of the future like those of Chesley Bonestell.

bonestell_450

Are those animated plans any different than science fiction?  We know what kind of payloads the Saturn V and the planned Ares V can deliver to the Moon, and those wonderful animations show lunar outposts with equipment that would take dozens and dozens of rockets to ship to the Moon or Mars.  The United State flew thirteen monster Saturn 5s over a period of six years (1967-1973).  Budget cuts kept a two more from flying.  The public lost interest with Apollo 12.  The big space race was over, so why watch a rerun?

mooncolony

To build scientific stations on the Moon or Mars, and I’m not even talking about self-sustained colonies, but Antarctica like research habitats, like those in space documentary animations or pictured in space book illustrations, would take years of launchings, with each year blasting off the entire historical fleet of Saturn V rockets.  Will this ever really happen?  It could, and without much of a budget increase to NASA, but only if the public demands it.

President elect Obama is planning on spending several hundred billion dollars to create millions of jobs, but so far he isn’t looking to NASA as a jobs agency.  But even in flush economic times, no President has wanted to expand NASA’s budget by much.  This shows there is little public demand for space exploration.  Congressmen are often quoted as saying they see zero support for space projects.

I guess two things can happen.  One day we’ll collectively wake up and say to ourselves, “Hey, whatever happened to that vision of space travel,”  and get busy.  Or, next century people will look back on the era of manned space flight like we look back on 19th century whalers.

I’m too tied to my science fiction heritage to imagine what the average person on Earth thinks about space exploration.  Sales of hard science fiction books are quite small.  And even though science fiction movies are among the top money makers in Hollywood, few movies are made about space travel.  The public accepts the idea that space travel, but they assume it’s in the far future.

There is a vast difference between science fiction and the reality of space travel – just read the biographies of the twelve men who walked on the Moon.  Space is an extremely harsh environment.  If you think this winter is cold, imagine 250 degrees below zero in a vacuum.  Or more radiation than any nuclear plant worker sees in a lifetime.  And you know how you seldom see space suits in Star Trek and Star Wars, it’s because they are brutal to wear.  Living in the worst slums of Earth is paradise compared to the limited life in a controlled space environment.

Now all of this may sound like I’m a naysayer about space exploration, but that’s completely wrong.  I’m just saying it will be viciously hard and almost impossible but we need to do it.  Can you imagine a future where we never go to Mars or create a civilization in space?  Imagine humanity never leaving Earth but solving the problems of war, environment, hunger, disease, and we build a steady state economy where life is comfortable and secure.  Do we wait around until the race is snuffed out by an exploding Yellowstone, visiting comet or mutated virus?  Is that all there is?

Anyone who studies science knows that mass extinctions periodically visit Earth.  This weekend there were many scary stories going around the Internet about the Yellowstone super-volcano exploding and I wondered what would happen if it was true.  Do we accept the death of our species in the same way as we accept our own death?  We were born out of nothingness and we shall return to nothingness.  Do we just accept that?

Most of humanity answers yes.  There are a few extreme thinkers who say no.  To those thinkers, we are born out of nothingness and we will do whatever it takes to cling to existence.  If this world goes, we’ll find another, if our universe goes dark, we’ll wormhole our way into another.  The universe may lack meaning, but our purpose is to survive.  That’s the drive behind science fiction’s main assumption.  The question you must ask yourself:  Is that a false assumption?

It is the true dichotomy of humanity – life on Earth and life off Earth.  To most men and women, the ultimate question is:  Do you believe in God and eternal life?  To atheists, the question is:  Do you want to survive?  To future intelligent robots the question will be:  Is there a reason to keep the switch in the on position?  Developing a space civilization is asking the human species:  Do you want to avoid extinction.

JWH 1/3/9

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14 Responses

  1. I think everything you’ve discussed is possible after we get a little further down the road with robotics. Take Honda’s Asimo. Imagine that you could build Asimo with the skills of your average construction work and imagine that you could power it to run virtually 24/7. You could send a dozen of these to the Moon or Mars and have them build a self-sustaining environment for humans. This would make colonization much easier.

  2. I think your article overlooks several important motives…and means…for reaching out into space.

    One very pragmatic motive for mastering space travel is that it is vitally important to hold the high ground in the never ending struggle between nations. Whomever controls access to space, controls the world. This point has not been lost on the military, and we can already see many countries lining up to put their own networks of GPS satellites into orbit. (GPS has proven to be a force multiplier of great magnitude…even a sixty year old B-52 dropping bombs from 50,000 feet can put one down your chimney at midnight with GPS). Satellites are increasingly vital for communication, navigation and military action. The more stuff we have in orbit, the more these orbits are going to be perceived as scarce real estate worth fighting for. The fighting machines will follow.

    Space also offers manufacturing and commercial solutions that merely await inexpensive methods of exploitation to be developed. New tech is lowering the cost of getting into orbit every day. The U.S. just officially opened its first commercial spaceport in New Mexico, and space tourism is already becoming common enough that it merits only passing mention in the press. It’s a matter of time before some wealthy industrialists on a pleasure cruise to orbit sees dollar signs instead of just stars. Private companies are already contracting with NASA to build the orbital vehicles of tomorrow, and Virgin Galactic is the first ever space tourism company. Thee aren’t high-minded scientific ventures backed by government money…these are private companies looking to make a buck.

    The competition is heating up.

    The spread of spacefaring technology to other nations, and its shrinking pricetag, will lead to a new round of competition propelling us even further into the solar system. China is already planning a permanent moon presence, and they are notoriously long-range planners. Once other nations start squatting on lunar soil, I think you will see some spaceward motion from even the least imaginative politicians in the West, as well.

    It’s not going to happen overnight. There will be setbacks. There will be distractions. Hell, industrial civilization may well collapse under its own weight and the whole tedious, painstaking process of empire building will have to begin again.

    But it will happen.

    It took centuries for humanity to go from paddling around the shoreline in fishing boats to colonizing new continents, but it was inevitable. It was not so much the result of a single plan, or an organized effort of a single government, but the result of people doing what people will. It is in our nature to explore, compete and conquer. Those desires don’t stop at the shoreline, and they don’t stop at the skyline, either, regardless of how hostile the sea or far reaches of the sky are to human life. Human desire is as infinite as space itself.

    Have a little patience. The future is closer than you think.

    • Very good post, Barry.

      You made some excellent points, especially about it being in our nature to explore.

      I just hope we use future technology more for exploring than for destroying (each other).

      Regards,
      John F.
      jfrank@lanier-engineers.com

  3. You fail to understand why early explorers made the trips they made – to find new sources of wealth. Columbus was financed on his trip because he promised to make Spain wealthy with a shortcut to the spices and goods of Asia. Marco Polo explored to find products to make his investors wealthy. Cortez was financed to go to South America to bring back gold.

    No one has proven that there are any finds to make in space to justify the expense of getting there. If the asteroid belts contained a huge source of a highly desired substance (Unobtanium) either unavailable or in short supply on Earth, then private money would flow towards exploration.

    We haven’t lost the desire to explore, it’s just that no one’s shown that the returns will justify the expense.

  4. Assuming we don’t go extinct by our own hand or by the Universe’s whim, we’ll get out there eventually. But you’re right, it’ll be brutal and it will, at first, be limited to the elite until something (resources vs. technology) pushes the bar down.

    The thing that I see ignored by too much SF is the sheer magnitude of the space we’d have. Expansion into space is going to be slow, just because of that. Slow, but inexorable. I imagine we’ll have better luck creating our own orbital terrariums than full-time livable colonies most anywhere in the solar system.

    Where I draw my line of incredulity is at interstellar travel. Space is big. Seriously big. Google “atlas of the universe” and be awed. SF waves these distances away with FTL drives or wormholes or generation ships, or Stross’ godlike AIs folding space, at which point we’re in fantasy land, even if we’re in rocketships. I think the solar system we have now is going to last us a while.

  5. I think some of the comments above are good criticisms to an interesting post.

    Wanted to add a bit more. I could be a plausible mission specialist candidate, and one of my old college professors did eventually go that route and participated in repairs of the Hubble Space Telescope, which I found pretty cool. About 7-8 years ago I gave serious thought to applying, but let me tell you what gave me pause.

    Astronauts at this stage of the game are technicians. They spend the vast majority of their time training, training, and training. Add in a lot of travel and uncertainty about when if ever they’re going to fly. I want to do science, figure out new things all the time. Astronauts practice doing the same things over and over again, ad infinitum, with a lot of B.S. and stress along the way. Add in that the chances of flying are far from certain and there’s a real threat of death.

    Does this sound all that appealing in practice?

    Sure, there are still a lot of qualified people interested in doing the job. And good for them. I’ll leave it to them. While I am a perfectionist with focus and drive, I still expect I get bored a little too easily to be the best astronaut.

  6. As I was reading this I was thinking back to earlier posts that you had done and perhaps conversations we have had on this blog or via email regarding education and getting kids interested in science.

    I certainly agree that there is a financial component that will have to be considered and I think there is some merit to the comment above that mentions that there may have to be some obvious payoff to going out to explore and settle before anything major happens. I still stand by my comment, in the moon post I believe, that there is available money out there should our government ever become more fiscally responsible and better stewards of the enormous amount of wealth given to them, not always willingly, by taxpayers.

    Setting financial things aside I do believe that there are thousands, if not thousands upon thousands, of scientists and enthusiasts around the world who are moving things forward in their own way. I believe scientists are working, perhaps in ways that are limited by finances, on all sorts of technological and scientific advances that will be necessary for us to take the next steps in conquering space.

    I think a big part of that process continuing goes back to the idea of what we are doing in schools to get children interested in careers in science and technology. I would hope that with the many global crises that have been mounting over the years that people are realizing that whatever we start to do now to address these issues will have to be continued by the next generations. Now is the time to refocus resources on the educational system.

    With all the great programs on the history channel and the learning channel and the discovery channel I think the systems are in place, and in some ways already functioning, that could increase people’s focus on and desire to get out there and explore in earnest. That kind of interest generation will be crucial in order for people to not overreact when money is put into NASA and other similar programs.

    Sorry if all this sounds a bit like free association, I’m just throwing out my thoughts as they come and probably not being very coherent.

    I am excited about the future, naive as that may be. I still hope to see some progress in our lifetime, the type of progress that will excite us and leave us with the feeling that great things are on the horizon.

  7. [...] James Wallace Harris writes about science fiction’s false assumption.  Can you guess what it is?  I’m not totally on board here as I think it’s a matter of time, but he makes a good case and the timescale is much longer than traditionally assumed in sf. [...]

  8. The biggest issue with space colonization is cost. As launch costs come down, more people will be able to go, and more “minority interests” will want to travel.

    There is no physical law that requires rockets to be expensive or only the perview of the government. Read this for a lengthy but valid discussion.

  9. “Leading normal lives of marriage and family is far more important to people than living in space.”

    It seems like that argument could similarly “prove” that no one would travel across an ocean to colonize a new continent, etc…

    There are always plenty of people who have other concerns besides living a normal life of marriage and family, whether it be adventure, entrepreneurial greed, scientific curiosity, thirst for freedom, fleeing the law, or whatever…

  10. You will have to attach proper accreditation to the Bonestell image you’ve used or remove it from the website. Please contact info@bonestell.org for permission. Thanks. Ron Miller

  11. People are motivated by their dreams (the waking kind). A big part of the dream of spaceflight in classic SF was imagining adventures, and encounters with Big Mysteries – especially alien life. The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 and From The Earth To The Moon showed us, in retrospect, that there was indeed adventure to be found in spaceflight. But not Big Mysteries. If NASA had lied, and said the astronauts saw things on the moon they couldn’t explain (like flying saucers), public support and congressional funding for Apollo would have continued. (The nationwide UFO flaps of the late ’60s caused most of the public to be open to such possibilities.) Perhaps the space program, in its uncompromising sobriety, has been its own worst enemy. NASA expressing a little excitement about wild possibilities (without lying) might get the public excited, too. No big dreams, no big dollars. Or, to reverse a line from The Right Stuff, “No Buck Rogers, no bucks.”

  12. Science fiction is not classified wee enough. Neuromancer is a famous book but William Gibson admitted that he didn’t know anything about computers when he wrote it. The Two Faces of Tomorrow by James P. Hogan is far better.

    So discussions of science fiction do not make much sense if we do not distinguish between SCIENTIFIC sci-fi and Liberal Arts sci-fi and pop corn sci-fi. Star Wars fits into that 3rd category though I really don’t regard it as science fiction at all. But where is the money in all this?

  13. The hip new term for what you are writing about is “MacGuffinite”, which is defined as a compelling economic reason for space exploration.
    http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/macguffinite.php

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