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.
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?
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.