Are We Going To Mars Because of Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 24, 2015

The new movie, The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s book of the same name, is generating tremendous buzz, for the movie, for science fiction fans who love books that inspire space travel, and for NASA types who feel Mars is the place to go next. Last year I wrote a review of the novel, “When I Was Martian” where I gushed about the book but wondered if I really wanted to go to Mars. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I thought Mars must be a wonderful place from all the science fiction I read. However, over the decades, all those robotic missions have convinced me Mars is only a suitable destination for robots and geologists.


Millions of people still want to go to Mars, and NASA recently released gargantuan plans to visit Mars by 2039. On the other hand, yesterday I read three essays questioning our desire to go to Mars. The first, by Ed Regis in the New York Times, “Let’s Not Move to Mars” is probably the most critical. Regis wonders why anyone would be willing to live in a capsule with the living space of a SUV for seven to nine months, only to get to a destination with little atmosphere, the scenery all rocks, and far colder than any place on Earth.

Over at The Guardian, Chris Chambers writes about the psychological impact of travel to Mars. He makes going to prison an appealing alternative to traveling to Mars. And this blogger compares colonizing Mars to going to Hell. I’m not sure how many people have The Right Stuff to get to Mars—to actually enjoy the experience. I doubts its many.

I have to wonder if most people who dream of going to Mars do so because of science fiction. I’ll admit I wanted to go to Mars because I pictured Mars like the novels of Robert A. Heinlein (Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, Podkayne of Mars, Stranger in a Strange Land). I’ve known guys older than myself who dreamed of Barsoom, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But is even the Mars of Kim Stanley Robinson and Ben Bova any less romantic? Compared to reports sent back by NASA robots, can any work of fiction convey the true brutality of living on the Red planet without being escapist?

Mars can get as cold as -225F, and the surface air is as thin as being four times the height of Mt. Everest here on Earth. Why would anyone want to live there—or even visit? My best guess is science fiction. How can stories make us so irrational? Fiction is appealing. Fiction is an alternative to reality. If we analyze ourselves, does reading reveal a desire for adventure and travel? Or does reading reveal we’re bored with our lives and just want to go somewhere different? Or even want to be different people? Kids used to want to be astronauts when they were famous and legendary, but now all the people who fly up into space are mostly nameless. If I was young I might still want to go to Mars, even knowing what I know now. It’s appeal is that strong. Why?

Like I said at the beginning of this essay, The Martian is creating a lot of excitement, both for the movie and the desire see manned missions actually go to the Red planet. Since the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomy has been going through a renaissance larger than what it went through in the time of Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo. I think space exploration gives some people a sense that existence has great meaning. Does that sense of purpose come from a love of science, or science fiction?

Aurora KSM

Yet, even science fiction is becoming more realistic about the possibilities of space travel. In his new book Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson questions the wisdom of leaving Earth. If science fiction is guilty of overselling space travel should it now be responsible for removing the false romanticism its given the final frontier? How many people would remove their names from the Mars One mission if they read Aurora?

I still think it’s possible that some humans will want to colonize the Moon and Mars. Whether they are thrill seekers or final frontier missionaries is another issue. To live on the Moon or Mars will require living mostly underground, in highly controlled environments that are always one technological failure from extinction. All the science fiction stories we now read about cities on the Moon and Mars are 99.99% unrealistic fantasies. Too much of science fiction is about transferring Earth living to space life, and it won’t be like that. Should science fiction be held responsible for false advertising?

I must admit, even my hopes for the realistic possibilities of space travel are still driven by the science fiction I read. My guess is anyone who hasn’t been enchanted by the genre would see that space is only suited for robots. 


Would You Go To Mars?

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 6, 2014

Have you ever wanted to go to Mars?  Probably not, but if you have, have you ever wondered why? What’s the appeal of leaving Earth and traveling to another planet? Over 200,000 people signed up for Mars One, which hopes to start sending four people to Mars every two years starting in 2024, in one way missions. NASA is talking about manned missions to Mars in the 2030s. China also has its sights on Mars.

Why do so many people want to go to Mars?  At National Geographic I found this short film, which interviews five people that are volunteering for the Mars One mission, even though it means not coming back.

Are these five people just unhappy with their life on Earth, and hope to find something new on Mars?  I think that’s how I was in my teens, back in the 1960s, when I used to dream of going to Mars. I read a lot of science fiction, and I guess I was seduced by the romance of adventure and excitement. The trouble is my personality type isn’t suited for adventure and excitement. I recently wrote “When I Was A Martian” about growing up thinking like these people in the film.

I can’t imagine Mars One succeeding before NASA or China, but I guess it’s possible. If there were ten times as many volunteers for Mars One, two million people wanting to go, all willing to donate one hundred dollars a month to the cause, that would generate enough private money to fund such an ongoing space mission. But would the lucky four who got to go to Mars be just average people like in the film, or would Mars One pick the right stuff astronauts like NASA? What if Mars One astronauts were chosen by lottery? What if ordinary people could go to Mars – would you go? When I was a kid, I would have said yes. For most of my life now I would have said no.


NASA’s new space transport, the Orion, is designed for trips to the IIS, the Moon, asteroids and Mars, but somehow I can’t believe it’s big enough for trips further than the Moon. It only has 316 cubic feet of living space. A 10x10x8 foot room has 800 cubic feet, so can you imagine living over year with three other people in the space of a small bedroom? I can understand a spacecraft that size for a three day journey to the Moon, but not an 8 month journey to Mars, or similar length to an asteroid. Of course, it will be combined with other modules for longer trips, but I can’t imagine them being huge and roomy.


Russians and Americans have lived in space for over a year on space stations, but they have a good bit more room and variety of habitat modules. That makes me wonder, just how big does a mission to Mars spacecraft have to be to make it psychologically comfortable? What would be the most limited accommodations you could handle for a mission that could last 400-450 days.

Men and woman have sailed non-stop solo around the world in trips that were almost a year, living in cabins that about about the size of the Orion spacecraft. But only certain kinds of people have that kind of mental make-up for such solitary sailing. Which would you prefer, being a solo astronaut, or be crammed in a can with three other people for an eight month voyage to Mars? If I went with other people I’d need my own private living space, but then I doubt I have the right stuff.

I’m 63, so a one way trip to Mars doesn’t scare me.  Sounds like a better way to die than getting cancer or Alzheimer’s. But the Mars One volunteers who are interviewed in the film are young people who have every reason to stay on Earth. I wonder if they would really go if they got the opportunity.

There’s a kind of Ponzi scheme to Mars One.  They hope to send four people every two years, but after ten years they’d have twenty people on Mars. How many supply rockets will it take to keep those people alive? At what point could the colonists become self-sufficient? How many supply rockets will it take to build a self-sufficient infrastructure? When people aren’t selected to go, will they lose interest, stop donating money and strand the early settlers?

After we see people living on Mars, and what life would be like there, will people change their minds? I can’t believe the reality of life on Mars will be that appealing. Once a one-way program for colonizing Mars is started, ending the program means a death sentence to all the colonists. The ethical thing to do is build a self-sufficient colony first, with robots, and when it’s obvious that a human viable colony on Mars could survive, then ship the volunteers.

I bet if you wait until 2024 and asked these five people in the film if they still wanted to go to Mars they’d say no. People who are really willing to be astronauts are also willing to work their whole life towards that goal with an almost single-minded devotion.  And even among professional astronauts, I’m not sure how many would even commit to a 2-3 year mission. The failure rate of unmanned Mars missions is around fifty percent.

I’m not sure how many people actually would give up their Earthly lives for living in space.  Mars, the Moon, asteroids, the outer moons, they are all just rocks, with lots of radiation and intense cold. I think science fiction has oversold space travel. I think we will travel to the other planets, and maybe even colonize the Moon and Mars, but only very unique individuals are going to go, and even rarer folks will stay. I don’t think people who dream of traveling into space really understand what it means to leave Earth for good.


Manned Mission to Mars or Gigantic Space Telescopes?

Which would be more exciting to happen in  your lifetime:  humans landing on Mars, or discovering life on a planet in another star system?  If we were willing to spend the money, and some big money at that, we could explore Mars, or we could build gigantic space-based telescopes to hunt for life on other planets orbiting nearby stars.  In our lifetime the Hubble telescope greatly expanded our vision of reality.  Then the Kepler telescope discovered thousands of exoplanets, letting us know that planets are common.  Building a very large space telescope would allow us to detect what’s in the atmospheres of those planets, including chemicals that indicate life, or even intelligent life.

Growing up in the 1960s with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs I was crazy for manned space exploration, but over the course of the last several decades I’ve been more thrilled with the rewards of robotic missions to Mars, missions to the rest of the solar system, and especially by space telescopes.  NASA has two upcoming spaced based telescopes that I’m trilled to see launched, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).  And ESA has plans for CHEOPS.

If you pay attention to space news, you’ll know that there are many people out there with different goals for space exploration.  Some want to go back to the Moon, others to Mars, some to asteroids, and many want to build fantastic space based observatories.  You can divide them into two groups – those who want manned missions, and those who want robot missions.  I’d prefer both, but what if we don’t have the money for both?  What gets the most bang for our bucks?

Manned missions are exciting and let us feel like we’re progressing towards greater heights of civilization and accomplishment.  Robot missions expand our awareness of reality at a much faster pace than we’ve ever imagined.  However, I feel that manned missions without the goal of permanent colonization doesn’t offer that much for our money.  If we went to Mars to build a new home for humans, to spread our eggs to another basket, then it would be worth all the money we could throw at the project.  If we only send a few people there over a period of decades and then stop, then I’d rather put all our money into robotic missions, especially gigantic space based telescopes that hunt for life in other stellar systems, and giant SETI projects.

If I’m lucky I might live another quarter century and I’d really like to know that we’re not alone in this universe before I die.  Sure, I’d love to know we could send people to Mars and back, but that’s not as exciting as knowing that life, and especially intelligent life exists somewhere besides Earth.  As a lifelong science fiction reader I’ve always felt that to be true, but I’d like to have proof.

Now that the economy is improving, that so many billionaires are starting private space programs, and Thomas Piketty is creating a movement that proves higher taxes would improve capitalism, we might have more money for space exploration, both manned and robotic.  Like I said, it would be great to finance both kinds of missions.  However, if I got to vote, I’d campaign for building a gigantic space based telescope, something far bigger than anything on the drawing boards at the moment.

I have no idea how big will be big enough.  Would building telescopes with kilometer size apertures on the far side of the Moon or out in L5 orbits do the job, or would it take building several large space telescopes positioned around the solar system to create a gigantic hyper-telescope interferometer array?

The trouble with all this is most citizens of the world do not care about science or spending such vast sums of money to learn more about reality.  That’s a shame because spending big bucks gets us big knowledge.  If we had spent the trillion dollars we spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on giant space telescopes we’d know if we were alone or not in the universe.  Or we could have a K-12 and higher education school system that would have produced vast armies of scientists and dazzling inventors and make us far more richer.  Money spent on science pays off more than money invested anywhere else.  It’s a shame we’d rather invest so heavily in war, and other forms of self-destruction.

I wish our species was smarter.

JWH – 7/16/14

1964–Fifty Years of Reading Robert A. Heinlein

While everyone is remembering it was fifty years ago that America discovered The Beatles, I’m remembering it was fifty years ago that I discovered Robert A. Heinlein – a discovery that had far more importance to me.  1964 was the year after Project Mercury, and the year before Project Gemini.  Back then each space mission got uninterrupted coverage on CBS, NBC and ABC, and I always got to stay home from school and watch.  1964 was also the year a very futuristic World’s Fair in NYC and everyone seemed to be thinking about the decades to come. 

1964 was the year I turned 13 and I started thinking about my future. 

Now it’s 2014 and I’ll turn 63 later is year, and I think about my past.

As much as I love The Beatles and remembering 1964, 2014 is my 50th anniversary of reading Robert A. Heinlein.  I thought it might be interesting to analyze why reading the twelve Heinlein juveniles I first discovered in 1964 was so much more important than “Twist and Shout.”  Wouldn’t it be fun to read a series of blogs by baby boomers remembering all the artists that meant more to them from 1964 than The Beatles?


I read science fiction before 1964, but it wasn’t until I discovered Heinlein that I became a hardcore science fiction fan.  I turned 13 on November 25, 1964.  For some reason I started puberty by rejecting religion and God, becoming an atheist, and embracing science fiction.  I’ve always joked that science fiction was my religion, which made Heinlein my messiah.

I have my 8th grade English teacher to thank for introducing me to Heinlein, although I’m pretty sure I would have discovered him one way or another.  I wished I remembered this lady’s name, and had a photograph of her.  She had a remarkable teaching method.  For each six weeks grading period she required the class to read and report on three books.  However, if you read five, she would raise your grade one letter.  That allowed me to be a B student that year – at least for my English class.  My teacher provided us with a list of approved authors and Robert A. Heinlein was one.  In the 1940s and 1950s Heinlein had published twelve young adult novels with Charles Scribner’s Sons that had gotten a lot of recognition with librarians and teachers.

The first of the twelve juveniles I discovered was Red Planet, after that I quickly consumed the other eleven, and then went on to read the Heinlein adult novels.  Sadly I don’t remember the order in which I read them.  I do remember the night I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel, my favorite Heinlein book, and my all-time favorite science fiction novel.


I was babysitting for an airman my dad knew from work at Homestead Air Force Base.  I was dropped off at their house around eight, after the kids were already put to bed, and the couple didn’t return home until after three.  So I was paid fifty cents an hour to read Have Space Suit-Will Travel.  I was blown away.  When the couple came home the young dad offered to drive me home, I told him I’d walk.  It was 3:30am, and I wasn’t even sure where I was.  I had a vague idea my house was north of their house, so I started walking.  It was eerie out – completely dead, with a bit of a mist from the dew. 

I wasn’t afraid, but the long walk was surreal.  All I could think about was Kip’s adventures, going from Earth, to the Moon, to Pluto, to a planet orbiting Vega, to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud.  My brain speeded on thinking about the future and I felt very alive.

A sliver of the Moon glowed in the sky that dark night fifty years ago, and the stars looked down on me, and I up at them.  I was living the mundane life of an 8th grader, the 1960s was heating up, and all I could think about was living in the 21st century.  Now, it’s 2014, and my future is almost over, and more and more, I think about the past.

The promise and potential of space travel was why I loved Heinlein.  Elementary school had been about Project Mercury, Project Gemini was going to be my junior high years, and Project Apollo my high school years.  I started the 1st grade a couple months before Sputnik went into orbit, and graduated high school a couple months before Neal Armstrong walked on the Moon.  That, reading science fiction, and being a baby boomer growing up with the rock music revolution of the 1960s, did a number on me. 

So did the drugs.  Strangely, by 1968, science fiction had taken me far further than the chemical trips I had started taking.  Reading Stranger in a Stranger Land in 1965, I’m sure I saw it way different than Heinlein intended.

I read everything I could about NASA.  In 1964 all I could think about was the rock music on the radio, the science fiction I read, and the future of manned space flight.  I was positive I’d grow up and in my lifetime we’d build a colony on the Moon and Mars, and just maybe, I might get to go. 

Boy, was I wrong.

Heinlein made it all sound so simple, so obvious, so right.  Humans were meant to go to the stars.  His twelve young adult novels were a roadmap for all my tomorrows.

1947 Rocket Ship Galileo Moon
1948 Space Cadet Asteroids, Venus
1949 Red Planet Mars
1950 Farmer in the Sky Ganymede
1951 Between Planets Venus
1952 The Rolling Stones Moon, Mars, Asteroids
1953 Starman Jones interstellar
1954 The Star Beast Earth with interstellar visitors
1955 Tunnel in the Sky interstellar
1956 Time for the Stars interstellar
1957 Citizen of the Galaxy interstellar
1958 Have Space Suit—Will Travel Moon, Pluto, Vega 5, Lesser Magellanic Cloud

Ross, Morrie and Art, three teens in Heinlein’s first juvenile only go as far as the Moon, but in the last book, Kip and Peewee leave the galaxy.  The first half-dozen are about interplanetary travel, the second half-dozen have youngsters like me going to the stars.  These books made me a true believer in space travel in the same way Christians believe in heaven.

I’m now an atheist to my own religion, and Heinlein and his books are in my past.  They are just fun stories now, myths I lived by growing up a half-century ago.  The future was everything I never expected.  As I spend my retirement years trying to write science fiction, I imagine a much different future than I did at age thirteen.  What will the next 50 years be like? Can I conceive of a more realistic future, one that might happen, or will I only invented imaginary futures that will become fantasies like the Heinlein stories?  Do I stir up the passion of kids to believe in scientific fairy tales, or do I try to give them hope about real scientific possibilities?

Like the 1964 me, I still contemplate the future.  I have no space suit, I will not travel to the stars, but the future still holds exciting possibilities.  If I’m alive in 2051, what will I write about looking back on the next fifty years?


JWH – 2/3/14

Has Humanity Given Up on the Three Major Promises of Science Fiction?

Science fiction has been around a very long time, but it wasn’t always called that.  The essential core of science fiction has always been three promises:  space travel, intelligent alien beings and intelligent robots.  We know as far back as the classical Greece, that there has been speculation about travel to other worlds and finding intelligent beings on them.  The idea of building an artificial human is as old as memory too.

There’s always been a few outliers in society that think up far out ideas and a larger group of fans who favor them.  Currently we call these two groups science fiction writers and science fiction fans.  During the second half of the 20th century I believe certain science fiction ideas peaked in popularity, and that we’re now detecting a possible diminishment of their popularity.

I strongly felt the public turning against the major promises of science fiction when I read the new issue of The Atlantic, and the essay “The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think” by James Somers that profiles Douglas Hofstadter, author of the 1980 Pulitzer Prize winning Gödel, Escher, Bach.  Hofstadter hit a home run with his first book, but has been mostly missing in action all these years since, even though he continues to write brilliant books about artificial intelligence (AI).  The trouble, as The Atlantic article points out, is Hofstadter’s idea of artificial intelligence is different from what the academic world has come to accept for the term.  Douglas Hofstadter wants to teach machines to think, just like us, while the industry is happy enough to program computers to accomplish fantastic data processing feats that give the illusion of thinking.


If we want robots like C-3PO, then we need Douglas Hofstadter.  If you’re happy with IBM’s Watson, then we don’t.  And I’m worried that most people on Earth don’t have the sense of wonder that it takes to want a C-3PO.  And that’s a fucking crying shame.  I want Star Trek, but the public is only grudgingly willing to pay for NASA.  I want humanity to become friends with all the aliens in the galaxy, but all the vast run of people on Earth want is to thrill to the xenophobia of alien invasion movies and to shoot ETs in video games.

I have pretty much given up on seeing the public support space travel, and figure our only hope of meeting aliens would be through SETI projects, but I figured we had a real chance of seeing intelligent machines in my lifetime.  I might have to give up on that dream too.

For most people artificial intelligence is not an issue they will ever concern themselves with, but if you’re a philosopher, computer scientist, or science fiction fan, then it is.  The crux of the matter is whether or not machines will ever be able to think like us.  Here’s my logic.  Humans are self-aware thinkers and we’re the accidental creation of evolution.  If nature can randomly rub molecules together until it produces a self-aware biological being why shouldn’t we create thinking machines intentionally?  Sure, it took 13.78 billion years for reality to create us, but that doesn’t mean it will take as long for us to engineer intelligent machines if we put our minds to the task – we have 13.73 billion years of experience to consciously study.

Up to now, we’ve mostly tried to program machines to do specific jobs, some of these jobs used to be tasks we thought required thinking, like playing chess, being a contestant on Jeopardy or translating foreign languages.  We can program machines to do these tasks, but they don’t think, not in the way we think.  That’s not a failure of AI, it’s a lesson in what makes us conscious beings.

To do what Hofstadter wants will require building machines that can learn and evolve.  This is completely different from the direction that AI is taking now.  We can’t program machines to be self-aware, but we should be able to program machines to learn and evolve, and eventually that will lead to self-aware AI.

Think about the evolution of life on Earth.  It reflects the growth of simplicity into complexity.  It shows how simple creatures learn to interact with its environment and evolve better senses.  Over time those senses could interpret more and more complex patterns in the environment.  Look around you.  Everything you see is recognize as a distinct object.  In a cluttered room you might be seeing hundreds of different things.  Think how, and how long it took you to learn what all those things are.  Computer scientists for the longest time have tried to just tell machines what to see.  That won’t work for a thinking machine.  Like a human child, a thinking machine will have to grow up and learn everything on its own.

It does no good to create code that tells a computer what a banana is.  Can you remember learning what a banana was, and how to tell it from all the other kinds of fruits, or even distinguish it from vegetables?  I bet you can remember learning what an iPhone is, and maybe you can even tell the difference between an iPhone 3S and a 5S.  You’d think it would be easy to tell a computer to do the same thing, but it’s not.  Modern AI can be programmed to spot an iPhone, but not out of context of knowing what everything else is around it.  Not seeing and understanding the complete context of the visual field shows why the machine isn’t thinking.  It’s how we learn about new things that’s thinking, not knowing what they are.

The same problem we face building thinking machines are the ones we face for creating true space travel and finding alien life forms in the galaxy.  Most people just don’t see the point.  They don’t want to waste the money.  And they’re xenophobic.  But what it comes down to is most people really don’t care.  It’s not on their radar.  Space travel, aliens and robots have no value to them at all.  Zip. Nada.  Nothing.

So why the immense popularity of science fiction at the movies, on television and in video games?  Well, that’s another essay.

When I was a kid back in the 1950s and 1960s I embraced science fiction because I wanted to see space travel in my lifetime.  I wanted first contact in my lifetime, even if it was just SETI contact.  And I expected intelligent machines to be created in my lifetime.  Hell, I thought all of these things would have happened by the beginning of the 21st century.  Boy, was I wrong.


I thought we took a bad turn when the Apollo program was cancelled, but felt things were back on schedule with the emerging popularity of Star Wars and the return of Stat Trek.  I felt millions and millions of Earthlings were embracing the three great promises of science fiction as science fiction at the movies became huge box office successes.  But I was wrong.  All those people weren’t dreaming the same dreams as I had.  They are getting something else out of science fiction.

Orphans of the Sky is a powerful story by Robert A. Heinlein about a generation ship traveling the vast distances between the stars for so long that the passengers have forgotten that they live in a spaceship.  Their self-contained world becomes their entire universe and they forget the larger universe exists at all.  When I read Orphans of the Sky back in the 1960s I felt that humanity was waking up and realizing that they were living on spaceship Earth.  Hell, again I was so goddamn wrong. 

In most people’s minds, people on Earth live in a small place where God rules over them and cruelly holds out promise of everlasting life if they only confess belief.  Earth is a ball of dust God created as a classroom for us to live on while we decide.  Earth has no purpose other than a staging area for heaven and hell.  All the rest of the vast universe is a big distracting illusion.

The future used to be a vision of mankind spreading out to the stars making endless discoveries, but now I have a different vision.  Humans will continue to live on the Earth forgetting it’s a spaceship traveling through a vast universe, and the inhabitants will continue to follow their illusions century after century until they destroy their ship.  I could be wrong – I’ve shown that to often be true.  Let’s hope.  Maybe The Enlightenment is just taking longer than we thought.

Now it might sound like I’m depressed over this reevaluation of my beliefs, but I’m not.  I consider it far more healthy to be realistic than try to keep my own cherished fantasies.   The truth is always discovering the true mission of the spaceship where you become self-aware.  Which brings me back to robots.  If we ever create truly self-aware robots, what will they make of old spaceship Earth?

JWH – 11/6/13

Gravity–Riveting Story Set In Space

[Don’t read this review if you haven’t seen Gravity.  But when you have, because you should, come back here and let’s talk.]

Television watchers are experiencing a renaissance in storytelling.  Shows like Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Shameless, Friday Night Lights, Dexter, The Newsroom, have taken the art of storytelling to new heights.  By carefully focusing on character, writers have developed new techniques to create highly addictive forms of fiction.  This has revolutionized television.  Character driven storytelling has always been preeminent in novels, and prominent in movies, but television was always seen as a vast wasteland of lowbrow entertainment.  Now I like television better than movies, or even books.

So what is television doing that movies aren’t?  Movies often seem like a vast wasteland of teenage schlock.  CGI unreality, over the top action, Three Stooges type violence, and silly premises that should insult grade school kids.   But most of all, the characters are unbelievable.  Movies aren’t about things I could actually experience.  I don’t relate to their stories.  Maybe kids can love superhero characters because they haven’t yet learned there aren’t any superheroes.

A week ago when watching the final episode of Breaking Bad I wondered what I would have to watch next Sunday.  I remember mentally wishing I could find something that surpassed Breaking Bad in storytelling intensity.  Well, I got my wish, because on Sunday night I saw Gravity, the new film starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and directed by Alfonso Cuarón.   The previews brought me to the theater with great expectations, but I wasn’t prepared by how blown away I would be by the film.  While the credits were rolling I thought how Gravity set a new standard for science fiction movies.

This space story seem real.  The characters felt like they could be real people.  The special effects were wonderful, but not the story.  This movie had the attributes of what make the current great television so much better than the movies.  But what are those attributes? For one thing, there’s not a superhero in sight.  Nobody is saving the world.  Even though the characters are involved with extraordinary situations, they are ordinary people.  Maybe we aren’t rooting for the little guy, but we are resonating with characters that are closer to ourselves.


Don’t get me wrong, Gravity isn’t literary or deep.  And although Bullock and Clooney give amazing performances, their characters were almost clichés.  How Gravity amazes is through simply gripping storytelling.  It is a story of survival, beating tremendous odds in a harsh environment.  And although Gravity wasn’t very scientific, Gravity felt very realistic.  Gravity was brilliantly science fiction in the same way Gattaca had been years ago, it was about a individual overcoming tremendous adversity in a science related setting.

Although in the last couple of decades we have had more and more female action heroes, I felt while watching Sandra Bullock that Gravity represented a paradigm shift, transforming story hero from male to female.  It didn’t feel like a gimmick that Ryan was a woman.

For the first hundred years of of filmmaking Ryan Stone would have been played by a male actor.  Ripley set the precedent, but when Ryan pulls herself out of the muck and stands, with the camera angle from the ground looking up at her towering figure, it felt that women had finally surpassed men at their own game.    It was much like Vincent beating the genetically enhanced humans when he took off into space at the end of Gattaca.

George Clooney plays the ultra-cocky space jock to a tee.  Matt Kowalski is perfectly at home in a vacuum.  Kowalski has the science down cold.  But more than that, he is mature way beyond his boyish antics.  He is an alpha male passing the baton to a female saying with total confidence, you can do this.  I know most viewers won’t see this film as a feminist statement.  Most girls won’t think twice about Sandra Bullock being the lead character.  But in real life and in movie life, things have changed a lot in my lifetime, but not nearly enough.

The message is clear, women can fly the fighters, drive the tanks, pilot the spacecraft, command the ships, shoot the M-16s, control the telescopes, construct the skyscrapers, etc., but it’s sad that so many women have MTV ambitions, like Miley Cyrus, to wear skimpy outfits and twerk.  Movies and television, the most heavy-duty of pop cultural social programming, sends the message that women can now do anything.  But will they?  And will we accept it?

If you think I’m making a pointless issue, then think about this.  What if our two actors were cast against type.  Would you have liked Sandra Bullock as the veteran space jock, and George Clooney as the mission specialist rookie?  We’re still brainwashed to think George Clooney should have played Matt.

Yes, we have made women into action heroes that can shoot and kill, but action heroes aren’t believable characters, they are cartoon characters.  How often are complex male roles given to female actors?  Would you have believed Sandra Bullock as Matt Kowalski?

Let’s put it another way.  I work at a university and the majority of the engineering and computer science students are male, and the majority of the teacher education and nursing students are female.

The role of Ryan Stone calls for a rookie, and most rookie astronauts are still male.  Picking a female to play Ryan is an intentional decision to make the character to appear more helpless because we’re still conditioned to think of women as helpless, or of needing help.  Gravity shows us we’re wrong. But being helpless is good in this movie, because good storytelling is about getting the audience to identify with the main character, and we’d all be essentially helpless in space.

Picking the name Ryan is an intentional choice too – Sandra Bullock is to stand in for a man.  I think that was a perfect choice by the writers of Gravity.  We’re cheering the stand-in for everyman who also happens to be everywoman.  Not only that, we’re all identifying with her, guys and gals.  While watching the movie I totally identified with Ryan Stone and not Matt Kowalski.  I never had the Right Stuff, but I might could have been Ryan Stone.

Maybe next time when they make a film like Gravity, the veteran space jock will be a woman, and it will be as natural as our need for air, but for now Sandra Bullock was perfect in this role.  Whatever is the magic formula for modern storytelling, Breaking Bad and Gravity have it down as well as Walter White cooks meth.

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By the way, many people are nitpicking Gravity for scientific issues.  That’s cool.  But don’t let it keep you from seeing and enjoying an amazing film.  I was really disappointed with Neil DeGrasse Tyson because his complaints were rather lame compared to the problem of orbital mechanics.  Here are some things to read, but don’t get too hung up about them.  Gravity is a triumph of storytelling.  Like preconceived gender roles, we still want fiction with far more excitement than actual reality.  It’s hard to embrace perfect realism.

I expect gender roles to continue to evolve, and I expect incorporating realism into popular fiction to evolve too.  Breaking Bad was far more realistic than such a show would have been ten years ago, but in ten years, writers who will surpass the talents of the Breaking Bad team, will create a series about cooking meth that is far more realistic.  Gravity could have been just as exciting if it had been 100% scientifically accurate.  And I’m not dinging it for its scientific faults.  I’m just pointing out that we’re moving towards a kind of absolute realism in fiction, and that includes gender roles too.

Fact Checking Gravity

JWH  – 10/11/13

Is an International Nonprofit Space Program Possible?

Ever dream of being an astronaut?  Ever fantasize about developing a new rocket system to take people to Mars?  Ever wanted to be a colonist on the Moon?  For decades only the richest of nations could afford a space program.  In the last decade several rich men have started their own space programs for rich space tourists.  But what about us poor folks, with big final frontier dreams?  Could we collective scrape up a few billion to build our own space program?  The idea was once silly, but now that ordinary people are winning lotteries approaching a billion dollars, digging up the money to finance an amateur space program doesn’t sound as impossible as it once did.

Space programs 1.0 for most of history have been huge nationalistic affairs.  Only rich governments and astronauts with the right stuff could participate, leaving most would-be final frontier explorers on the ground.  The last decade has shown the rise of private space enterprises with the focus on space for profit, space programs 2.0.   But you still have to be a billionaire to own a space company, or a multi-millionaire to be a space tourist. 

I’m asking if a 3.0 generation of space exploration isn’t possible, one based on non-profit, open source, volunteerism, where ordinary people design, build and travel into space?

What motivates people?  As Daniel H. Pink explains in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, it isn’t the outer rewards that drive us the hardest, but the inner desires.  There’s not enough people interested in colonizing the final frontier to motivate Congress to spend more tax money on space exploration, but is there enough people interested by their own inner desires to finance a space program collectively?  We are seeing more and more projects developed around the world by volunteer effort.  Linux, the operating system that fits on everything from tiny embedded controllers to giant supercomputers, is produced by volunteer effort.  Kickstarter and Kiva show the power of individuals to financially back new ideas.  TED and Khan Academy illustrate the power of individuals with ideas to influence change.  Projects like Wikipedia show that people all over the world are willing to spend long hours working without pay to create something that almost everyone uses.

If you don’t know about the open source movement you should follow the link and read about it.  It’s about why and how programmers develop free computer programs for everyone to use.  Eric S. Raymond wrote a famous philosophical essay about open source software called The Cathedral & The Bazaar.  It’s hard to explain the open source movement in a few words, but it’s about people all over the world working on large projects, and through their own  self-starting initiative, creating something very valuable, that’s used by millions and billions of people.

The open source movement follows in the footsteps of the 19th century amateur scientist.   Now this power to the people philosophy is moving on to bigger projects, such as ARKYD: A Space Telescope for Everyone by Planetary Resources.

By using the crowd source funding site Kickstarter, Planetary Resources promises to build a space telescope for everyone to use.  You make it happen by donating money, and depending on how much you donate, you get various participation rewards.  The ARKYD is no Hubble Space Telescope, but it does show the power of people working together.

But what if we could crowd fund something bigger, like a manned lunar base?  The Bloomberg link sites one study claiming it will take $35 billion to put a four person base on the Moon.  The ARKYD project is aiming for $1 million dollars, and they are half-way funded, a Moon base would require 35,000 millions.  That’s several quantum leaps in crowd funding success.  Is such people funded projects even possible? 

What would a people’s space program cost?  Let’s imagine a private open source crowd funded space program with an annual budget of $5 billion dollars.  That’s 5,000,000,000 – lots of zeros.  It would require 50 million people donating $100 a year.  There’s probably not that many space enthusiasts in the world, because if there were, NASA would have solid public support when it comes to Congressional appropriations. 

A five billion dollar space program is also 5 million people donating a $1,000 a year.  That sounds like a lot, but that’s $83.33 a month, or about the cost of a monthly smartphone bill.  What if such a commitment would get you into a lottery to fly in space?  What if you got to help design a lunar colony?  That’s the kind of inner motivation that inspired Daniel Pink’s book, Drive

A club of 5 million people might be possible.  Especially when you think about how many volunteer type tasks would be required to start an open source space programs.  Let’s assume our open source space program doesn’t build rockets, but hires the 2.0 generation of private rocket builders, and our goal is to develop a lunar colony, it could take decades to evolve such a space program.  Let’s say for the first twenty years we devote ourselves to robotic missions to the Moon, how many people out there would love to design and build robots for the purpose, get no pay, but spend their their own money?

If we look around we can find thousands, if not millions of people already spending lots of their own money in scientific-like endeavors.  If you just include open source programmers, robot builders, amateur astronomers, amateur rocket builders, the Maker crowd, amateur AI developers, gamers who love to create complicated simulations, X-Prize enthusiasts, and get them all working on one big project, could we have an open source, non-profit space program?

In recent weeks I’ve seen quite a few internet stories that make me think such synergy is possible.

Amateur Astronomy

Amateur astronomers has always made significant contributions to real science. Timothy Ferris wrote a whole book on the topic,  Seeing in the Dark : How Amateur Astronomers Are Discovering the Wonders of the Universe.  With modest equipment, dogged determination, and disciplined  systematic effort, people without PhDs can add important information to scientific journals and research.  Take a look at the trailer for the PBS documentary that’s based on the book.  It’s available on Netflix.

Amateurs have recently discovered exoplanets by going through public data.  Amateurs often discover comets and supernovas.   Amateurs track asteroids and near Earth objects.  Amateurs monitor sunspots and double stars.  Telescopes are becoming more powerful and affordable to amateurs, and CCD astronomy lets amateurs take astronomical photographs that surpass what the Mt. Palomar telescope could take back in the 1960s.

The ARKYD space telescope is probably just the first of many amateur spaced based telescopes.  Because of the internet, there are many robot control ground based telescopes around the world that amateurs can use

Imagine amateur astronomers having a robotic lunar based telescope to share.

Make, Makers and Robots

Make Magazine has had a tremendous impact on the world of Do-It-Yourselfers.   Small cheap microcontrollers  like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino inspire people to become inventors of intelligent gadgets.  Look what Dave Ackerman did with a Raspberry Pi and a weather balloon.  Please follow the link to read a fascinating article.  These pictures look better than what the U.S. government with German scientists took with early sounding rockets back in the 1940s.


Make Magazine shows the tip of the iceberg for how many would-be inventors live in our world.   Now take a look at Robot Magazine.  How many boys and girls out there dream of building a robot that does something really cool?  Why should only JPL and NASA scientists have all the fun?

Science Fairs

Eesha Khare, an 18-year-old student from Lynbrook High School, Saratoga, California, won second place in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair this year for developing a super-capacitor that would allow cellphones and other electronic devices to be recharged in 20-30 seconds, instead of hours, and upped the recharging lifetimes from 1,000 charges to 10,000.  Ionut Budisteanu, 19, of Romania, developed AI for a self-driving car.  Henry Lin, 17, of Shreveport, Louisiana, develop a computer simulation “that simulated thousands of clusters of galaxies, providing scientist with new data that will allow them to better understand dark matter, dark energy and the balance of heating and cooling in the universe’s most massive objects.”

It’s obvious that individuals, without years of graduate school can do significant science.  Is it possible to coordinate amateurs to work on a much larger project that spans years of effort?

Open Source Space Program

What if we applied the open source programming  philosophy to amateur science to develop larger amateur projects?  The way open source software begins is when a software inventor starts a project and then Tom Sawyers other people to volunteer.  I imagine an open source space program to be an organization like Wikipedia that gives a collection of centralized tasks to thousands of volunteers.

An open source space program could start by designing itself with a virtual world version first.  That initial projects would be created in simulations, and once they are worked out, then start building real world projects.  Let’s imagine the first project is to design a lunar lander. Given the constraints of costs and the payload capacity of private launch rocket services, how big of a lander can we design?  For example, lets say we can get a 1000 pounds sent towards the Moon for $300 million.  How sophisticated can we make such a lander?

For any self-sufficient lunar colony to succeed it will require living off the land.  What elements exist on the lunar surface or in it’s scant atmosphere that can be used to build a base for human habitation?  The Moon has water, and that gives us raw material for oxygen to breathe, and oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel.  But can we find nitrogen on the Moon?  Trace amounts have been found in the atmosphere.  Could we build a machine that gathers significant amounts of nitrogen, so we could have a safe breathable atmosphere for when we robotically dig our underground Moon City?

The possibilities are endless.  We design a series of robots that process lunar resources into goods we don’t have to send to the Moon.  We keep sending robots to build what we need until we have a base that’s safe for humans.  Then we send people.

Now, is this possible through volunteer effort and open source techniques?

JWH – 6/5/13