Can a New Science Fiction Inspire a New Space Program?

Many people firmly believe that science fiction was the original inspiration for sending men into space and going to the Moon.  I don’t know if that could ever be proven, but there’s a certain logic in thinking dreams come even before the horse or the cart.

The space program has lost its way.  The Shuttles are being mothballed, and we’ve never left LEO for four decades now.  If we’re honest, we’ll admit it was the cold war politics that got us to spend billions on NASA, and  I’m afraid real science has made space a far less appealing destination than the fanciful vistas of old pulp fiction.  Robotic probes have toured the solar system and we have a very realistic view of off Earth real estate, and the sites are far from the exotic locales described by our cherished space opera.

Yet, I have to ask:  Can a new kind of realistic science fiction, incorporating the latest scientific knowledge about space, make the final frontier sexy again?  I remember talking many years ago with a young woman about space exploration.  She said unless we had spaceships like the Enterprise in Star Trek: The  Next Generation then it wasn’t worth traveling in space.  I have a feeling most people think that too. 

I told her it was unlikely we’d ever have spaceships like NCC-1701-D and she acted like I had told her there was no Santa Claus.  She had assumed such luxury space travel would be available soon, or at least well within her lifetime.  Her attitude was, if we can’t travel in comfort, why go into space at all.

And there’s the rub.  The final frontier will be rougher than any frontier a pioneer has experienced in the history of our species.  Science fiction originally sold space exploration as an colorful adventure vacation.  Now we know it’s going to be more like years of reconstructive surgery and physical rehabilitation with little hope of full recovery.

There are only two destinations for people in our solar system: the Moon and Mars.  Forget the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, they are much too cold and those systems have tremendous radiation levels.  The Moon and Mars are far from habitable, but with determination we might colonize them.  But we can’t oversell those two worlds like Kim Stanley Robinson did in his Red, Green, Blue Mars series.  That trilogy was among the best “realistic” science fiction in recent decades, but it had way too much fantasy for the kind of science fiction I’m suggesting here.

Can a new generation of science fiction writers envision practical human life on the Moon and Mars in such a way as to sell the idea to the tax paying public?  So far a majority of the public refuse to believe in evolution, so I find it hard to imagine such scientific science fiction selling, but it’s still a possibility.

JWH – 6/21/11

8 thoughts on “Can a New Science Fiction Inspire a New Space Program?”

  1. Interesting observations. However I think two things will drive people into space eventually. The need for food… we can use the rich ‘soils’ on the Moon and Mars for this. And the need for energy where we can mine Helium-3 from places like the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune. As you rightly say there are radiation problems with Jupiter and Saturn, but more importantly achieving escape velocity is easier from Uranus and Neptune.
    Robert Heinlein partly looked at the food aspect in his “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’, and I seem to remember an Asimov story about a similar situation of Mars, long before KSR Mars trilogy took up the same theme.
    As for the energy aspect? Can’t remember seeing any stories (except one I wrote that was published in 2005 – and here it concentrated on mining methane, not Helium-3).
    Maybe if science fiction did something more on along these lines, we would see a resurgent interest in space travel.

  2. I don’t know. I don’t think you can push people into space. I think you have to pull them. And I’m afraid there’s just nothing in our solar system that will do that.

    Growing food on the Moon or Mars? Heck, you could probably grow food in Antarctica more easily and cheaply. And Helium-3 seems to be a hope looking for some justification. (After all, we don’t even have fusion power yet.)

    Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see it. But the only way I can see a massive new space program – and especially colonizing the Moon or Mars – is if we solve our problems on Earth and become wealthy enough, through advanced technology, that the expense really doesn’t matter.

    One thing you can be certain about: poor people won’t be exploring space. Space travel is for prosperous, confident, “can-do” civilizations, not for timid little people whose only wishes are for tax cuts and the Rapture.

    1. The development of fusion has recently shown some promising results. Although we’re not there yet, we are now well on our way to having fusion. If I remember correctly, the Polywell experiment is leading the way.

      The thing about the Moon and Mars is that they have soil. Serious amounts of soil. There will come a time with the current growth in population, when there won’t be enough soil to grow plants in even if we have the use of Antarctica’s. The Moon has water. If necessary we can hijack a lump of ice circling Jupiter or Saturn to supply water to Mars. [The hijacking would be done by unmanned spacecraft.]

      1. I don’t think Mars will be a practical destination until we get better rocket technology.

        The dirt on the Moon is called regolith, and it’s not the same as soil. Soil, has organic material in it to make it able to grow crops. Did you ever reading Farmer in the Sky by Heinlein? That book talks a lot about preparing soil. We might turn regolith into soil with a lot of effort so lunar colonists can farm.

        It would never be practical to ship food from the Moon or Mars to the Earth. There are intensive farming techniques we could use on the Earth that would always be more cost effective than importing food from off Earth. There are people designing farms in high-rise buildings that would probably do the trick.

      2. Jim is right, I’m afraid. There is no soil on the Moon or Mars. And it would be far, far cheaper to create soil on the Earth, in badlands areas, than to try to do it elsewhere in the solar system.

        We may indeed run out of food on Earth, due to pollution, climate change, and unsustainable farming. But it’s hard to imagine anything we could do – with the possible exception of global thermonuclear war – which would make it easier to put farms on the Moon or Mars.

        Now, we may someday terraform Mars, and then things might be different. But that would be a very long process. And even if it did work, we wouldn’t be shipping food to the Earth, but just growing it to feed a Mars population.

  3. Regarding improved rockets… there is some interesting work being done on rocket engines by the people who have designed the Skylon reuseable spacecraft, which is a step in the right direction. It means we don’t have to use aircraft or rockets to launch spaceplanes from Earth. However, there is still some development that needs to be done.

    Whilst there are intensive farming techniques we could use on Earth, and goodness knows we have been intensifying farming considerably in recent centuries, we will eventually hit a limit. Before we hit that limit, it will become cheaper to farm on the Moon and Mars than on Earth. In fact, Robert Heinlein’s ‘The Moon s a Harsh Mistress’ goes into exactly this kind of thing.

    1. I’m afraid Rosie you are too optimistic about shipping costs. Even if they could reduce costs by 1/1000th of what it is now, we’d still pay hundreds of dollars for a bowl of salad, and a bag of potatoes would be in the thousands. But that doesn’t even factor in the start-up costs of creating farms on the Moon. If we did that a tomato sandwich could run $50,000. It will take trillions of dollars to set up colonies on the Moon.

      We haven’t even begun to tap the potential of intensive farming on Earth.

      We’ll want to learn to set up farms on the Moon, but to provide food for people who live there as colonists.

      I love The Moon is a Harsh Mistress but I think Heinlein got everything wrong about what a Moon colony will be like. He didn’t think things through. He wanted to write a story where he could recreate Patrick Henry style revolution, but the setup is completely silly when you think about it. The Loonies are willing to kill millions of people on Earth to announce their political freedom? That’s pretty harsh logic.

      1. Thank you so much for this discussion. It’s inspired an idea for an SF short story in my mind… but first I need to do the research to see if it’s possible, which means it’ll be three years before I’m ready to send it out if past experience is anything to go by. Sometimes things are too obvious to really notice them… many many thanks…

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