What If Star Trek (1966) Had Been About Colonizing Mars?

If Star Trek in 1966 had been about colonizing Mars, would we have a colony on Mars right now?  If Star Trek hadn’t been about an impossible distant future, but a much closer possible future, would it have influenced the space program?  After we stopped going to the Moon in 1972, did the majority of humanity give up on space travel because they didn’t have a realistic science fiction vision to inspire them?

mars

First Star Trek and then Star Wars changed the face of the science fiction genre.  They created millions of new science fiction fans.  Star Trek and Star Wars also spread the concept of the warp drive and hyperspace across the world so that most people of the Earth now assume that mankind will one day travel to the stars using these propulsion technologies.  And that’s my problem with Star Trek and Star Wars.  They have made the warp drive and jump drive as believable as heaven, hell, angels, gods and life after death.  And although the warp drive has theoretical science behind it, it’s probably as realistic as reaching another world by dying.  The jump drive is even less believable, even though it has theoretical mathematicians supporting it with wild theories.

Star Trek created a future mythology that suggests traveling between the stars will only take days or weeks.  Star Wars enhanced that mythology by letting people believe that travel between the stars will only take hours.

The reality will be interplanetary space travel will take months and years, and interstellar travel, if it’s even possible, will take tens of years, and more likely, hundreds or thousands of years.

Science fiction has oversold the ease of space travel, and that has hurt the potential of manned space travel.

By selling the warp drive and the jump drive, most of our future mythologies are built around traveling quickly between the stars, either at ocean liner speeds or jet liner speeds.  I can’t help but wonder if this hasn’t impeded the public’s support for real space travel.  As long as real space travel is by space capsule and the destinations are rock strewn plains, space travel has little sex appeal.  It’s not an adventure but a scientific experiment to be endured by the toughest humans with the right stuff.  Having a television like Star Trek would have humanized the job.

The important thing though, this theoretical show would have had to been positive.  Most movies about Mars are about failures.

If Star Trek back in 1966 had been about a successful colony on Mars, making the endeavor exciting, and imagining realistic possibilities of what living on Mars might be like, would a science fiction show been able to influence reality?

Why hasn’t science fiction been more realistic about space travel? Why doesn’t science fiction promote the pioneering spirit anymore?  Has Star Trek and Star Wars convinced us all to wait until we can travel in comfort?  There are real advocates of space travel working on the problem of getting people off Earth, and back before Star Trek and Star Wars, many of these real space dreamers saw science fiction as cheerleading the cause, but that’s no longer true.

Can fiction shape destiny?  Is science fiction creating mythologies no more realistic than past mythologies?  Do we dream dreams to make them to come true, or do we dream dreams to fool ourselves about the nature of reality?

It’s been over forty years since humans have last walked on the Moon.  If space travel was a realistic dream we would have colonized the Moon and Mars by now.  Has science fiction failed us by cheerleading us with impractical dreams?  If science fiction had written more stories about realistic interplanetary travel would that have inspired more people to back space travel, or would the popularity of science fiction just have faded?

It’s obvious people want a Star Trek and Star Wars future, but it’s in the same way as they also want heaven, angels and God, by just waiting for them to happen.  We have to colonize the Moon and Mars first.  And that’s just a start.  There are centuries between now and The Federation, so when and how are we going to get going?

JWH – 4/1/13

19 thoughts on “What If Star Trek (1966) Had Been About Colonizing Mars?”

  1. You may have a point, there. Of course back in the day, everyone expected that we would build a 2001-style space station to use as a near-space colony/staging-area for travel to the moon and beyond. If we hadn’t skipped all that, things might just have been different. Or not. Underwater colonies didn’t happen either.

    1. Yeah, what ever happened to that Chesley Bonestell/Willy Ley/Werner Von Braun future?

      I never thought living under the sea had much of a point, but I did like reading books by John Lilly and communicating with dolphins and those National Geographic articles about undersea habitats.

  2. If we assume our current understanding of how the universe works is correct and more or less complete (I do not) then interstellar travel will take a long time, indeed.

    Travel within our solar system is a different matter. We’ve known how to build faster NERVA-style engines for at least 40 years. While those still rely on a supply of chemical fuel, which is depleted soon after launch, other techniques are not reliant on burning a big tank of fuel and coasting the rest of the way. Once we build engines that can sustain thrust for an entire trip, we can get people to Mars in a couple of weeks.

    Star Trek on Mars? I dunno. Probably would have had a Martian-of-the-week show up to terrorize the humans.

    1. Yes, I don’t think manned travel to Mars will be practical until we can get the trip down from months to weeks. The trouble is the public doesn’t support spending more tax money on space travel, so what do we have to do to change their minds? Science fiction has created a lot of fans who love science fiction, but not that many who are into actual space travel.

      You’re probably right Jonc, the alternate history Star Trek probably would have created a Martian of the week story line. What would be needed would be an interesting pioneering Mars story of the week. I find the old ST:TOS episodes almost unwatchable today because the conflicts were so silly.

      1. Your point about practical travel to Mars is good, but have you read Robert Zubrin’s book, The Case for Mars? Zubrin proposes a practical Mars mission using technology that is in our reach.

        As to Star Trek, its an interesting question. I think you’re got a good point about that fact that had Star Trek been about Mars, we’d likely be there. So many other advances were spawned by Star Trek, why not this one? While I agree that the early TOS episodes may seem silly today, if one looks at them with an eye to their historical context, they suddenly become fascinating artifacts of American culture.

      2. I read The Case for Mars when it came out years ago. Zubrin makes a great case for living off the land missions. Going to Mars is far from impossible, there’s just not enough public support to pay for it. And Zubrin’s plans are mostly Apollo like. Just going to the Moon or Mars isn’t very exciting. What we need is for science fiction writers to paint pictures of an exciting life growing up and living on a Moon or Mars colony. Probably most taxpayers see little value in sending a few people to Mars to collect rocks and come home. Maybe they’d be willing to spend their tax dollars on creating an exciting new civilization?

      3. I completely agree with the need for science fiction writers to paint a picture of a Mars colony that is more than just another story of disaster. It would also help if there was some mention of the need for alternatives if global warming causes wide scale flooding or similar ecological disasters.

      4. I think part of science fiction’s problem, especially in movies, is the story is always about the threat of the world, galaxy or universe coming to an end and our heroes must save the day. Colonizing Mars will be about growing food, creating soil, building cities underground away from radiation, developing power systems, fighting the cold, but more important than those basic things, would be building a new civilization with new cultures, new art forms, new languages, etc. Science fiction seems to lack the will to work hard at imagining something truly new.

        There are so many things to explore. How will children grow in 1/3rd gravity? How do you make living soil out of sterile regolith? How to you develop the right bacteria to coexist with? Can we leave the bad germs on Earth and start fresh without them? What kind of people should be colonists? What Earth animals would be great to raise on Mars? Should we bring cows and chickens? How do you kick start a self-sufficient economy? The questions go on and on and on.

      5. Heinlein has a wonderful quote in Tunnel in the Sky. One of the characters is speaking to the protagonist and says that the protagonist is a romantic living in a decidedly romantic age. This being the case, there really isn’t the place for the protagonist, as romantic ages necessitate practical people. I think this is almost precisely the problem faced here, save for the fact that we are now in a decidedly practical age and thus we need romantics to dream of things like living on Mars.
        You are right to point out the issues with the current characterization of space travel in the media. There have been few writers to really explore the issues faced by spacefaring species.

      6. Two of my all-time favorite SF stories, both by Heinlein, were Tunnel in the Sky, and Farmer in the Sky. Both were about pioneering life in outer space. Tunnel in the Sky was about survival skills on a strange world and organizing a community, and Farmer in the Sky was about building soil from crushing rocks on Ganymede. Living on the Moon or Mars would have to be a whole lot about growing food – not quite the stable of science fictional plot conflicts.

      7. I completely agree with you about Tunnel in the Sky and Farmer in the Sky. They were some of Heinlein’s finest works during that period. As to reading about growing food – one of my favorite science fiction novels growing up was Lester Del Rey’s Outpost on Ganymede, which talked extensively about growing food. So maybe novels like that would work.

      8. Wow, I completely misremembered the title of Del Rey’s book. It was Outpost of Jupiter.

  3. The Soviets were unable to match the Apollo program. If they were, there MIGHT have been a push to outdo them. We’ll never know. Either way, by the ’70s, spaceflight technology no longer translated to weapons technology. That’s for a manned flight to Mars like Apollo. A colony would be vastly more expensive & there’s no economics to support it beyond wishful thinking.
    1 of the striking things about original Trek and, really, the whole Trek franchise, is about how it avoided portraying life on Earth in the future. A TV show about Mars in the relatively near future would have had a harder time doing that. The producers would have had conflicts with NBC that Roddenberry was able to avoid by using aliens as stand-ins for people in the here & now of that time.

    1. Hsatpft, you are right in that the reason why we went to the Moon was political, over a conflict with the Russians. Kennedy didn’t even like the space program. It’s a shame we didn’t go because of science and curiosity.

      The original Star Trek was often, or even mostly about life on Earth in the 1960s. However, it inspired people to think about a positive future. In 1965-66 Heinlein wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and tried to frame the colonization of the Moon in terms of the American revolution. I don’t think it worked at motivating building a Moon colony.

      The only real motivation for colonizing the Moon and Mars is to get some of our genetic eggs out of the one basket that is Earth. However, few people fear the destruction of the Earth, and most people on Earth are more concerned with self-extinction and wanting to be reborn in heaven. It’s very hard to promote manned space exploration when 99% of the population considers it pointless.

      I’d like to see mankind survive for millions of years to see what we’ll evolve into. But to last that long will require backing up our species off Earth. Sooner or later Earth will see another mass extinction event. We will be the dinosaurs.

  4. Why wasn’t Star Trek about colonizing Mars, Jim? If you think about that, doesn’t it answer your question?

    There’s nothing on Mars to make an interesting show (well, not “nothing,” but not very much, I suspect), and there’s nothing on Mars to attract human settlement. The Moon is the same way.

    Except for the fact that they’re in space, and many of us would really like to see space travel/exploration, the Moon and Mars offer less – much less – than Antarctica as appealing locations for human settlement. Compare that with the Americas, when those continents drew European settlers in droves.

    Star Trek – or some other television show – would very definitely have been set in North or South America back in those days, don’t you think? But look at that photo above and tell me that’s an appealing place for a television show or a colony.

    No, unfortunately, we’re not in space right now because we haven’t found a good reason – an economically sound reason – to be there. I wish it were different. I wish Barsoom – or something like it – actually existed. I wish there was a jungle civilization on Venus. I wish there were Moon Maids. But those were all fiction, not the reality of our solar system.

    1. Bill, you’re always so practical. But we have a chicken and egg situation here. Or more precisely, a Catch-22. We won’t have an exciting Star Trek future unless we have a Moon and Mars colony future to get things rolling.

      But I’m also asking: Can science fiction create a good reason for us to be in space? Gene Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek as Wagon Train to the stars. Colonizing the Moon and Mars will be like colonizing the West, and that was very exciting. In fact, pioneering should be exciting to modern people because it is more exciting than most dreary 9 to 5 jobs.

      I guess fiction will always be escapism. I’m just curious why fiction can’t sell new ideas.

      1. I hate to be a downer, Jim. Indeed, I thought about not replying at all. But what makes you think we’ll have an “exciting Star Trek future” even with colonies on the Moon and Mars?

        Star travel is many orders of magnitude more difficult than travel within our own solar system, and I don’t see how Moon or Mars colonies would make the slightest difference in that. Indeed, if that’s the goal, you should be pushing for space stations, I’d think.

        And no one is going to colonize the Moon or Mars for those reasons, anyway. We need good reasons to be there and, so far, we don’t have any. Not for anything other than brief trips of scientific exploration, at least.

        If we do colonize the Moon and Mars, it will be nothing like colonizing the American West. How could you imagine that it would be? Frankly, I think this is just your escapism.

        I like to get my escapism in fiction, always knowing that it’s fiction. As a SF fan, I’d love to see us spreading out across the galaxy. But is that going to happen? I hope so, but I have no reason to believe so.

        On the other hand, I’m sure we could colonize the Moon and Mars, but we have no reason to do so. So far, we’ve found nothing in the rest of the solar system to pull us off our one planet. It would be far harder to live on the Moon or Mars than anywhere on Earth, and what economic benefit would we get out of it?

        Remember, pioneers flocked to the West – and to the American continents before that – for good reason. What reason would people have to colonize the Moon and Mars?

        PS. I also think you’d find that the idea of pioneering would be far more exciting than the reality of it. That was probably the case even in the American West, let alone living in a shoebox on the Moon or Mars.

      2. Bill, you’re not a downer, just the voice of reason. To answer your first question, I was only trying to be logical and say we have to learn to walk before we can fly. You’re right, a Star Trek type future will never exist. Interstellar space travel probably won’t ever exist, but if it does, I imagine it will be because we’ve rock hopped all the way to the next star.

        Pioneering space will be different from all Earthly forms of pioneering. It will be about learning to living in a totally new environment, one in which we have to create all the comforts of home from scratch. It will be a tremendous challenge. In fact, it might be too much of a challenge and we’ll abandon the idea. But for now, I think a small percentage of humanity wants to try to live in space.

        Space stations require 100% import of everything you need. The Moon and Mars comes with raw materials so we eventually won’t have to import 100%. Whether that number is 90% or 40% or 20% or 0% remains to be seen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s