Is Science Fiction Wrong About Space Travel?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 24, 2015

A good case could be made that science fiction inspired space travel. Few people contemplate space travel without exposure to science fiction. Science fiction is so embedded in our culture that it would be very rare to find a young child that doesn’t know about science fictional ideas. Traveling to other worlds is science fiction’s most successful concept, and believing humanity’s future involves exploring the final frontier is practically wired in our genes.

What if science fiction is wrong about space travel? What if manned space travel to the planets and other star systems is just impractical? What if the final frontier is just a big fantasy? After one big leap we’ve chosen not to go anywhere for over forty years. What does that say? The more we learn about how dangerous it is for humans living off Earth, and how long they’d have to travel to get anywhere, it seems more and more practical to stay home and send machines.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s science fiction was all about space travel. Kids today embrace dystopian stories set on Earth. Has there already been a psychic shift by the young? Do the kids growing up today no longer see space travel in their future? Have young people decided that space travel is only appealing to geologists and robots?

I saw Interstellar for the second time last night, and although I really loved the film, it was all too obvious that it’s a fantasy on the same order as those offered by religion and children’s stories. This made me wonder if science fiction can envision humans living millions of years on Earth without going anywhere. I think it’s possible to send people into space, even to the stars, but will we?

Humans aren’t very farsighted, otherwise we wouldn’t be destroying the Earth. We’re big on fantasies, and small on reality. Is The Game of Thrones a better oracle about future humanity than Star Trek? Is science fiction wrong about space travel?

What if we don’t go to Heaven or Alpha Centauri? What if Earth is our final destination? The faithful give meaning to their lives by believing in Heaven, and many humanists found meaning in the final frontier. If we never leave Earth, can we find meaning staying home?


9 thoughts on “Is Science Fiction Wrong About Space Travel?”

  1. ” After one big leap we’ve chosen not to go anywhere for over forty years. What does that say?”

    It says that our reasoning for sending manned missions to the Moon was not an economic one. It was not (and is not) profitable to send people to the Moon. That we did so anyway was sort of a delta E * delta T event, the kind that lets electrons make classically impossible jumps in atomic energy levels. It was a happy coincidence of two Superpowers wanting to demonstrate their prowess and a whole lot of ICBMs just lying around.

    You’re really making two points in this article: One is that FTL may be an impossibility, in which case, we’re only going to the stars on long relativistic journeys. Another is that interplanetary space travel may be an impossibility, which is demonstrably untrue.

    As a race, we can afford pretty much anything we want. If we decide that we want space colonies, even in the current cost paradigm, we’ll make them. More likely, some time in the next fifty years, the cost of space travel will be reduced to the point where it makes sense, economically, to do more with it. We already do a LOT with space as it is.

    1. But how much will be manned space exploration, and how much robotic? We went to the Moon for political reasons, but we found little to keep us there. We spend billions and trillions on all kinds of unprofitable endeavors. We could have colonized the Moon and Mars by now – but we haven’t. There just isn’t a public will. Maybe 1 person in 1,000 are space enthusiasts – at least enough to want to spend tax money on the final frontier.

      But lets put it another way. If we shipped 1,000 hardcore space true believers to Mars with an inhabitable infrastructure that could grow into a permanent colony, how many of those 1,000 people would want to come back to Earth in 1 year? My guess will be all. Once they realize that Mars is not their fantasy, that it’s an extremely harsh environment, that it offers next to nothing compared to Earth, they will change their minds.

      I think some science fiction writers should entertain the possibility that humans never leave Earth. It would make for some interesting stories.

      1. The fact that it is not Earth is exactly why I want to go to space. I want to be off the planet before humans manage to kill themselves off. I also am not a big outdoors person so never going outside is cool with me. So, no I will stay the duration and not skedaddle back to Earth provided we really do have a viable society complete with the tech I need to survive, namely a good plastics infrastructure. Then, screw you Earths. Mars über alles. :p

        1. Craig, I’m like you. I wanted us to colonize the Moon and Mars to provide backups for humanity. I’m also like you in that I’m a very indoors person and wouldn’t mind living in a space colony. Also, I’m good at living alone for long stretches of time. So I’m probably well suited for a Mars expedition. As a kid, I thought Mars was my destiny. However, there’s not enough public interest to finance colonization.

  2. The problem is quite simply that we all got over-excited when space travel unfolded so very rapidly after Sputnik in 1957. Within 12 years (and with many exciting milestones in between) there was a manned moon landing. Suddenly, everyone was talking about a Mars landing by 1976.

    Collectively, we all perpetrated one colossal error of scale. We failed to understand that interplanetary travel was not just the next step after the moon – it was a whole new ballgame, with technical and cost factors orders of magnitude greater than the moon missions.

    Also consider this: it was virtually a miracle that Apollo was carried through and that it succeeded. It was, as JWH points out, a loss-making exercise that was possible only because of highly unusual historical circumstances (cold war tension) which aren’t there any more.

    History is a phenomenon that operates at wildly variable speeds. Sometimes things happen with dizzying speed (the collapse of the Soviet empire; the information technology revolution) – but, and here’s the thing, sometimes they don’t (there is still a monarchy in the UK). People become fixated on things that happened in the recent past, and expect similar patterns in the future. Space travel to the planets and beyond is highly likely to happen, but it could be fifty years from now, or five hundred, or much longer. We just don’t know.

    1. Excellent points Piet. And the colonization of space may happen in a way that science fiction never envisioned. We never know when a Black Swan will appear to change everything. Yet, I also wonder if we’re missing the obvious. What if outer space just isn’t that appealing as a destination?

      1. Yes, there’s that as well. Every heavenly body for which we now have detailed information is dead and unwelcoming – despite much speculation beforehand. I expect disappointments like that to continue (regrettably). I’m looking at you, Titan, with all this talk of life under the ice.

  3. I agree that we may never reach interplanetary space travel before we either destroy ourselves or some castastrophe will set us back to almost the dark ages. As depressing as that possibility is, I’m afraid it could be reality. Plus the Fermi Paradox and more current thinking on that could very well mean there is “no one” out there at this time and mostly cold uninhabitable planets. We are up against time differences as well as space distances.

    1. I wish the human race was just a little less self-destructive. And I wish science fiction writers would explore the idea that we never leave Earth and our species spends millions of years living on Earth.

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