What If Science Fiction Is Wrong About Space Travel?

Science fiction is about speculation and the topic it has speculated on most is space travel. What if science fiction is wrong? What if it turns out that humans aren’t suited for living in space or colonizing other worlds? What if homo sapiens need to live on Earth? How will such knowledge affect your philosophy?

Decades ago I realized that science fiction was my substitute for religion. I didn’t believe in God, heaven, or an afterlife, but I did believe in humanity spreading across the galaxy. I don’t know why that brought meaning to my life, but it did. I grew up reading and watching science fiction during the Project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo year of the 1960s. As I covered in my last essay at Worlds Without End, “A Distance Too Far,” new research is showing the biological limitations of humans living in space. Space scientists hope to overcome those limitations but what if they can’t? What if humanity is condemned to living on Earth until we go extinct? What if we have to watch robots and AI machines live out our Star Trek dreams?

I assume most science fiction fans will react the same way the faithful react when they encounter an atheist. It’s really hard to give up a core value which gives our minds meaning. I have no idea how adaptable humans are to space but I’m wondering what it will mean if we can’t. If you’re a hardcore science fiction fan could you give up your faith in the final frontier?

What happens to us when we no longer believe in getting to heaven or other planets? Will we find meaning living vicariously through the eyes of our robots who leave Earth and become immortal among the stars? What kind of science fiction will be written in fifty years if we have tried to colonize Mars and failed? If we discover galactic radiation fries our brains and it requires 1-G to reproduce normally – will we give up on human space travel?

Or think about this. What if we do colonize Mars and adapt but discover everyone hates living there? There are thousands of people who would volunteer for a one-way mission to Mars. Have you ever wondered why? What motivates people to want to live on a barren rock, that’s bathed in solar and galactic radiation, that’s colder than anyplace on Earth, and its atmosphere is unbreathable? Is it a powerful fantasy implanted in childhood like theology? Is it a deep drive to spread our genes to new worlds? Or is it a psychological desire to escape an unhappy life here?

What if we discover that many of the hopes of science fiction won’t come true for us? Think a moment about our other science fiction dreams. What if we can only push our bodies so far before longevity research peters out and we realize immortality is impossible? What if we can’t download our minds into machines or clones? What happens when we discover that being homo sapiens comes with limits that can’t be surpassed? I’m sure we’re far from discovering those limits but what if someday we know those limits with certainty?

Science fiction has always given us hope for unlimited potential. Yet, reality suggests we’ll eventually bang into the glass walls of our aquarium. I wonder what science fiction will speculate on then.


22 thoughts on “What If Science Fiction Is Wrong About Space Travel?”

  1. I’ve never been convinced that we’ll get out into space and settle other planets. That dream is nothing more than a refusal to recognize technological and biological limits, and a desire to get away from the mess we’ve made of our own planet so we can just keep doing the same thing. Space has been the least interesting aspect of SF for me — always. It’s the people I’m interested in, and outer planets are just the background for them, when I read space fiction at all. We aren’t going to get out there anyway, because within the next 50 years or so, humans are going to have enough of a job just figuring out how to survive the consequences of their own stupidity.

      1. Well, first of all, I’ve never bought into any religion. I never considered SF as anything more than one form of literature, more mentally stimulating and challenging than most, but not something to *believe* in. I mentioned in a much earlier comment that I discovered SF very young, but then didn’t have a chance to pursue the interest until I was nearly an adult. So I was never any kind of groupy or fan, had very little idea until comparatively recently that people centered their lives around SF, and that some of it was a substitute for religion. I’m not a joiner or group-oriented person anyway, so even if I’d been reading SF during my formative years, it would have been more as an outsider.

  2. Hi James

    At the point we started reading SF the goals were or at least seemed easier. We eventually got to the moon and I think at that point the expectation was maybe a moon base and Mars would be next. Instead we have not been back to the moon and despite the hype Mars seems a harder target than we thought and really of dubious value given the cost. And it’s not just space travel, poverty, disease and hunger continue. Instead of colonizing and farming the oceans, remember how big that idea used to be, we are just strip mining them. But SF is primarily entertainment and many of the tropes were never really science based but more akin to magic, flying fire breathing dragons to fight thread, ESP, time agents etc. But it was also a literature of ideas and the idea was science, replacing the lost race tales, hollow earths and utopias we lost as we explored all the corners of the globe. But when I read the new SF people are writing it is still a literature of ideas some horrific, some hopeful. People are still travelling out into the universe sometimes in person, sometimes through surrogates, sometimes as projections but they are still going out. The works are better written, more inclusive and often more varied and imaginative. The practical realities of the actual space program or the state of robotics or computers had little to do with the fiction of Heinlein or Asimov, Clake or Gibson it was always the dream or in some cases the nightmare of science and hopefully, now more that ever, readers will continue to be entertained and possibly inspired by it.

    I will now climb down off my soapbox and wish you happy reading.

    1. Guy, were you ever a true believer in the gospel of the high frontier? I wonder if we all start out with science fiction wanting to believe everything and then as we get older discover the reality behind the various far out ideas.

      1. Hi James

        I cannot remember how strongly I felt about it. So I probably was not as much of a believer as you. Heinlein in books like The Rolling Stones, Between Planets or Farmer in the Sky certainly made the solar system seem attainable. But even by the moon landing I think I could see it was not going to be the wide open frontier we were promised. Physical progress has been slower even than I thought. The space station is a dinky crawlspace, the manned shuttles no longer fly and we cannot look out from a domed city on the moon. Even more though, what social progress we were expecting seems to be eroding and until we get that it is hard to see how we can leave Earth for the stars. I do think we, like they say in Pater Pan, wanted to clap our hands and believe. SF maybe replaced the fairy tales of magic rings and enchanted princes so from that point of view it was more realistic and it certainly encouraged a lot of people to be scientists or support science another thing under fire. One unexpected SF (for me) trope that seems to have replaced actual physical space flight is the dream of cyberspace or virtual reality. I cannot say for sure if children still believe as strongly as we once did that we will visit other planets and we changed because we grew up. Society seemed space obsessed when I was a kid but even then I suspect most adults did not really believe it, maybe it was just a change from the endless Westerns we watched, which was also nothing but a myth for most people. SF still offers the thought experiment function where people can dream of new social systems, dystopia’s, utopia’s, scientific advances and alien civilizations and think about the kind of world we want on this planet, at least I like to think so.


        1. Guy, I guess I wanted to believe, and it took me a while to become an atheist to my own beliefs. I embraced the Heinlein juveniles like my peers embraced The New Testament. I wanted that future. I thought colonizing the Moon, Mars and the asteroids was a simple as building habitats. As a kid it never occurred to me that living in space might be harmful to our bodies.

  3. They’ll probably write stories about life without the stars … and hopefully the worst horrors of today’s distopian fiction will have been averted. There’s so much more to SF than ‘rayguns and starships’ though. SF is by definition about futuristic technology and how we mortals interact with it.

    1. Widdershins, that’s what I want to get to – new ideas. I’m sure there are lots of science fictional ideas we haven’t explored yet. As long as we cling to the old dreams we’re not open to new ones. Society loves the rayguns and starship motif. I recently watched Passengers a science fiction movie that is full of holes and impracticality, but it did explore a valid science fictional concept. One that might be original. It was an ethical issue that would arise out of a space travel scenario. At least it didn’t have space battles and evil aliens.

  4. Jim,

    This seems to be the theme for Kim Stanley Robinson’s _Aurora_. The solar system yes, the stars no. But, again, all this is predicted on today’s technology, so I would hate to rule anything out, even interGalactic travel.

    1. Fred, I wouldn’t rule anything out, but for some things, I’d give very long odds. Faster-than-light travel is probably a quadrillion to one longshot. Sending a robotic mission to another star system in the next 100 years might be a 1,000 to one prospect. Of course, it would get there in a 100 years.

      1. Jim,

        Clarke’s second law
        “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

        1. That’s what we need to do Fred. We need to put a base on the Moon and live there for years and see what happens. If we survive that. We need to go to Mars and test it out. Read the book Beyond Earth. We need to find out how we adapt to 1/6th and 1/3rd gravity. We also need to test our survivability with long-term space missions. All the medical data coming in makes things look iffy.

          1. Jim,

            That’s workable plan.

            My problem is that the US leadership and population do not have the mindset to deal in the long term. Someone once said that democracies are poker players who focus on one game at a time and don’t take the long view that is required for chess players,who take the long view that would be required for your plan. China’s form of leadership might be closer to the chess-playing mentality than we are.

          2. That’s a good observation, Fred. China might have the political system for the long-term exploration of space. Staying in low-Earth orbit for decades to create make-work for Congressional districts is not getting us anywhere. We are learning stuff, but it lacks the ambition we once had. To me, the Moon is the obvious place to work. It has some gravity and some natural resources, and it’s only three days away.

  5. We all got over-excited during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. I remember when there was serious talk of a manned Mars landing by 1976. And look where we are now—no further than the early 70s, as far as human exploration is concerned. Space travel and the possibility of colonising other worlds has always been a dream, and as far as I can see it’s still no more than that—but it will take much, much longer for the dream to disappear completely. We simply don’t know what will become possible in a hundred years—or five hundred. The human race is prone to think in terms of relatively short periods in which incredible things will supposedly happen. In other words, give time. Perhaps interstellar travel will prove to be impossible … but when are we going to know that for certain? Not for centuries, at least. In the meantime, our dreams and speculations about such things will definitely continue.

    1. I’m excited that India and China want to go to the Moon. I hope I live long enough to see it happen. I still have doubts about getting to Mars, despite Elon Musk. What I’d like to see is a robot sent to Mars that can transmit 4k video back. It’s camera eyes should be about as high off the ground as ours, so it can walk around Mars and look at stuff and we can receive the transmissions to VR headsets and we feel like we’re walking on Mars.

  6. I’ve just finished watching the amazing 1998 HBO series “From the Earth to the Moon”, as well as rewatching “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13”. These are fascinating portrayals of some truly inspiring achievements, but for me it’s a weird kind of nostalgia.

    When Apollo 11 landed, I was about to start my senior year of high school, but in spite of being a lifelong SF reader I just couldn’t work up much interest in our space program. See, they were doing it all wrong. The “space race” was just that, a hasty competition to see who could get there first and plant the flag, when every Heinlein/Disney baby knew that the proper way to go about things was to build an orbital beachhead first – a 2001 style “donut” station where people could live, do science, and construct vehicles – the foundation for a long-term presence in space.

    Sure enough, after “winning” the competition, public enthusiasm waned so quickly that we never even finished the Apollo program. We didn’t follow through on the contemporaneous SeaLab experiments either (Jacque Cousteau was as famous as the astronauts). Moon bases and underwater habitats/farms pretty much went the way of flying cars and futuristic houses.

    Science Fiction is still around though, still serving as an escape hatch to interesting and exotic virtual realities. Beyond that, SF, like history and anthropology, is still one of the inspirations for my own core belief in the possibility of a radically different society than the one we happen to be living in. Once you acquire that habit of mind, there’s really no going back. For better or worse.

  7. current scientific discoveries of the hazards of space travel on the human body points to dismal limitations. It’s going to take genetic engineering to allow people to live in space or live on a different planet…. possibly a body that we would not recognize as human. but of course that’s another story….

    1. You’re right Karen, science fiction will always have plenty to speculate about. However, I think certain kinds of space travel speculation will disappear over time as we learn more about the reality of space travel. That’s already happened. We no longer have serious stories about going to Mars and finding the old ones.

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