MIND MELD: Is Science Fiction Responsible for the Lack of Public Interest in Space Exploration?
It’s not often that our real life science heroes utter disparaging remarks against science fiction. In fact, the opposite is usually true; science fiction is often cited as a source of inspiration and interest. Enter Buzz Aldrin, who caused a stir recently with some comments he made. To get a few more opinions, we asked the following of this week’s panel:
The only thing wrong with Buzz Aldrin’s statement is that it’s not true.
For proof, all you have to do is talk to any number of scientists and engineers and, yes, even some of the more recent crowd of astronauts to discover that many of them began to first show an interest in space technology as the result of watching science fiction movies and TV series that opened up the possibility of space flight. Once we see it being done, even fictionally, we can get behind it and start making it happen. In the long history of the human race, nobody had ever run a four-minute mile until Roger Bannister broke the record in 1954. One month later, John Landy did the same. Landy had been running just as long as Bannister. What changed? Landy suddenly knew it was possible. He’d seen it. This is the thresholding theory of evolution in practice. If we can see star travel, even in a fictional format, it plays into thresholding on a cultural level. And it inspires the next generation of dreamers.
Buzz has a point. Science fiction does bear some responsibility for the general decline of interest in space travel. I’d point a finger at a few presidents, as well, who squandered the nation’s resources in pointless military adventures. But let’s stay with SF. Sure, we did it. Though I doubt a lack of FTL or teleportation capability is the culprit. At least, not directly.
The field had always assumed that we would one day go to the moon, establish a base, and move on. That we’d proceed to Mars, or Europa, or somewhere, and find something. Okay. We’re now fifty years into the space age. A half-century has gone by since Sputnik alarmed the nation. There’s no moon base, we’re still looking for bacteria corpses on Mars, and we continue to argue about whether we want a manned or automated program. That might be a pointless exercise, anyhow, since we may discover that long-range manned flight is not practical. Radiation and zero gravity and all that.
But it’s probably true that the lack of interest does indeed stem from SF: There’s simply not much out there, at least not in the neighborhood, to stimulate an imagination reared on Martians and alien artifacts. Bradbury’s human Martians gazing at their reflections in one of the canals, Burroughs’ Venusian cities, Clarke’s alien interstellars coming by to say hello. A piece of rock on Mars that almost looks like a face just doesn’t cut it.
We caused the problem. Yes, indeed. Physicists might experience transports of joy over pinning down the exact composition of the atmosphere of Neptune, but some of us are looking for more. At the very least, we require, we demand, a demonstration that something else out there is alive. That we’re not alone. Or at least that we’re making some progress. That we’re going somewhere.
It’s not really anybody’s fault that Viking I looked out across the Martian surface in 1976 and saw nothing but rock and dust. But when you come of age having read Heinlein and Williamson and Clarke, you can’t help feeling a stab of regret. Mix with that barren landscape the knowledge that the selfsame Viking, were it to make for Alpha Centauri, our new best hope to have pizza with an alien, would need 50,000 years to get there.
So yes, the man is right. SF is responsible for the decline in interest. But had it not been for Startling Stories and Astounding, there’d not have been much interest in the first place.
Absolutely. This also explains why the unrealistic science in CSI has completely killed interest in forensic pathology. And why the upcoming show Buzz, The Cranky Old Astronaut What Shakes His Fist at the Kids These Days will ruin the joy of illicitly playing on Aldrin’s lawn for generations to come.
I can certainly see Aldrin’s point, and I half-agree with it. Certainly real space travel is and will be nothing like it’s portrayed in SF, and the distance between fantasy and reality can disappoint kids who have their expectations set by Star Trek. However, that’s not the end of the story, because so many aerospace engineers, astronomers and even many of the current generation of dot-com billionaire space investors, claim that science fiction inspired them to take up their calling.
What Aldrin’s comment points to is a lack of a middle ground in the entertainment industry’s portrayal of space travel: either we get hyper-realistic portrayals such as the Discovery Channel’s recent Mars mini-series, or we get Star Trek. Somewhere in between those limits, though, is a space for very interesting stories using intermediary technology, such as nuclear rockets, rotating spacecraft for artificial gravity, giant Aldrin cyclers-just imagine setting a TV series on one of those!-and the early years of a struggling Mars colony. Film and TV are certainly capable of supplying such visions, and it’s absolutely true that the easy way out of hyperdrive and transporters has triumphed over these more nuanced approaches. That doesn’t mean they can’t be done, though, and Aldrin is right that they should be.
I have the utmost respect for Buzz Aldrin and the other Apollo astronauts – I’ve even shaken hands with one of them – but I’m not convinced by Buzz’s point here. Time and again engineers, astronauts and space scientists will cite early exposure to SF as one of the factors that spurred them into their chosen career, be it the pulps, fifties and sixties TV shows, the works of Heinlein and so on. This was certainly the case with me – my earliest memories of television are of Star Trek and The Virginian, fuelling a lifelong love of both SF and Westerns. A little later I began to soak up the existence of the real space program, largely via illustrated books. I have no memory of Apollo, but I tried taping the BBC’s coverage of the Apollo-Soyuz linkup onto a C180 cassette (which I probably still have somewhere). I remember Viking with vivid excitement, and I stayed home from school when Columbia made its test flight in 1981. For me SF was the larger narrative that placed the current space program in a solid historical context. It told us not just what we’d be doing in the next five years, or ten, but where we’d be a hundred years from now. It told us why these small, faltering steps mattered. Even when I became a scientist and worked in a space agency, I found that most engineers were extremely loathe to discuss in public the possibility of sending people any further than Mars, and there was essentially zero discussion of any form of interstellar exploration. For that, you needed SF. In private, however, I found that many talented scientists and engineers were closet SF readers, often revealing themselves to be extremely well-read and enthusiastic. A senior colleague of mine, a versatile and energetic scientist with a fierce intolerance for timewasters, turned out to be a keen Larry Niven fan: on our first trip to the top of the mountain to make observations from a telescope, he observed that the cloud-blanketed landscape reminded him of Mount Lookitthat. I couldn’t have been more astonished, and it taught me that you can never assume anything about another person’s reading habits.
So, at the very least, SF plays a central role in inspiring the men and women working to make the space program happen. It gives them a sense of being part of a larger enterprise, building a cathedral stone by stone, but one which will eventually reach all the way to the stars. Take it away and the program obviously wouldn’t collapse, but its importance shouldn’t be underestimated.
Is SF responsible for fostering public disinterest in the program? There might be a grain of truth in that, if you take the view (as many do) that SF itself has turned away from rational speculation about the future, preferring to indulge in retro fabulation and inter-genre cross-pollination than engaging with the hard problem of what we’re going to be doing a hundred or a thousand years from now, be it on Earth or beyond. But there’s still a lot of SF that bucks that trend, and I’ve certainly found no shortage of it myself – more than I can hope to keep up with, at any rate. You might say that SF makes it all look too easy, leading to unrealistic expectations about what can be done here and now. Well, yes. It’s meant to look easy – it’s set in the future; that’s the point. I don’t think that’s a very plausible accusation. Did the development of aviation falter because Air Wonder Stories made it all look too easy?
You might take the opposing view that SF is innocent and that the space program itself has been partly responsible for that public disinterest, by not remaining on track after Apollo. For more than thirty years, no one has gone further than low-earth orbit: it’s as if Christopher Columbus came back from the Americas and then spent the rest of his career sailing around the harbour mouth. But doing stuff in space is hard, often in ways that we didn’t anticipate, and it’s not as if the unmanned program hasn’t reaped spectacular, awe-inspiring results. In truth, public interest was on the wane even before the Apollo program had run its course. Was that SF’s fault? I don’t think so; far more likely, I’d suggest, is that we’re simply seeing a mass disenchantment with science and the future, something that began in the 1960s and is still playing out forty years later. You could equally well blame that on Vietnam, or the bomb, or the creeping spread of mysticism and pseudo-science. I don’t think SF is the smoking gun here, it’s more a case of it being a victim of the same effect.
But I’m optimistic that things will change, especially over the coming decade. How can anyone not be excited by the possibility of humans returning to the Moon, or gearing up for Mars? I am…
I do not agree. Without the dream, most people would never look up. Most city dwellers would see nothing even if they did. We need the science fiction shows and movies to keep the goal before our eyes–and not just for young people, but for us all.
That said, I’d like to see more science fiction and less fantasy in my space operas.
For all my deep respect for Mr. Aldrin and his accomplishments, this strikes me as a shoot-the-messenger comment.
Recent SF shows and movies employ “technology” – and with it, pacing – far beyond what’s realistic today or will be in the near future. But “the future” is a moving target. When I (and, I suspect, Aldrin) first developed an interest in space exploration, an artificial satellite was speculative. A person walking on the moon? Way out there. Fantastic, many said.
And now? People have been circling the Earth for roughly geological time. We’ve been to the moon. I hope we return (to stay, this time), but it should surprise no one that leisurely efforts to reprise a forty-year-old accomplishment fail to engage a new generation.
Does entertainment mold us, or do we mold our entertainment? Surely both. To the extent we influence what’s offered to us – no one makes us watch this stuff, after all – those “unrealistic” shows say something very real about the audience’s interests and aspirations.
So: Let’s not blame Hollywood for reflecting what engages younger people. If we want today’s “real world” space exploration to interest younger people, we older space enthusiasts have to show the way forward from our timid, more-of-the-same goals to new-and-exciting goals. And then stand back when a new generation takes up the torch.
The stars are waiting.
I agree with Aldrin’s assessment but only to the extent that science fiction movies are part of a larger culture obsessed with individual rather than group achievements. Buzz Aldrin graduated from West Point in 1951, just four years after the end of World War II, a conflict in which every man, woman and child in the United States had to sacrifice for a common goal or surrender the world to evil.
The post-war years were a time when members of what NBC anchor Tom Brokaw calls “The Greatest Generation” were accustomed to taking on challenges like space exploration while simultaneously working to achieve their own individual versions of the American dream. A trend that was accelerated by our country’s competition with the Soviet Union, but began to taper off as the baby boom generation came of age, and threw off what they saw as the Greatest Generation’s social rigidity in order to focus on individuality. A process that was well underway when Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in July of 1969.
Now, as NASA seeks funding for an eventual manned space trip to Mars, the organization’s representatives will be required to explain “what’s in it for us?” Meaning they must show the citizens of the United States a corporate style return on investment for whatever tax dollars are spent. Never mind the fact that the Chinese carried out a successful spacewalk last month–and own so many United States Treasury bills that they can pull the plug on our economy anytime they choose to do so.
Sadly as our nation faces the current economic crises, our politicians will be forced to choose between the crises on Main Street, and the wealth of knowledge that awaits us in space. And, as measured by the fact that I didn’t hear space exploration mentioned by either candidate during the current presidential campaign, the situation doesn’t look good.
I have to be a weenie and equivocate. For some people yes, for some people, no, and for some people it isn’t an issue.
While I think Buzz Aldrin has a point, it isn’t anything close to the complete story. I’ll take my own stab at blaming something at the end of my comments.
There are people like myself, and many science fiction fans, who are enthusiastic about space exploration. Exploration of the wonders of the universe is what we like, and we like it both for real and in the imagination. We’re more fans of exploration and because one is easier doesn’t sour us on the other. This group is important for two reasons. First, there is always going to be base support. Second, the ranks of the scientists and engineers will be filled by many people from this group. Science fiction inspires us to pursue space exploration for real. Unfortunately, we’re something of a minority of the public at large.
Then there are people who are Earth-centric. They just don’t see the point. This can result from extreme political, religious, or humanitarian views. Why spend money on space when there are other, more important problems (from their perspective), on which it can be better spent? Another line of reasoning is that we were given the Earth, the best place in the universe for us to live, so why go anywhere else? Fortunately, this diverse but uniformly uninterested group is also the minority.
That leaves a larger swath of the public that constitutes the “public” that Buzz Aldrin is referring to. Average people who aren’t avid science/science fiction fans and who don’t immediately dismiss space exploration out of hand. This broader segment is influenced by movie science fiction rather than that found in books, and Aldrin is correct that movie science fiction is often based more in fantasy than science. Real space exploration has been slow, expensive, and dangerous, a far cry from rugged, unintellectual heroes and their droids popping into hyperspace, or taking a quick excursion to blow up an Earth-destined asteroid the size of Texas.
While this sort of thing won’t help the general public jump behind real space exploration, I don’t think it does great damage to that cause (scientific literacy, yes). Other issues have larger effects. More damaging is the financial crisis of the stock market which will make people focus on fiscal responsibility and problems here on Earth. Shall we rail against the deregulation than has dampened public interest in space exploration? Hardly.
I am going to blame some things now. The media, for starters. There’s precious little serious coverage on the TV news about space exploration, and what little there is comes out dumbed down or twisted, or bumped to make way for more minutes devoted to Paris Hilton or whatever sensationalist scandal of the moment happens to be. There are fantastic stories happening all the time in space exploration of all forms, from NASA to China to commercial efforts, from astronauts to space science, and few journalists take the time to dig it up and present it effectively. Their editors or backgrounds may not let them, granted, but this one group is to blame, and I could blame them for a lot of other things, too.
But there’s more blame to go around. Advocates of space exploration need to go make their own case to the public. More books, movies, and TV shows should be created about the real deal. There are a few bright points: The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and October Sky come to mind. These were all terrific, exciting stories about the real thing, and the existence of Star Wars doesn’t diminish their power. A top ten TV show about colonizing the moon or visiting Mars would do wonders. NASA and the National Science Foundation already provide funding for public education, and good public education would also be inspiring, engaging on a personal level. I would love to see NASA sponsor script contests, or produce movies that were realistic about space exploration and possessed some educational component (just getting the science right would count in my book). There’s already a lot that these organizations do, but astronauts visiting colleges to give speeches doesn’t have anything like the impact of a popular movie or TV show.
While I doubt the media is going to change, or we’re suddenly going to get a realistic and wildly popular movie about going to Mars, I have hope. As I write this, computer game pioneer Richard Garriott is in orbit as a space tourist. Only multimillionaires can afford to do this now, but as the prospect of personally going to space becomes a tangible possibility, public interest will increase. Buzz Aldrin is surely correct that for some people the contrast between the reality and fantasy of space dampens the interests of some, but I don’t think the effect is the only one at work or the most important.
Back in the sixties, there was a real rush to explore space, to get to the moon and, more importantly, to beat the Russians. The impetus to get into space was a product of the Cold War, driven as much by a desire to win the race as it was to actually explore what lay beyond our world. Interest in the space race was high, and that inspired plenty of the TV shows of the day, such as Star Trek and Lost in Space. They, in turn, fuelled interest in what NASA was up to.
Back then, a mission could be launched and its progress followed on TV over the course of a few days. And with Apollo 13, you had the drama of three astronauts and the entirety of NASA trying to get them home safely. Drama and people. Isn’t that what keeps people interested and coming back for more? Unfortunately (from the point of view of keeping the public’s interest piqued) the dramas of space exploration didn’t really get as exciting as that again. After all, how many times can you go to the moon and still keep it fresh? And going into space costs a lot of money. Nowadays, when there are more immediate financial concerns facing governments, the idea of spending millions on sending a few astronauts to a place twelve men have been already just isn’t going to fly.
Sci-fi fiction and TV allows the imagination of the reader and viewer to go places reality couldn’t, but isn’t that their job? Do historical novels like the Sharpe or Hornblower series kill people’s interest in history? Not as far as I can see, though the crucial difference between historical fiction and fantastical fiction is that you can read a book set in, say, the Napoleonic Wars and want to know more, because it’s already happened. Unfortunately for real life space exploration, sci-fi fiction expands people’s minds into what they want to space exploration to achieve rather than concentrating on what it can achieve. Pretty quickly real life space exploration seems to look pretty dull.
Part of the trouble these days is that the goals of space exploration are so distant and don’t have the immediacy of the Apollo and Gemini missions of Buzz Aldrin’s time. With the advent of the Space Shuttle, the idea that space travel might become commonplace took hold, though it’s not yet become a reality – unless you’re a Californian billionaire willing to shell out a small nation’s GDP. People’s popular expectations of the space race weren’t met, so with each passing year where we weren’t colonising the moon or discovering aliens, people’s interest began to wane. So, I think it’s unfair to completely blame sci-fi shows and fiction for real-life space exploration’s dwindling lack of appeal, though the more you look at it perhaps there’s something to what Buzz Aldrin says. The flood of imagination opened up by the space race quickly overtook the reality of what it could achieve and that more than anything is what caused interest in space exploration to wane.
I agree with the assessment if we are careful to emphasize the word ‘partly’ in the sentence. Other contributory factors bear far, far more responsibility.
If science fiction has any purpose higher than merely to entertain (a question on which I will wisely keep silent) surely that purpose must be to train the imaginations of mankind to the novel experiences which the continuing scientific progress will usher in.
In some things, I would say science fiction served this purpose admirably. When the cloning debate usurped the front pages of popular newspapers, we SF Fans (or ‘Slans’ for short) did not see any ideas or ethical conundrums debated there that had not been, in stories, debated from every angle. Our SF imaginations were prepared to deal with the bioethics of cloning long before cloning existed. We were naturalized citizens of the future before the future arrived.
But when it comes to space exploration, science fiction backfired. It made us less prepared than we should have been. The Year 2001 was not as we were led to expect. The future took us by surprise, and it was a disappointing surprise, and it was a bigger disappointment than it would have been had there been no speculative fiction.
I suggest there are three major causes for the disappointment.
First, our imaginative model was wrong.
Science Fiction in the golden age treated space as the final frontier, by which I mean, the model used and the mood evoked were taken from the tales of How the West Was Won. Space operas were cowboy stories in space, with bug-eyed-aliens playing the role of Indians, rayguns for six-shooters. Gene Roddenberry even described Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars.” Captain Future is Tom Mix in Space, Lucky Starr is the Lone Ranger.
The golden age also treated space as the next Age of Discovery, with space vessels taking the place of the tall clipper ships of old, with new planets instead of unexplored islands, aliens instead of exotic natives. The strange, new worlds sought out by Captain Kirk are the space version of the New World gazed upon by Columbus, Magellan, Balboa, Cortez, or Lewis and Clarke.
The golden age writers also treated the galaxy as the Roman Empire in space. George Lucas followed in the footsteps, or should I say the ion-exhaust trail, of Flash Gordon and Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert.
Space exploration so far has been nothing like the Old West, nothing like the Age of Discovery, nothing like the Roman Empire. It has turned out to be more like raising the Titanic: a venture by armored men and robots into an environment too hostile to be of other than scientific interest.
What no science fiction writer before the moonshot anticipated was that the Space Race would start out as a contest between two military powers for ascendancy in the ‘high ground’ of outer space, which then devolved into a prestige project, whose prohibitive costs were bourn for such imponderable goals such as national bragging rights.
What no science fiction writer after the moonshot anticipated was that the human space exploration would simply come to an end. Robots land on Mars and Venus and fly past Saturn, taking pictures. Once the Space Race was over, the brass bands packed up and folded their star-spangled banners, the crowds stopped cheering, and everyone went home to watch I Dream of Jeannie on the telly.
With the end of the Cold War, the military reasons for exploiting space grew sharply less pressing. A prestige project, like building an Egyptian pyramid, which gathers no grain and mines no gold, simply peters out once no more prestige is to be had.
If we were in a war, or even a cold war, with another technological power, military prudence might require space stations and moonbases, satellites and satellite-killers and so forth. No one (except, perhaps L. Neil Smith) expected the Soviet Union merely to implode. Jerry Pournelle’s Co-Dominium stories are now alternate history, like some yarn by Harry Turtledove.
A vivid childhood memory of mine is reading the inaudible screams of outrage and disbelief issuing from the writings of Robert Heinlein and others when the Space Race ended. We had achieved the dream so long said to be impossible, and planted a human footprint on the Moon, and then simply let what should have been the glorious beginning of an endless quest to the planets and stars fade away.
Second, society degenerated from the ‘greatest generation’ boldness needed for the venture.
What no science fiction writer anticipated was the rise of a ‘Back-to-Nature’ neo-Luddite mood in the Western populace, which dismissed space travel as an expensive luxury, not to be indulged while poverty and social problems remained unsolved back earthside.
The reason for this blind spot? There was no such thing in any of the models. During the Winning of the West, the Eastern states did not cry out that the Wagon Trains were too expensive to spend money on. No one said we cannot colonize the wilderness of Kentucky or the Northwest Territory while poverty remains a problem in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Isabel of Spain was not criticized for funding the expedition of Columbus on the grounds that the Spanish Crown still had the poor to feed.
No one anticipated this change of the public mood for two reasons: one reason is, science fiction writers are naturally technophiliac: we love that space stuff, and can’t grok how anyone could find it threatening or wasteful. It’s the future. How can you be afraid of tomorrow? What is the point? It is not as if the calendar is equipped with a handbrake.
Another reason is that we use past models to anticipate future conditions. The technophobia was something unique in history, based on a number of odd political and economic or even psychological and sociological coincidences. Even Hari Seldon could not have seen that one coming.
The American dream is no longer to own land, build a house, raise a family, start a trade, to stand or fall by one’s own gumption and effort, with no leave asked of any man. The new American dream is to be given free health care, and to police the language to censor occurrences of the word ‘niggardly.’ Such concerns have grayed our hairs before our time. Were we a society thrilled by the idea and the romance of exploration, if we were, in other words, a young and vital society rather than a society prematurely senile and cynical and risk-averse, we would have the spirit of pioneers. We would not be waiting for NASA, but demanding that it get out of the way.
Third, and paramount, space travel is prohibitively expensive and offers no economic incentive to exploit it: there are no Aztecs on the Moon to loot for gold, and the icy sands of Mars are less inviting than the snows of Antarctica or the Marianas Trench to any potential Johnny Appleseed or Daniel Boone heading out with a mule to find his forty acres.
No one can deny that the reality of the Space Age fell far, far short of the daydreams of scientifictioneers. There were no Thoats on Mars, no Dejah Thoris, no Sorns, no tripod-legged War Machines. For that matter, there was no dinosaurs on Venus, and no Mi-Go on Pluto. (Heck, Pluto is not even a planet any more! What a comedown.) Even the more realistic versions of our daydreams have not come to pass: as yet we do not have an economical way to throw open space to large-scale exploitation, not when the ‘Wagon Train’ involved costs as much as the space shuttle.
But neither the lack of economic motive, political motive, or pioneering spirit can explain this strange unwillingness or inability to explore space. Not all our dreams were about Deja Thoris. And yet for some reason even the more realistic expectations of more realistic futurologists have been disappointed by the year 2001.
At least, I was disappointed when 2001 arrived and there was no Discovery expedition to Jupiter, no self aware computers like HAL 9000. The late Arthur C. Clarke was no wild-eyed dreamer; his speculations and estimates were conservative, and grounded in known technology and solid science.
Where is the project to mine the asteroids? Where are the L-5 colonies and solar-sail power satellites? These are not dreams, not daydreams, no more unrealistic than the dream of building a log cabin on unclaimed land.
These dreams are within our grasp. It is not a technical inability to launch a rocket which hinders space exploration.
If they are within our grasp, how have they lost their grip on the imagination of the public, even of the science fiction public?
This last I can attest to: my first short story was selected for the Year’s Best anthology for its year. Of all the stories in the collection, only two took place in outer space: mine, and a story by Ray Bradbury, where the angel of death travels to Mars. Go in to any bookstore, or find the SF zines in the magazine rack. How many stories are space stories, as opposed to disutopias set on earth, or fantasies of one flavor or another?
I’d wager one could probably find as many ‘Steampunk’ stories set in alternate Victorian Empires as one could find realistic tales of space exploration. Rockets to the moon have a strange retro taste to them, these days, as if the Space Age, like the Victorian Age, is a thing of the past. Unrealistic tales crowd out the field.
Here, perhaps, Buzz Aldrin’s comment might have some sting. Science Fiction made astonishing promises, and even the most conservative of them has not come to pass. The public does not seem interested.
Reality is less interesting than daydreams for the same reason that real women in natural sunlight, freckles and all, are less glamorous than alluringly soft-lit airbrushed images of silicon-enhanced Playboy models. It is the same reason meat and potatoes taste less sweet than candy. The daydream accentuates the specific characteristics sought by the dreamer, and deliberately leaves aside anything that would bore, disgust, or break the spell. The candyman distills and concentrates his flavors and sugars to thrill the tongue, not sate the stomach.
In a society otherwise healthy, a little bit of cheesecake does no one lasting harm, if moderation rules indulgence. A society addicted to cheesecake is another matter, especially if the abnormal trumps the norm, or the daydreams drown out the reality.
How much public disinterest in space exploration is due to disappointment with unrealistic science fiction expectations and how much is due to these other factors? Well, that is hard to specify. I would place nearly all the blame on the economic factor: if there were gold in them there hills on the moon, there would be ’49ers finding a way up there.
Only the smallest mote of blame falls on SF. It is small, but it is not zero. Some public disinterest in real space travel comes from the fact that it is less interesting than the eye-candy of space opera movies.
Today’s bright kids click through college catalogues seeking Warp Drive 101? And when they don’t find it, ditch M.I.T in favor of film school? Call me skeptical.
True, by comparison, space science fiction like Robert Heinlein’s kindled enormous space-faring interest in Aldrin’s (and my) Apollo Generation. Heinlein inspired so many of NASA’s best and brightest that NASA awarded him a posthumous medal.
Also true, Heinlein’s protagonists were often teen rocketeers. But did space science fiction like Heinlein’s really inspire because its propulsion modes were “next year’s model?” I think not.
Pre-Apollo, hard facts about the Solar System were few. So Heinlein visualized the Solar System as a place of fantastic possibilities.
The Moon teemed with exiled Nazis (Rocket Ship Galileo), and lurking flying saucers from the stars (Have Spacesuit Will Travel). A kid on Mars could skate the frozen canals with a fuzzy Martian under one arm (Red Planet). Kindly dragons ruled Venus (Between Planets).
The Apollo Generation stampeded out to a Solar System that promised dragons. But the Solar System delivered…rocks. Neat rocks, sure, but their frigid reality has left no room to believe in dragons next door.
Did “SF” kill interest in NASA-style space exploration? Maybe. But the “SF” wasn’t science fiction that was too fantastic. It was science fact which proved that the only part of space we can hope to touch in our lifetimes wasn’t fantastic enough.
Generational slacking? Au contraire. The kid in each of us, in any generation, simply chooses to go where there may be dragons.
Don’t agree at all. Buzz’s opinion is founded on a misperception (which lots of other adults share, having possibly partly forgotten what it was like to be a kid) that all kids or young people of a generation are a homogeneous group, sort of a cultural monobloc, in which everyone wants or thinks the same things.
There will always be a given percentage of kids who don’t care about space in exactly the same way that there’s a given percentage of adults who don’t care about it — and one state doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. Poll any random sampling of adults and you’ll find some who don’t care about anything but doing their daily job and putting food on the table, and are short of dreams of any other kind: but in the same sampling you’ll find some who dream of walking on the Moon themselves. Poll a similar sampling of kids and you’ll find a similar divide — some of them are hot for music or games or sports and don’t care much about anything else, but some have space in their blood and won’t necessarily be able to tell you how or why it got there: they just want it. (Which doesn’t surprise me, since we’re now dealing with the first or possibly second generation — depending on how you reckon it — who have never known a time when human beings had not been in space. But that may pose a different kind of problem: the commonplace becomes boring.)
My mailbag tells me that there are plenty of youngsters out there who are hot to get out to space — particularly the Moon, which apparently has its own cachet, possibly because you can see it so easily on any clear night — but also want to go much further. Some of the kids who write me go so far as to say that space-based science fiction TV and movies were what turned them on to the idea to start with. So I think we can reassure Buzz that his legacy is safe enough in the youngsters’ hands — and that science fiction’s role in the next generation’s involvement in space is (at least in some cases) helping matters, not harming them.
Written SFF hasn’t ever taken the wind out of the space program’s sails, but what passes for science fiction in movies and TV probably has. In most movie and TV SF, the science is a fantastic parody of real science, the fiction lacks fiber, and the visuals are highly stimulating and effortless. (Effortless for the passive viewer. Special effects artists and computer scientists work hard to make the visuals look that good.) For joy ride value, real space exploration with its difficulty and danger can’t compete.
There are somewhat comparable endeavors that take a vast amount of effort on the way to proficiency and high adventure, and that also don’t generate as much interest as one might expect. For example, the Soaring Society of America is always running low on participants for incredible adventures in the sky, just this side of space. Arguably, and for reasons that extend past media SF into mediated reality in general, most people are disinclined to undertake or appreciate anything that has a long hard learning curve and extremely deferred awards.
Becoming a scientist is definitely such an undertaking. I know a physics and astronomy department chair who sees way too few American-born applicants to graduate school in those sciences. Bright ambitious young people go into medicine, law, and (at least until very recently!) business. It doesn’t help that science in the lower grades is crippled by teachers afraid of science and school boards afraid of the fundamentalists who are afraid of evolution. So: the public, badly educated in real science and habituated by a Star Trek-type pastiche of science ideas and flashy images, is bored by NASA’s unmanned science space missions. The news media, operating under the flash-and-dazzle mandates of the visual media, underreport the missions and mangle the science. NASA does thrilling space science. But the public is clueless.
On the other hand, every year the annual Lunar Planetary Science Conference in Houston is thronged with bright young planetary scientists and students. Quite a lot of them are international, but their intelligence and enthusiasm, not to mention fondness for science fiction, give me hope for the future of planetary science as a human endeavor. Unfortunately in the United States, the space science game has to be played with shoestring funding and ridiculously short event horizons. The politicians who control the purse strings are as clueless as John Q. Public and for the same reasons. Here too – in unmanned, underfunded science missions – movie and TV SF with none of the classic SF “sense of wonder” undercuts the pursuit of real science at its most wonderful.
So is science fiction (in whatever format you care to choose) responsible for the lack of interest in real space travel? Yes and no.
I think, a bigger share of the blame rests with government. Take your pick, various presidents, members of congress (either house) and NASA itself have done more than their share to kill interest in the program.
Blame can start with John F. Kennedy. He set a goal: beat those dang Russkis to the Moon. Not “Let’s have a sustained and ongoing presence in space”. We got to the Moon and everybody thought the race was over. Subsequent presidents have been indifferent to downright hostile to NASA (but not to the point of total cancellation); those that have been somewhat enthusiastic have had their plans shot down or downsized by other branches or subsequent administrations.
Congress is to blame. NASA has been sliced and diced into so many bits and pieces, making sure that the pork is spread out into as many districts as possible. So congresscritters only react when their district is involved. Given the separation of services such as military satellites or weather satellites, or the (wise decision, for the most part) private communications satellites, the key part that space plays in many parts of our world are more or less invisible (not to me; I’m old enough to remember when hurricanes were a big surprise). The path between, say, manned space travel and better communications is not always obvious.
NASA is to blame, somewhat. One byproduct of endless practice, endless development, endless testing is that (for the most part), we’ve had an overwhelming number of successful (especially manned) programs. Maybe if NASA had as many accidents as NASCAR, people would watch it for the morbid factor. NASA has been split into multiple fiefdoms, with conflicting priorities. There have been times where there have been multiple replacements for the shuttle underway at several NASA centers…duplicative efforts, wasted budgets and the end result of some nice Powerpoint presentations but no bent tin. Manned vs. unmanned, Earth observation vs. astronomy, Mars vs. the Moon, Shuttle vs. Station…it’s amazing they get anything done there!
Education is to blame. As a parent, I’m constantly battling to get my daughter taught above the least common denominator, to make sure educational programs get funding on part with sports programs, to make sure there are some scientific afterschool activities around instead of dance, art, sports. Constantly changing ways of teaching, making sure “everybody advances”, cuts in funding that hit academics over other programs (or fat salaries) are a constant problem.
Is science fiction to blame? Heck, I don’t even think partly it is to blame. Science fiction can awaken curiosity. Science fiction can lead you into many branches of science. I got my start as an amateur astronomer thanks to science fiction. Science fiction awoke interests in math, chemistry, biology.
Buzz, I admire the heck out of you. I wish I had been in your place. I wish I could have followed you to the Moon. But…the statement is…not one of your better ones!
When Norman Mailer was writing Of a Fire on the Moon back in the 1960s, he started out a little hostile, only then realized “these nerdy engineers are accomplishing two bona fide miracles!”
- They were ACTUALLY going to the moon.
- They were actually succeeding at making it boring.
He considered both feats equally impressive.
No, space sci fi is not responsible for the decline in space interest. Rather, we have returned to a normal view of the world, after a premature, youthful frenzy when we thought space would be easy. Turns out it is hard.
The Lunar Module (LEM) was one of the finest things ever produced by Man. It worked perfectly, every time. And for 100,000 years, people will look at it and shudder and say “there were once men brave enough to step into THAT?”
We have a divine madness and it will flare up again. We’ll go out there. But right now, we have work to do that’s even more important. Growing up enough to save our posterity.
Still, sci fi is there, to keep the ember, the dream, alive.
With best wishes, for a confident and ambitious 21st Century,
Filed under: Mind Meld
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!