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:

Q: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin said fantastic space science fiction shows and movies are partly responsible for the lack of interest in real-life space exploration among young people. Do you agree with this assessment? Why?
J. Michael Straczynski
J. Michael Straczynski is a writer and producer who is perhaps best known for his work on the science fiction television series Babylon 5. His other television credits include, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, the 1980’s Twilight Zone series, the Babylon 5 spinoff Crusade, Jeremiah, and many others. He is the author of several short stories and three horror novels (Demon Night, Othersyde, and Tribulations) and also the non-fiction book The Complete Book of Scriptwriting. J. Michael Straczynski also wrote the film screenplay for 2008’s Changeling. Upcoming film projects include The Silver Surfer and World War Z.

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.

Jack McDevitt
Jack McDevitt is the author of fifteen novels, of which the most recent is The Devil’s Eye, just released from Ace. Also, coming in February: Cryptic: The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt from Subterranean. McDevitt has been a frequent Nebula finalist. He won for his 2005 novel, Seeker.

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.

John Scalzi
John Scalzi sticks kittens to walls through the power of static electricity. And they like it.

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.

Karl Schroeder
Having wracked his brains to be innovative in the novels Ventus, Permanence, and Lady of Mazes, Karl Schroeder decided to relax for a while and write pirate stories, starting with last year’s Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce, and continuing with Pirate Sun. Of course, these novels are pirate stories set in a world without gravity — but hey, swashes are still buckled, swords unsheathed, and boarding parties formed in the far-future world of Virga. He’s currently writing the fourth book of the Virga series (no, it’s not a trilogy) and thinking about how to hammer science fiction into some new shapes based on current research into cognitive science. When he occasionally pokes his head out of the trenches, he blogs about this stuff at www.kschroeder.com.

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.

Alastair Reynolds
Alastair Reynolds is a science fiction writer and former scientist. He lives in Wales. His latest novel is the far-future House of Suns.

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…

Larry Niven
Larry Niven, perhaps best known for his multiple award-winning novel Ringworld and its sequels and his other Known Space books, has written fiction at every length, speculative articles, speeches for high schools and colleges and conventions, television scripts, political action in support of the conquest of space, graphic novels, and a couple of comic book universes. He has also collaborated with a wide variety of writers, like Edward M. Lerner on Fleet of Worlds and Juggler of Worlds, and Jerry Pournelle on his latest book, Inferno II: Escape from Hell. Larry likes attending science fiction conventions, playing RPGs (live and computer), comics, filk singing, yoga, hiking, racquetball, and gatherings of people at the cutting edges of science.

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.

Edward M. Lerner
A physicist and computer scientist, Edward M. Lerner toiled in the vineyards of high tech for thirty years. Then, suitably intoxicated, he began writing SF and technothrillers full time. His recent books are Moonstruck, Creative Destruction, and (on November 11) Fools’ Experiments. His novels with Larry Niven are Fleet of Worlds and Juggler of Worlds. Lerner blogs regularly at SF and Nonsense.

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.

William C. Dietz
William C. Dietz is the best-selling author of more than thirty novels some of which have been translated into German, Russian, and Japanese. He grew up in the Seattle area, served as a medic with the Navy and Marine Corps, graduated from the University of Washington, and has been employed as a surgical technician, college instructor, and television news writer, director and producer. Prior to becoming a full-time writer Dietz served as director of public relations and marketing for an international telephone company. He and his wife live near Gig Harbor, Washington.

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.

Mike Brotherton
Mike Brotherton is the author of the hard science fiction novels Spider Star (2008) and Star Dragon (2003), the latter being a finalist for the Campbell award. He’s also a professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming, Clarion West graduate, and founder of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers (www.launchpadworkshop.org). He blogs at www.mikebrotherton.com.

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.

Graham McNeill
Graham McNeill is an ex-architect, ex-games developer and current author who’s written fourteen media tie-in novels, mostly for Games Workshop’s fiction imprint, The Black Library. Originally from Scotland, Graham now lives in Nottingham and spends altogether far too much time working (or so he’d have us believe). Graham can be contacted at his website www.graham-mcneill.com

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.

John C. Wright
John C. Wright is the author of The Golden Age Trilogy, The War of the Dreaming, Chronicles of Chaos and the upcoming Null-A Continuum, the authorized sequel of A.E. van Vogt’s World of Null-A books. His short fiction has appeared in Year’s Best SF 3, The Night Lands, Best Short Novels 2004, The Year’s Best Science Fiction #21, Breach The Hull, and No Longer Dreams.

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.

Robert Buettner
Robert Buettner has been a Military Intelligence officer, a National Science Foundation Fellow in Paleontology, and a natural resources lawyer. His first novel, Orphanage has been called Heinlein’s Starship Troopers for the post-9/11 generation. Orphanage was a Quill Award nominee as best SF/F/H novel of 2004, has been translated into four languages, and read in no fewer than twenty-one countries. The series’ fourth book, Orphan’s Alliance, appeared in October, 2008. Robert lives in Georgia with his family and more bicycles than a grownup needs.

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.

Diane Duane
Diane Duane has been a writer of science fiction, fantasy, TV and film for more than twenty-five years. Besides the 1980’s creation of the Young Wizards fantasy series for which she’s best known, the Middle Kingdoms epic fantasy series, and numerous stand-alone fantasy or science fiction novels, her career has included extensive work in the Star Trek universe, and many scripts for live-action and animated TV series on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as work in comics and computer games. She has spent a considerable amount of time on the New York Times Bestseller List and has picked up various awards and award nominations here and there.

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.

Alexis Glynn Latner
Alexis Glynn Latner‘s science fiction novel Hurricane Moon was published by Pyr in 2007. Twenty-three of her novelettes and short stories have been or will be published in science fiction magazines, especially Analog, and horror and mystery anthologies. She also does editing, teaches and coaches creative writing, and works in the Rice University Library.

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.

Fred Kiesche
Fred Kiesche has been reading science fiction since the early 1960’s. He has a collection of over 8,000 books at home, at least half of which is science fiction and fantasy and the rest are made up of books on science, history and other non-fiction subjects. He is an avid amateur astronomer, devoted husband and father, and is seemingly perpetually underemployed since 9/11/01. He blathers on this and other subjects at The Lensman’s Children.

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!

David Brin
David Brin is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and Uplift War. (The Postman inspired a major film in 1998.) Brin is also known as a leading commentator on modern technological trends. His non fiction book, The Transparent Society, won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.

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!”

  1. They were ACTUALLY going to the moon.
  2. 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,

David Brin

35 thoughts on “MIND MELD: Is Science Fiction Responsible for the Lack of Public Interest in Space Exploration?”

  1. Mailer wrote “Of a Fire on the Moon”, which is probably what Brin was thinking of. “Space” was the one that was made into a pretty bad mini-series.

  2. Young people not liking space because of science fiction?  You can’t keep space shuttles and dinosaurs away from them!  Let alone Star Wars…

    As a father of a six year old in the US, God Father to a ten and fourteen year old in India and London, and the occasional college professor in France, I have yet to meet any member of the general public – young or old – who is not interested in space exploration.

    Now, if you want to focus on how space exploration is portrayed to the public which pays for it in the USA…that’s a different story.

    I live and work in the space industry on a daily basis.  It’s how I make my living – which pays for my copious reading habits.  From both the satellite side and the human space flight side of the industry I can attest that almost all I know working in this industry have a healthy awareness of, respect for, interest in, and some a love of Science Fiction.  We find it is Science Fiction that brings us our best interested grads at ISU and into the industry – though you have to pair this information out of them over time.  They rarely admit it up front – serious people that they are.

    There are age gaps.  Growing up it was Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Wells, Verne, Niven, Pournelle, and now I nibble on the occasional Scalazi.  It was also Star Trek, Dr. Who, Star Wars, and now Battle Star Galactica, various Gates and sundry.  Do I watch this alone?  Heck no.  What are astronauts watching at the gym in Star City?  What books are they reading?  What books and movies are the students at ISU reading?  It’s not Milles and Boone, that’s for sure.

    Sadly some of the old timers (but not all) in the space industry and agencies (sadly for to whom for some it’s just a job) are simply not aware that they are in an industry wholly and totally created by Science Fiction. 

  3. What Mr. Aldrin said is below, accompanied by my comments.  

    “I blame the fantastic and unbelievable shows about space flight and rocket ships that are on today,” Aldrin said in an interview during an ice cream party held by the National Geographic Channel at the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., this week. “All the shows where they beam people around and things like that have made young people think that that is what the space program should be doing. It’s not realistic.”

    The working word is “fiction”.  And as such, if its good fiction (applicable to SF as well as other genre), then it makes people think and wonder.  Fiction can be as realistic as the writer/author intends and as much as the reader wants.  “Beaming people around” is a fantastic concept, as is sailing around the Horn in a Clipper ship, and (in SF) sailing around Earth, the Moon, Mars, or another star is just as fantastic.  We’re sailing around the Earth and Moon now, we’ve had some success with Mars.  These are real/actual events, inspired by people whose thoughts and imaginations were inspired by fantastic events. 

    Heinlein’s work is often mentioned as having inspired many NASA engineers and scientists, as well as within the military institutions of the United States, and rightfully so.  He showed many of us what potentials there are or might be behind works presented in “fiction” but with a foundation based in science and engineering, and did so in a way that held our attention.  The works of Clarke, Asimov, Niven, and so many others continue this.

    The second man on the moon praised real-world films such as Apollo 13. “And Tom Hanks’ series From the Earth to the Moon,” Aldrin added. “They were fascinating, because it was reality history, and reality fiction can be good if you stick to reality. But, if you start dealing with fantasy and beaming people up and down and traveling seven times the speed of light, you are doing damage. You’re not helping. You have young people who have got expectations that are far unrealistic, and you can’t possibly live up to the expectations you have created in young people. Why do they get bored with the space program? That’s why.”

    The damage is started when criticisms are raised that suggest a limit should be in place to throttle-back on how much a person might think or imagine after reading a story/novel or watching a TV show or movie.  Whether it is SF or not is beside the point.

    Creating expectations in people, young or old, is a constant event, not limited to SF but to everything in every day throughout our lives.  “Beaming people around” is of the same ilk as dreams of flight in centuries past; the continued striving to answer “why not?” and “how could we…?” was and is inspired by creating those expectations and then raising them.  Without something to inspire, a person cannot be moved to imagination and motivation.


  4. From an avid SF reader:  There is some ring of truth to what Buzz is saying.  I think the effect of the literature is predominantly positive, but most people think of movies when they think of SF.  I believe Buzz is referring to the relatively (last 10-15 years) recent spate of film and tv SF with photorealistic (or, let’s say, extremely slick) visual effects that inevitably and by nature of the format and genre, compress action and timescales in consonance with bite-size time and attention spans. Compare that to the comparatively glacial pace of real exploration.  Even for the explorer there are long periods of boredom (or plain hard work) with punctuations of excitement.  Something that was thrilling to me…the moonwalks…I can’t even get my kids (18 and 21) to glance at on DVD (and one is a science major).  But in retrospect, as a space enthusiast in grammar school in the 1960s, all I got was ridicule for voicing my interest.  So there is something going on that is independent of movies or special effects.  An anti-intellectual streak?  In any case, for developing youth interest in space exploration as well as other science, engineering and math careers, I suggest video game developments that hew to the young audience/participants while educating…but for the common denominator today, it has to be fun and visually exciting to keep the interest.  Times have changed, and we can’t woo them with promises of late nights studying differential equations, though of course some will get those late nights if we are successful (there are always some who simply revel in intellectual challenges and we don’t have to be worried about them!).  Perhaps the promise of collaborative virtual space exploration in a video game format will get us there.  There is some movement out of NASA now (a solicitation) in this regard, but Griffin has minimized NASA’s education mission and it’s happening slowly.


  5. Yes and no…it inspires, but also makes people think NASA should solve all our space travel problems in 20-50 minutes (if there are no commercials shown).

  6. I would suspect part of this comes from hearing a commentator on NPR remarking that “instead of spending money on a new space probe, let’s just get some new episodes of Babylon 5″.  This bothered me, but, then, I think there is _some_ truth to it.

    Right now, access to space is hard.  Space Lift is still an economy of scarcity and the vendors in that space (pun intended) want to charge all the market will bear.

    Printed SF, I believe, does not undercut an interest in Space, instead, it fans the flames.

    Visual SF, however, may act as a balm for the less-than-adventurous, and, being a larger market than for printed works, can satisfy some with the dream.

    In some ways, I’d suggest looking at Visual SF– like some “adult” entertainment– as a distraction by illusions, which reminds me of Roddenberry’s “The Cage”.  If illusions satisfy the wanderlust of enough people, I suspect that momentum is lost.

    Consider how unpopular war is when it is brought, live and in color, into your living room.

    At the same time, NASA is in the grasp of managers rather than leaders… and the FAA seeks to wrap the entrepreneurs with their leaders and dreamers in red tape.

    Remember, Leadership is about maximizing gains while Management is obsessed at minimizing losses.

  7. As an avid SF reader, I sometimes wonder whether the lure of writing SF for a living hasn’t lured away a lot of super-bright minds from working on hard science applications, especially those like space colonization and all that would entail. An example of such a mind (alas, no more) was Asimov. A prolific and successful SF writer, IMHO he definitely diverted significant energy into this area and hence away from real work in advanced, cutting-edge space-related work. To this extent, Buzz may be right in a sense.

    But what has really kept us rooted to Earth, again IMHO, is:

    1) An extreme illiteracy about SF, among our ruling elite, both political and MSM. In US, for example, both parties’ leaders have no knowledge of what can or should be done. If one of them were to keep Dr.Pournelle (for example) as a Science Advisor, that would hopefully change things. There was only one Ronal Reagan, alas …

    2) As long as parasitic careers such as being a trial lawyer remain a highway to riches, bright minds will not go for jobs related to space exploration.

    3) Lack of long-term incentives. As Dr.Pournelle mentions at his site, giving a no-tax-for-the-next-100-years kind of guarantee to space-based industries (and incidentally freeing them from NASA’s bureaucracy) would go a long way in boosting space exploration. See what Spaceship One achieved, and compare to NASA’s list of recent disasters – private enterprise will beat public corporations most of the time.

  8. Spending money on space is absurd when we still have massive poverty in the world. It exists in westerner countries too, and that’s extremely odd. We found water vapor on Mars while people in my town of Philly have no electricity, people live in shacks in some parts of the country and it’s the 21st century!

    Again, in the US many East Coast cities I’ve seen are literally falling apart. It’s not uncommon in Philly for buildings people are living in to fall down like in ancient Rome. That stuff needs to be fixed before we do anything on another planet.


  9. Lets see, maybe I can give you a call from my mobile phone telling you where I am from the embedded GPS device along with a picture that someone sent me. Didn’t Dick Tracy have such a device, or was it those people in Star Trek who had communications devices growing out of their ears.

    Sure space travel is very familiar and to some it may seem not to be so challenging, but that’s sort of NASA’s “fault” too for publishing all those dratted pictures from space.

  10. one of the respondents makes a very good point:  how about some stories in the public SF arena (TV, movies) about realistic future scenarios (the Aldrin cyclers, nuclear rockets, spinning spacecraft and possible limitations, nuclear rockets all as backdrops to storylines which can still have good-looking people doing silly,human things).  This could be inspiring, but realistic.  Oh yeah, and does anyone remember the one-year TV series ‘Men Into Space’ – apart from its now un-PC title, this was an effort in the early 60’s at depicting realistic early space travel (Earth orbit, space station, lunar base, Mars and asteroid missions).  It’d be a good model.

  11. TheAdlerian comments:

    “Spending money on space is absurd when we still have massive poverty in the world.”

    Oddly enough, one of the essays above, my own, addressed this very point.

    “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.”

    The idea that a public space program or a private space industry are in a zero-sum-game mutually exclusive hostility with poverty on earth is a slogan that does not bear close examination.

    If we are talking about private industry, the concept of a zero sum game is mere nonsense. Suppose the complaint was instead, “Farmers spending money on the agrarian industry when we still have masive poverty is absurd”, one could answer that without cheap food, the poor would be even poorer. Suppose the complain was instead, “Oil men spending money on drilling wells when we still have massive poverty is absurd”, one could answer that without cheap energy, the poor would be poorer yet.

    These two examples are clear because the poor are consumers of food and fuel. The logic of these two examples applies, however, even in cases where the poor are not direct consumers of the good involved: such as the banking industry, the medical professions, the entertainment industry, and even the aerospace industry. A farmer or an oilman who saves a dollar by travelling or shipping by air uses that money to produce one dollar’s worth more food or fuel which the poor consume. Having a strong areospace industry directly helps the economy of anyone buying ro selling to them; and those primary benefactors in turn benefit their patrons and clients; and so on.

    The healthy space industries of one hundred years from now, asteroid mining or spacebourn solar energy collection, shall rain down wealth on the world the way the New World rained wealth on Spain. Chopping up the ships of Christopher Columbus for firewood to warm the beggars in Spain seems shortsighted, compared to the long view.

    If we are talking about a public space program, the concept of a zero sum game is not one that free men would even think worthy of talking about, only men enamoured of socialist ideas think it is the government business to alliviate poverty through the public coffers. So far, the space program has been the province of the federal government only, not of any state governments, and, in the United States, the federal government has no constitutional mandate to give money to the poor.

    If we are talking about a public space program with immediate or indirect military applications, the argument is even weaker, for to provide for the common defense is a core duty of government, and, unlike welfare, is constitutionally mandated.

    If we are talking about taxpayer’s money, it goes where the political process directs, for better or worse. The demand for welfare is infinite, no matter how much of the federal budget it consumes. At the moment, more than half the budget is social security, medicaid and medicare, welfare programsm and interest on the debt. One fifth of the federal budget is military and defense spending. NASA does not even show up as a sliver on that pie chart. Those who wish more tax money to go to public works or welfare are free to make the argument that these expenses outweight the good done by other federal programs and therefore should take priority.

    But please note that this “we need the cash to feed the poor” argument is never used against any federal budget items except two: the space program and military expenditures.

    No one, for example, argues that the preservation of national park service is too expensive an undertaking while the poor go hungry. No one argues that government subsidies of ethanol is too expensive an undertaking while the poor go hungry. No one argues that the Department of Education is too expensive to maintain while the poor go hungry. No one argues that the Environmental Protection Agency is too expensive to maintain while the poor go hungry. No one even argues that the assets of National Public Radio could have been sold and the money spend on the poor. I leave the deduction as to why that should be as an exercise for the reader.

    If we are talking about the money of private industry, something like Spaceship One, then the money goes where the man who earned it spends it, for better or worse. Charity to the poor is certainly an admirable quality; some would even call it a moral duty: but it is not an absolute moral duty that overrules all other considerations. Too, let us not make the collectivist mistake of saying where ‘we’ should spend ‘our’ money. It is not a collective decision in that case.

    That is why I called this a slogan, not an argument. There is no logic to it.

    Some people just have it out for the Space Program, and it draws disproportionate ire. Who knows why? Perhaps socialism and the frontier spirit are antithetical, and the advocates of socialism recognize that.

  12. I don’t think SF is to blame at all.

    Firstly, there were plenty of SF films during the 50’s and 60’s that portrayed fairly unrealistic visions of space, methods of space travel, and the time involved in long-distance space travel – or did I just dream-up “Forbidden Planet” with Leslie Nielsen zipping around the universe in his flying saucer? Let’s look back even further to the dawn of cinema with “The First Men in the Moon” loading themselves aboard a capsule that was essentially a gigantic bullet, then being shot from a cannon (without being turned into jelly by the acceleration) before mashing into the somewhat pained face of the moon.  The space program, and Mr. Aldrin, went ahead anyway though.

    Secondly, as others have pointed out, in the wake of the moon landings, there were massive political, social and economic changes in the works: Armstrong’s walk proved the US had won the space race, removing the urgency from continuing the program any further; politicans got short-sighted and obsessed with empire-building; the Vietnam war and various social/cultural changes caused people to insist on refocussing to problems on this world as opposed to others; the late 70’s saw fears of a perceived energy crisis and real global terrorism; the 80’s opened with a recession that left the public in the West more concerned with their jobs and keeping their homes than anything else; the 80’s saw budget cutbacks to NASA and science in general; corporate interests took over the space flight and stressed short-term and short-haul profits over far-seeing grand visions; the environmental movement started to gain real strength and picked up the argument that money and effort needed to be focussed on the ground and the seas; there were very public catastrophies in the space program in the form of shuttle destructions that reminded people that space travel is a dangerous pursuit; the 90’s opened with another recession; the sciences and education in general are under attack and in danger of eroding in the face of regressive/repressive religeous views and short-sighted business interests; Western society itself is undergoing fundamental changes – with community involvement, sevice club enrollment and even poltical participation on the decline as younger generations feel disconnected from society, and not because of SF, but because of apathy induced by previous generations refusing to vacate job opportunities and local and global crises that reinforce a sense of hopelessness. No wonder they’re not flocking to NASA, resumes in hand!

    Thirdly, again as others have pointed out, there are many scientists, business people, and even astronauts who admit to enjoying, and in some cases, having been inspired by SF. Clearly it didn’t stop them. In fact, one could argue that the people most likely to enter the sciences or to attempt to become astronauts are the types of positive thinkers who are not likely to be put off by any disillusionment that we can’t “beam” anywhere or travel faster than light. They’re willing to apply their talents in spite of those realities.

    Lastly, we need to look beyond the lack of efforts here in the West and see what’s happening globally. The Chinese are on track to landing on the moon in a very short time. India’s racked some successes of its own recently and won’t be far behind. Both of those countries have their own home-grown SF and have had exposure to Western SF for years. Clearly SF hasn’t discouraged them from trying.

    Certainly North America and Europe need to wake up and get back in the game. But SF won’t be holding us back. On the contrary, as big as its visions are, as magical as they may seem, they’re more likely to inspire our next generation of pioneers to reach higher and fly farther and use all of their talents and drive to try to make those visions real, or as near to real as is possible.


  13. I agree with Atish for the most part.

    I would add that rather than blame hard SF, it is attitudes like TheAdlerian’s which hold us back. I’ve been through those parts of Phiily and seen the residents total disregard for the mountains of trash in their alleys and blowing down the streets at their feet.

    Poverty etc, will always be a fact of life and can never be ‘fixed’ by a governmental program – rather that is at the root – people’s expectations – politicians say they will fix it – people vote for them but do not fix the problem, rather blame some other party for the continued problem saying “vote for me again and I’ll fix it” and so on. But it is not in the politician’s vested interest to actually fix it.  Where poverty etc has been fixed see residents who took matters in their own hands.

    And let’s look at the majority of SF being published today: mostly dragons and dungeons, fairy lands and princesses. Worse, we have the magic themes like Harry Potter. Where’s the incentive for wonder at space? Where’s the incentive for learning anything at all?

    As others have pointed out, kids today are visual. Relatively few read anything (too many can’t even read, for that matter, beyond the comic book level), let alone read and understand the principles the author uses in hard SF.

    Even if the kids wanted to read hard SF, little is being published because publishing houses look to what will sell big, not to what is well written, interesting, fascinating etc. Even Classical writers would not be published today. So back to Visual mediums.

    Who makes them? Mostly Hollywood. What is their plot? Good guys on some ill-defined mission theme, solve some problem in less than an hour, and generally ‘forget’ what just happened by the following episode. See the Star Trek series.

    Visual SF like J. Michael Straczynski’s B5, or Farscape, where there is an over-arching theme stretching through the episodes, where the theme and episode plot interweave, are canceled before the show concludes or are never produced.

    And just why would a kid want to look at his dad’s DVD of the Apollo program? “That’s the past, dad”, he thinks. “That hasn’t been done in decades, and isn’t likely to happen anytime soon again.” The kid knows there is no manned space program in his future, so why bother?

    Kids also know that there are many who say the whole Apollo thing was faked, and so, without getting into the debate, lose interest and move on. To get into the debate would mean the kids would have to actually know some of the simple science which proves the gainsayers wrong. Where would they learn that? Too many schools skip over science (as well as other subjects) today in order to plug-in social/political agendas. Manned Space Exploration does not now and will not in the immediate future effect the kid’s daily life in any way.

    Aldrin’s blaming SF for the lack of interest among the young is partly right – it is how it is presented, not the fact of the presentation: any problem encountered can be solved in less than an hour by someone else – usually the Hero who works for the larger organization. Further, if the problem can be solved that quickly, it couldn’t have been much of a problem to begin with.

    Seeing that lesson quickly, the kid moves on to look for the larger organization which could (practically) be in his immediate future, where he has the chance of becoming the ‘Hero’.

    Speaking personally, the whole idea of practical manned Space Exploration was killed back in the 60s when the political class killed Project Orion and gave us the ill-designed Apollo configuration instead, and then killed that hardly 10 years later.

    I think kids can see the political class does not want Manned Exploration, and feel powerless to change it. After all, politics is about power and control, while Manned Space Exploration is about wonder, science, hope, and freedom from control – all anathema to the political class.
    Just my thoughts,

  14. bloginhood,
    The West can’t wake up. It is locked in the dream of some socialist utopia. Europe is on an ethnic death spiral – in a few decades there will be no Germans, Swedes etc. They simply are not reproducing in sufficient numbers to remain existent. Their current populations will be replaced by people of Muslim descent. Muslims countries are not noted for their contribution to scientific advancement.

    The U.S., while still reproducing, is currently headed in the same direction as Europe and the hope-killing socialist utopian dream.

    The only way the U.S. will actually get back in the game will be through corporate commercial efforts, not government-led, bureaucratic-bound, DOD-chartered efforts a la NASA. But, corporations will have to find a way to recoup the money needed and until that becomes clear, the only private efforts will be relatively small and mostly harmless.

    China is pursuing Space Exploration out of National/Racial pride, but primarily to achieve certain military objectives. India is pursuing it because China is. India has no choice in the matter: if they do not equal or excel the Chinese, they risk Chinese domination. This race is much like the US vs. Russia in the early days of Space Exploration. Hard SF, pure science, discovery, wonder, and hope have little to do with the reason their political classes are willing to spend the money necessary.
    Applauding the hopes you expressed,

  15. Chris,

    Thank you for your support.

    I am also heartened to see from your comments to bloginhood that you have an exceptional understanding of world affairs. The West is truly in the grip of Leftists/Socialists (I no longer call them Liberals once someone explained that the word Liberal comes from the word Liberty).

    If you haven’t read it already, I would strongly urge you (and other SF fans) to read a short story written by Dan Simmons at <a href=http://www.dansimmons.com/news/message/2006_04.htm>this link </a>. I found it very thought provoking and also very well-written. Mark Steyn also has many things to say on this and other matters at http://www.steynonline.com, as does Ali Sina (the last is not for the faint-hearted!).

    To add my two cents to your comments on China and India (being from the latter, and having a good knowledge of the former’s activities thanks to being in the vicinity), China is well on the way to being the world’s only Superpower. The fact that Russians have a low life-expectancy leaves no counterwight in the region.

    The good news is that Chinese people are individually warm and decent, civilized, revere knowledge, respect eleders, take family responsibilities seriously and IMHO, have a great culinary tradition.

    The bad news is that the Chinese Government is absolutely ruthless in the execution of it’s plans. It “took” Tibet, looted the substantial gold from the many moasteries there, killed/drove out many if not most of the Tibetans, “took” what looks like the right “ear” of India in a savage attack circa 1960s, and is now in the process of taking Nepal, Bihar (a state of India contiguous to Nepal) and also North-east India. Bihar and NE India are very rich in mineral resources. Nepal is needed to get at Bihar. How is this taking being done? Why, through China-funded guerilla “Maoist” groups, of course. As you may know, even the Indian Police don’t have much beyond antiquated shotguns and 303 rifles, and guns are not available in neighbourhood stores. Yet the Maoists rule with impunity, kalashnikovs in hand.

    Of course, all this will take time, perhaps decades to come to fruition. But the Chinese Government, like the Chinese people, is extremely patient.

    I would only correct one thing in your post – India does not have much of a space program. A thoroughly corrupt and inept political class (read the Indian Congress Party and the various Leftist/Socialist parties) and bureaucracy and a pathetic Engineering Education system (nothing practical is taught almost anywhere) do not make a fertile field for such efforts.

    To come back to China, from what I have heard from non-Chinese who worked there, the Government does not bother the people as long they are not in the way and does not have millions of bureaucratic rules. Maybe being ruled by them won’t be so bad?

    The only thing that would save the USA would be if it were to be split by referendum, with people who want Socialist Utopia (and who are we to say it can’t work this time around?) moving to Blue half, and the ones who want liberty and freedom from State tyranny to the Red one, erecting a solid one-way wall (can go from Red to Blue, but none the other way for at least a century), and let nature take its course. I know, I know, won’t happen … but just think how far the Red half could go!

    Best wishes,

    - Atish

  16. John C. Wright :

    John while you’ve been writing fun stories, I’ve spent the last twenty years working in prisons, ghettos, and mental hospitals. As you can imagine I’m about as Socialist as they come after see all of that hell.

    My life has been like a book!

    I can’t be convinced that American society, where I live, isn’t a pyramid scheme which keeps a perpetual wide base of people to clean its toilets and whatnot. The fact that these people can’t exactly launch a project to slap new mortar and paint on their crumbling neighborhoods, doesn’t really shock me.

    Meanwhile, children who grow up under these conditions can never be blamed for their parents behavior, if you take the “personal responsibility” angle many conservatives are fond of. That is unless you’re a fascist, and/or royalist, who believes that children are duplicates of their parents regarding quality and character. It’s was just that idea that guys like Ben Franklin wanted to defeat through creating a country with a level playing field for everyone.

    Also, your analogy about past sea voyages versus current space voyages is completely irrational. Most of us know this from high school (a socialist program) that much of the sea exploration was to find things like spices. Giles Milton wrote a good book called Nathaniel’s Nutmeg about the subject. Later, people were looking for land for political and general crowding issues. Unless everything science has to say about our solar system is incorrect, I see no connection between exploring our Earth, and the solar system.


    There’s no spice, no land, and although there might be resources, under a capitalist society can you actually afford to get them?


    It’s absurd to “explore space” when most people haven’t even explored the Earth and that the Earth isn’t nearly as developed and livable as it should be. A relative of mine used to live in Haiti and people there still live in HOLES IN THE GROUND with metal plates over the hole for roofs. In light of that should we spend billions on traveling to Mars to find a desert worse than any on Earth? Should we spend a Gazillion dollars and fly to another solar system, find a nice planet, radio back via “hyperspace,” and find that there’s little excitement because most people don’t get TV in their holes?

    Currently, space travel is expensive foolishness.


    I love SF not for the science, but for the exploration of psychology, politics, philosophy, and alternate points of view. Voltaire was one of the first, if not the first, person to write SF stories and it was to explore issues people were dealing with on Earth.

    That’s what it’s for.

    SF for its our sake is akin to porn, as is space travel for that matter.

  17. Chris,

    You talk as if the 19th Century never happened. Did you ever see or read any Charles Dickens? You might want to read some history about Tenement buildings and whatnot in NYC. It was all pretty nasty.

    You know what made it all go away?

    Government regulation and the desire to make life better for people living on Earth.

  18. John C Wright,

    Right on!

    The “we are too poor to do it” argument would kill all human progress, including medical inventions and infrastructure (Invent better surgical instruments? Nope, too poor … Equip the hospital with better medicines? Nah, too many still half-fed … Better weapons? Who needs them? Oh, the Barbarians are now slaughtering all and sundry … hmmm, well, that takes care of the poor and hungry, sort of …).

    As you explained so well, the poor and the disadvantaged will be with us as long as we exist. Hopefully the definiton of “poor” will move upwards, but this is a problem that has to solved at the individual level and not by the State.

    China, for example, didn’t become (sadly, the only remaining) Superpower by moaning about poverty.

    And you are right, the Left does not want any progress, least of all into space. The Far Left actually wants humanity to die and leave Earth unpolluted! There was even a movement (or so I read) to declare other planets and suchlike as the equivalent of State Parks, thus precluding any human colonization in the distant future.

    Bottomline, we can either have the State/Leftists decide everything (oh, are they doing that already?) or we can have technological progress, especially into space, but not both.

    It is a shame that we don’t have more Billionaries with Brains like Sir Richard Branson (the man who bankrolled Spaceship One).  Such a group could (would have to?) create an arcology (i.e. an artifical country) with it’s own (conservative) rules and recruit the best and brightest of the world to do something worthwhile instead of being trial lawyers or corrupt politicians or even IT programmers.

    All the best,

    - Atish


  19. Man!

    There’s no comparison between past invention, exploration, and space travel.

    People living on Earth knew that other places had stuff such as spices, gold, etc and if they didn’t they hypothesized it. It makes sense to build a ship out of wood and float down to where they have tons of delicious sugar and get some. That’s a rational motive from many angles.

    It’s irrational to spent huge money and resources to go into space which is barren beyond belief. Between the barren spots lies distances so huge, they’re hard to conceive of. So, inventing a ship to travel the sea for a few months towards riches makes much more sense than making one which may take countless years, lifetimes, to get to nothing.

    It’s a false analogy.

  20. Atish,

    The philosophy of freedom rests on the concept that rules, laws, regulations, and ethics create freedom, not the absence of them.

    In the west a woman can walk down the street, get a job, own stuff, and tell you to F-off if she likes without much fear. She cannot be beaten, raped, mutilated or any such thing without the male who did it facing huge penalties both social and legal. Thus, heavy regulation regarding human impulses creates freedom for women.

    The same holds true for anything which has laws and social taboos attached to it. Letting people have free reign to follow their impulses tends to create corruption and oppression, not freedom.

    Again, this relates back to the space program.

  21. I’d have to agree only in part with Mr. Aldrin’s statement.  Science fiction on television and the silver screen (not to mention what appears in comics and on the Playstation) has morphed into space/techno-fantasy.  The disconnect between the reality and the romance is so large that people would choose the romance over the reality. 

    As others have mentioned, the failure of education in North America (I’m a Canadian and have watched our education system decline in much of the same fashion as the US – no fundamentists yet, though, thank God), the growing fear of risk, and the sheer expense of space travel have all contributed in a greater sense to our losing interest.  While NASA’s bureaucracy is indeed beyond help – maybe even beyond hope – I’m not convinced that private enterprise is the only way to go.  It seems to me that private companies can only operate with the short term – good news for space tourism and maybe mining the Moon, bad news for large scale colonization.  You’d need more of a quasi-religious attitude – i.e. the belief your efforts serve a Higher Purpose – to settle and terraform Mars, build O’Niell cylinders by the dozen, and send ships to the stars. 

    (That said, once you do have a self-sufficent population Out There, further colonization will become a fact of life – for them.  We on Earth might decide that there’s no further point).

    I’d also disagree both with John C. Wright and theAlderian.  First, I’m not entirely convinced that the concept of the so-called “socialist utopia” – by which I assume Mr. Wright means the drive for insuring everyone can afford food, medicine, and education without Working Like A Slave to get it – is incompatible with exploring and settling space.  If space exploration was tied Directly to our immediate survival (say, if the Sun was going to go off the main sequence in the next fifty years rather than the next five billion) then I might see the argument.  Right now, there is more than enough money in national budgets to finance space exploration – but there is indeed considerable waste both inside and outside the space program.  Military expenses are part of the problem.  The US, for example, has commissioned roughly half a trillion dollars to defense – I know that we still need armed forces but seriously, who is the US planning to fight that needs that big a price tag?  How many long-range nuclear missiles do you still have ready to fire?  How many aircraft carriers and stealth bombers are needed? 

    (Former President Dwight Eisenhower put it best, I think: “Every gun that is fired, every warship launched… signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed”.  Pulling that quote from memory so I admit it might not be 100% accurate – corrections are welcome). 

    Further, Mr. Wright’s statement that “the space industries of a hundred years from now will give us wealth” is I think, assuming the statement that the people doing the actual work in space will still want to send said wealth down a gravity well.  Unless we prefer to mine the asteroids completely with robots, sooner or later the miners will ask themselves “why should we bother” and Earth’s free ride will be over.  Besides, given current advances in nanotechnology and green technologies, I suspect we’ll see an Earth that will be able to generate nearly-zero waste and still feed, clothe, and educate everybody before we see asteroid mines.

    That said, theAlderian is indeed barking up the wrong tree – the most I’ve seen set aside for space exploration in national budgets would be on the order of one-half of one percent.  That’s pretty small, and wouldn’t go very far if you tried to spread it around.  And space exploration does give us a return on our investment.  It provides knowledge we need not just for knowledge’s sake but for practical benefit (our continued efforts to understand and predict changes in our climate, for example, depend on careful studies of the Earth from space, not to mention studies of the Sun and the environments of Venus and Mars) and it inspires.  There are pure sulphur volcanoes on Io, Titan is in many ways like Earth in that it has seas and rivers, islands and continents, but also is wonderfully different.  Jupiter has a storm the size of Earth which has raged for centuries.  There are worlds unlike anything we have imagined that revolve around alien suns, even worlds that have no sun.  How can anyone look at these wonders and not be awestruck? 

    Yes we need to help those who are poor – but we need not give up the stars to do so. 

  22. TheAdlerian,

    I commend you on your good heart.

    However, if mankind stays on Earth, it will use up all its natural resources eventually and then return to the caves. It may not even take very long, really! And no matter how much many people yearn for the simple life, they would find it an unbearable and brutish existence were it to be imposed on them.

    Producing off-earth Energy and mining metals from the asteroids are doable, provided Big Government gets off the back of private enterprise. You are right in that doing all this in space will be expensive and will probably take a long time. So why not guarantee that there won’t be ANY taxes on ANY profits, never mind how huge, made from stuff made/found/mined in space for say the next 1000 years? But catch Big Brother giving such a guarantee …

    By the way, here are a few interesting articles on current topics for you to look at:

    Fred on guns:


    (I recommend reading his Cop columns too)

    Orson Scott Card on The One:



    All the best,

    - Atish

  23. So the lack of public interest in space exploration is because of those darn socialists and “leftists”?

    Okay, gotcha!

  24. Um, for some reason my post sometime back was “held” for review by the Blog owners – I am sorry if I have stepped on any toes – and so that this gets through, I am posting as Anonymous.

    - A t i s h

  25. Atish,

    Thanks for the compliment.

    Unless some major error has occurred in physics, which is possible, humanity will be trapped on this planet until it dies. We just can’t get anywhere.

    Sometimes I think that’s why we’ve never heard from aliens, perhaps humanity has some collective mental illness regarding existential issues which aliens don’t. It makes much more sense to build and maximize what you have instead of searching around for something impossible to reach. Maybe we’re the only ones looking.


    As far as I know iron is the most abundant substance on Earth so I doubt we need to go looking for more. I have seen it said that on Titan there’s lakes of natural gas, so that could be something. But, I also understand that getting near them might blow them up.

    Also, a fixed economy would make the kind of construction possible, not a capitalist one. I like to call it crapitalism because eventually capitalists will make crap and charge the max for it. A fix economy cuts down on the incentive to steal and cut corners, because there’s no reward for it.

    Whatever the case, the Earth will continue on in some form or another.

  26. John C. Wright identifies the problem in the general ossification of our nanny-state societies, and the lack of viable business models able to generate enough short-term returns. Real space business currently means telecom, surveillance and positioning/navigation sats, but there is no evidently profitable business beyond geostationary orbit. Instead of the Apollo program we now have dinosaur space agencies afraid of their own shadow, and dinosaur big companies only interested in space if they can win a fat contract from NASA etc., without event thinking of mid-term return. Grab the money, burn half in useless me-too planetary missions, and keep the other half. My recipe for a solution: get big space agencies out of the way and give the initiative back to space interest groups and P2P networks, and small innovative companies.


    Giulio Prisco – http://cosmeng.org/index.php/Giulio_Prisco

  27. I have to say, I think Astronaut Aldrin has fallen into an error here.  The specific error I have in mind is the idea that showing people someting beyond what’s possible causes them depreciate what is possible.  Would I like to zipping off to Omicron Ceti 5 on the Starship Enterprise, or taking the TransMat to the Moon for the price of a phone call?  Sure, who wouldn’t?  That doesn’t mean I have any less interest in what I can do here & now.

    Parenthetically, it’s the same misconception Protestant authors like to hand out about the medieval Catholic Church — that by promising people “pie in the sky”, it distracted them from creating real solutions to the problems of the here-and-now.  If you actually take a look at the development of Europe during the Middle Ages, & the Church’s role in that, you will soon see that the rise in living standards, technical capabilities, & so on was quite impressive given population, available resources, &c. (remembering that iron smelting, for example, was limited by the availability of fuel, & increased production levels came close to deforesting Europe by the end of the XIV century), & that the great monastic & religious centres were more often than not also centres of progress.


    I do find it incredible that anyone is still making those tired old claims about how it’s “too expensive to go into space”, & there “isn’t anything we need there”.  If nothing else, there’s one resource of the inner Solar System which is too expensive not to go out & get :  energy.  Agriculture today is dependent on fossil fuels, & without modern agriculture the carrying capacity of the planet would collapse.  Take away the coal, oil, & gas,  & don’t replace them, & you lose between 2/3 & 5/6 of your agricultural production.  The result is famine, plague, mass starvation, & the end of civilization, & shortly before that a mass extinction of flora & fauna as desperate people clear every square inch of land for crops & eat anything that isn’t instantly, fatally poisonous (including, in the end, each other).  Fossil fuels are a limited resource which imposes loads on the environment, & energy consumption rates are increasing.  Truth to tell, they’re not increasing fast enough — people are “living in holes in the ground” in a lot of places because industrial production isn’t furnishing them the wherewithal to live in houses (whether the distribution system is capitalistic, communistic, or something else again, the stuff has to be produced before anyone can use it).

    How can we feed that growth?  There are three major possibilities.  One is fusion power, but that hasn’t yet proven successful.  Another is a massive increase in nuclear energy production, using uranium & thorium breeder cycles, & capturing the energy in “nuclear waste” for process heat or other uses.  While some expansion of nuclear energy is clearly called for, there are serious problems with making nuclear the dominant global energy source.  The third method is space solar power, which the Department of Energy concluded in 1978 was a cost-effective method of providing baseload power generation.  (I am counting out most “alternatives” for fairly simple reasons :  the usefulness of primary biofuels, for example, is limited because they compete for arable land with food crops, while solar & wind can pick up a certain amount of the load but are neither dense enough nor consistent enough to furnish industrial power, even if we take massive efficiency measures.)

    We have every reason to belive that building solar-electric generating stations in geosynchronous orbit & relaying the energy generated down to Earth is fully practicable.  While use of extraterrestrial resources, from the Moon or asteroids, would make it easier & more cost-effective, the fact is that it could even be done from Earth.  As Max Hunter pointed out in his book Thrust Into Space, the velocity (energy per unit mass) required to get to Earth orbit is comparable to that required to fly from Los Angeles to Sydney, when you figure in what the plane loses to air drag.  The jet plane has a better payload mass fraction, because it achieves a better specific impulse by using the air as oxidizer & reaction mass, but the cost of propellant for currently-operating liquid-propellant space launch vehicles is much less than a tenth of the total per-launch price.  On the physics of the situation, we should be able to drop the per-pound cost significantly without ANY fundamental changes in our approach — using plain rockets, not Verne guns or Myrabo Death-Star-powered ramjets or anything exotic at all.

    Add in the ability to get raw materials, such as iron, nickel, & platinum from asteroids without creating a significant ecological impact on Earth (unlike, say, stripmining for iron ore & shearing the tops off mountains to get coal, in order to make steel) ;  add in the protection we need from cosmic impacts which could prove disastrous beyond belief to a high-population-density, globally-interconnected society such as we must have in a world of six thousand millions ;  add in the need for a “way out”, psychological as well as material, lack of which is an integral part of the despair & crime of economically-depressed societies including the American inner city ;  and then ask yourself just exactly how expensive a “space program” could be.

    In the long run, the lack of habitable planets in the Solar System is irrelevant.  As Gerard O’Neill was fond of saying, in the long run a planetary surface is not the best place for a technological civilization, & we can build hundreds of times the habitable surface area of the Earth using available resources.  In the short run, space development would cost easily an order of magnitude less than what is already being spent on poor relief, a sum which would make no difference (since poor relief, unlike industrial investment, does not compound).


    Coming full circle back to our original topic, it isn’t too much imagination that’s our problem, but too little.  Our government leaders won’t commit resources to space because they can’t imagine it being useful, or because they can’t imagine anything beyond the next election cycle.  Our business leaders, ditto ditto, can’t see beyond the next quarterly report.  It’s not a matter of capitalism vs. socialism, two incredibly flawed models (at least as we use them today), one of which denies that man has any duties to his fellow & the other of which tries to wash out those duties with an inefficient & ineffective use of State power (which is nothing but violence, as Lenin used to say openly).  It’s a matter of too few people with the imagination to understand the benefits of what space could mean having the imagination, also, to realize that they can pool their resources & act without waiting for the government & business behemoths.  Frankly, in my opinion, the problem with SF today is too few authors writing, for want of a better word, “conceivable science fiction”, & too many writing transhumanist novels, or fantasies with elves & dragons, or other stories which are in some sense irrelevant to what we have the chance to do.  (It’s not that I mind people writing about that kind of thing ;  indeed I like to read those stories too.  I just thing the balance is too far over to one side.)  So I’ve been buying & handing out copies of books like Prelude to Space & The Green Hills of Earth.  It’s time to get people imagining again, because Man can only do what he’s first dreampt of.

  28. Publius,

    There’s no need to spread growth to lift people out of holes in the ground. You have STOP “growth” to do that.

    The problem is that capitalism is extremely wasteful and burns through resources. For instance, items such as cars (not Japanese ones) are made to rust and break to force replacement, there’s twenty types of shampoo with the same ingredients, if in an unattractive package they won’t get purchased, people are encouraged to constantly redecorate homes which are in perfectly good condition, and so forth. Capitalism make redundant products, ones of poor quality, and encourages constant consumerism. If this was stopped or at least slowed to a great degree, then resources could be spread around and we would use far less of them.

    It’s insane to not do this in favor of traveling trillions of miles to maybe find more crap to burn through.

  29. Half of John C. Wright’s brain needs to connect with the other half.

    The half that can say something as cogent as this:

    <i>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. […] 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.</i>

    or this:

    <i>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.</i>

    needs to take the half that tics out drivel like this in between:

    <i>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.</i>

    –gently by the hand and explain to it that without food and shelter, vanity projects are indeed a vanity of vanities, of interest only to the idle rich, and that there’s little that’s admirable in building pyramids on Mars, so to speak, while your peasants starve and scrape to get by and mostly fail in the desperate scrabble over the remaining scraps when the lion’s share has gone to such Ozymandian projects. (Also to cancel its <i>National Review</i> subscription, and to take it outside more to actually meet other human beings than the ghosts and shadows that haunt the minds of the editors of NRO.)

    As far as the problems of the practicality of space programs, I addressed this long ago in an essay <a href=http://oddlots.digitalspace.net/orrery/articles/widgets.html target=”blank”>(“Fixing the Widgets”)</a> written in response to a bit of dishonest right-wing (but I repeat myself) frothing (ditto) astroturf (“Environmentalists killed the Space Shuttle”) and the problems of <i>telos</i> as well as logistics, although when I first overheard the to-me-heretical argument against manned exploration at a Boskone, my own knee-jerk reacion was “Avaunt! Get thee behind me” etc.

    But both my decades-long NASA fangirling, and my reluctant concession that our current and forseeable manned space program was not practical, came via SF: the old corny space operas of <i>Lost in Space<i> and <i>Star Wars</i> and <i>Star Blazers</i> for the first, and the more complicated political and economic tales of Cherryh and Moon, as well as actual first-hand-sourced world history, forcing me to ask what, exactly, are we trying to achieve, what steps must be taken to accomplish it, what do we need that we don’t have to make it work – and who is it going to benefit, and how?

    So Aldrin’s claim that SF is to blame, is as much nonsense as the claim – old in the 1920s! when it was regularly made, too – that the problem is that Americans have lost Ye Manly Pioneer Spirit and become a bunch of sissy girls who don’t have the nuts to go kill strangers/take their treasure that Wright makes. As well to blame the failures of colonialism on the popularity of romanticizing pulp fiction in turn-of-the-last-century Europe, or the disasters of sundry tropical expeditions on the popularity of <i>Amadis de Gaul</i> etc in 16th and 17th-century Spain, rather than the logistic and systemic problems in transport, administration, and again, and always, of <i>qui bono!</i>

    –Unfortunately, too much of the defense of space exploration, the part of it that doesn’t just go “Waaah!! But I WANT my flying car!!!” tends to follow the model of:

    1. Collect underpants.

    2. ???

    3. Profit!


  30. Bell,

    Treasure is worthless.

    Seriously, think about it. It’s animistic to run around stealing shiny objects and wanting to do cool, yet pointless things, just for the feeling. The pyramids are a great example of human folly regarding this.

    I’ve read Herodotus and his account of some of the activity surrounding the monuments in Egypt, and they’re ridiculous. For instance, to make the sphinx, the king sent 30k people a huge distance away to drag this giant block of stone back to the location. The pyramids and all of it were build to honor kings who were at heart average people, not gods, and in tribute to religions which were no more real than any other.

    So, all that work and material went to that nonsense instead to building Egypt up on a rational basis.

    There seems to be some “program” in people to focus on fantastic stuff over the practical, sometimes to really bad ends.

  31. Anyone truly interested in going into space isn’t going to bother with fiction, beyond a certain point.

    It was never really a “space” program.  The basic reason for doing it was to threaten the USSR and to show that capitalism was better than communism.  Once the spy satellites were working properly, and the USSR had backed down from harrassing the USA, the US government lost interest in science and exploration for their own sakes.

    I think he’s wrong, but he’s quite correct.  Sci-fi itself has changed from space operas to fantasies tinged with sex and distopic anger; it’s changed to something away from hardware and exploration, to a genre that sells better to a dazed and frustrated populace.   The themes of sci-fi now are not those of a sci-fi novel of the space era.   Sci-fi is now “Terminator” instead of “Destination:Moon.”  That’s what sells, and that’s what’s going to be made. 

    It may be worth noting that the move to the American West was not a government program.  Would it have continued if the Indians had not fought back?  Perhaps Americans need familiar opposition in order to think anything is worth doing.


    If there’s a basic cause of loss of interest in the young, it’s probably related to education.  For whatever reason, teachers now don’t seem to have the same interest or ability to teach about space.  To be fair, teachers now have to face classroom problems that teachers of the 50s and 60s would have sent to the principal’s office for removal from school.   It seems that teachers now are forced to spend a lot of time trying to lift the less-capable students to the same leve las the ones with normal capabilities, which means that “normal” children are going to lose interest in school.



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