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Science Fiction And Interest In Space Exploration

Brice Russ is a guest blogger over at The Launch Pad, the Google Lunar X Prize blog, and he’s written an interesting little post about science fiction’s place vis a vis interest in spaceflight. He starts out noting that most current readers of The Launch Pad have a deep seated interest in space flight as a result of either having grown up between the Apollo missions and the first Shuttle flights, or because of a background in science fiction be it reading or watching. At least for me, he’s right on both counts.

He then turns his attention to what kids, teenagers especially, have been reading lately: Harry Potter and Twilight. Aside from the obvious fantasy-ness of these series, Russ asks whether a childhood devoid of science fiction blinds someone to the possibilities of space exploration and colonization. And let’s not forget all the non-fiction books about space that are available to be read. I’ll pose his question, with addendum, for you all to comment on:

Does the predominance of Harry Potter over science fiction bode well or ill for the future of public spaceflight support? What science fiction and non-fiction books would you give to a child or teenager to inspire them about space exploration?


I think the time is ripe to start firing up people’s imaginations. The current Space Shuttle program is set to end of life sometime in 2010. At that point, NASA has contracted with the Russian space program to ferry astronauts to the ISS on Soyuz rockets until the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle comes online sometime in 2014 or later. Current interest in space is very low and the passing of the Shuttle certainly won’t help. But, when Orion gets closer to completion we’re going to see a surge of interest again. What better way to help than to prime the pump now? Here are my thoughts:

For science fiction, I’d hand out Ender’s Game and Orbiter to the teens and Larklight for the younger set.

As for non-fiction, I liked The High Frontier by Gerard K. O’Neill so much I did a project in high school on it arguing for manned colonization of space. I also really liked This New Ocean for a concise history of the space race. I’d also hand out copies Apollo XIII. Good stuff.

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

5 Comments on Science Fiction And Interest In Space Exploration

  1. Frankly, these days, I think the future of space flight bodes ill for the future of space flight. there is nothing to get excited about. It saddens me — as someone who gets weak-kneed and excited whenever a space-shuttle launch is shown, as someone who has many huge and heavy books full of astronomical information and pictures — that kids have no interest in space travel at all.

    But why would they?

    It is not interesting. NASA is mostly, when it comes to outer space, a joke. A clumsy buffoon. What we mostly have from the past fifteen years to say about NASA is in the form of jokes. They missed Mars with a probe because someone didn’t convert their metrics. Their space boats are mechnically unsound. We have had some fatal, catastrophic shuttle disasters, and they have all been mechnical. NASA is still going across-country in a 1930’s car, while everyone else is experimenting with Hybrids.

    We no longer have a great speech that gives us the words “The eyes of the world…now look into space.” Instead, the eyes of the world turn toward the middle-east. Or the checkbook. Or the internet.

    What’s to be excited about? What’s to be fired about?

    I think we desperately need to invigorate the young imagination into a love of space travel, and I hope that something as smashingly-successful as the new Star Trek film maybe does just that. Will it? I don’t know. I think first, we need to give them a reason to be excited about it, not only in fiction, but outside of it.

    We need a space race. And we need it to matter. Inside and out of fiction.

    We need to go to the stars.

    From Babylon 5. A reporter asks Commander Sinclair if the unrest back on Earth is right: if the cost and risks of being in space is too much, and if we should really just go back home. And Commander Sinclair says something I’ve never forgotten, which I quote for you:

    “No. We have to stay here and there’s a simple reason why. Ask ten different scientists about the environment, population control, genetics and you’ll get ten different answers, but there’s one thing every scientist on the planet agrees on. Whether it happens in a hundred years or a thousand years or a million years, eventually our Sun will grow cold and go out. When that happens, it won’t just take us. It’ll take Marilyn Monroe and Lao-Tzu, Einstein, Morobuto, Buddy Holly, Aristophanes .. and all of this .. all of this was for nothing unless we go to the stars.” (

    Fantasy always rises when science fiction flags. Bigger and wiser minds than I have probably come up with very good reasons why that is. I dunno myself.

    I think part of it is that, like many people, I expected to grow up and live in an Isaac Asimov future. I expected a Star Trek future. And then I grew up, and so did others, and we discovered that actually, we were living in a Philip K. Dick world, a William Gibson world. It is pure science fiction, and some of it is recognizable (I shamelessly admit that one huge reason I bought a slim touch-screen phone was that it makes me feel like I’ve got a tricorder) and a lot of it (the internet is a big one, but also there’s GPS and Google Maps and Google Earth and everything else you want).

    And so, despite needing science fiction more (which is, essentially, optimistic literature: good or bad, in the future, we are still here), we are living in such a maelstrom that we escape. Into Harry Potter, or Twilight, or whatever you like.

    I guess I don’t mind, in that those books teach things too. Harry Potter can teach you to be good and brave and loyal and stand up for yourself. Twilight can, um, teach you to be a simpering moron. Or something.

    The point I’m making is, what’s there to be excited about? Even when the Orion shuttle appears, it’ll be trivial interest. We have a space station, and that’s only interesting when the toilet system fails and everyone wonders “so THEN what do you do?”

    We need an external reason to get people excited in space. Previously, it was “beat the Russians.” But now, it’s just, like, you know, we should probably, you know, go or something. Where is the impetus to go to Mars?

    If this is an all-over-the-place answer, it’s because it was a question that had already been filling up my head, off and on, for some time now. And if I’m wildly off-topic, well, it’s cheerfully so.

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    Here’s a link to a PDF listing the books, DVDs and other media on board the International Space Station. Someone requested it through the Freedom of Information Act.

    Lots of SF on the shelves:

    http://www.governmentattic.org/docs/ISS_Media_2008.pdf

    tbob

  3. Like what you’re saying, Pete, but if we do go to the stars it will probably not be for another thousand years. Certainly not in the lifetimes of anyone now alive and almost certainly not in their grandchildren’s or great-grandchildren’s times either.

    If you were born around when Sputnik went up, you’ve been waiting your whole life for a moonbase. And it still seems distant, as in “you may die first”. The trouble with technology as a savior is that the timeframes for advances are unpredictable and uneven. Powerful computers went from things that took up entire rooms to things you could put in your pocket in three generations. Fusion reactors have gone just about nowhere in that time, and cures for cancer are scarcely better. Human spaceflight has taken several baby steps, fallen down and hurt itself a few times, and is still taking baby steps at this point. We don’t know if we could send people to Mars and have them come back alive even with working spaceships, when all the variables like exposure to radiation, absence of earth’s gravitational and magnetic fields, prolonged isolation from other people, etc., are factored in.

    And the longer it takes for technological solutions to be found, the more other basic problems intrude, like energy resources, public enthusiasm, longevity and stability of political systems and economies, outbursts of mass irrationality and ethnic or religious fanaticism, “short victorious wars” that get out of control, etc. We may have to come up with slightly saner ways of dealing with those things before we get around to serious space travel. Which, after reviewing just the 20th Century, appears to be not an easy task.

    I could read Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein growing up and feel like they were not preposterously out of step with what was possible, based on what grown-ups were saying. Couldn’t do that nowadays. We need somebody to be writing an Norton-Heinlein type of young person’s book that is more realistic about the possibilities for space travel, given what we know now.

  4. Very well put, Chris. Spot on. I am aware that, in my wife’s iPhone, is a gadget that is in a lot of ways more sophisticated and smoother and better than most of the computers, and the tricorders, on Star Trek. And yet…THEY had an Enterprise, with warp drive, gravity, life support, etc. And we have trouble getting functional space toilets

     

    Heinlein is SUCH a good writer to bring up here: his juviniles are amazing things, and should be required reading before you’re fifteen. My wife is a big Andre Norton fan, and we have a huge shelf of her books that we’ve been amassing off eBay and other places for years, and I agree: we do need someone like them. And someone like Isaac Asimov.

     

    I think that right now, we have a lot of speculative fiction, and not a lot of space-based science fiction.

    And further, I agree that relying on technology can be tricky because of the uneveness of it. Frankly, I think putting too much of our weight on technology is a bad idea in the first place. It’s not evil, and I’m no luddite, but I do think we rush a little too quickly and blindly over that cliff without considering how far down it is, and what’s down there. Says the man who has been gleefully bashing out a story on a Royal manual typewriter for two days now.

    We need a reason to drive to space. I don’t have faith in our leaders, and I don’t particularly think that the world is set up, right now, for an “eyes of the world now look into space…” type of speech to have the same effect as it once would have. But we need a reason. I think we need to give kids the science fiction books to inspire them and fill their heads with stars and starships — the way mine was — but we ALSO need a world in which people say “we must go to space, but how? and who can take us there?” and then these young people step up…and shine.

    When I was young, I fully intended to be living on a moon colony. Or a Mars colony! As I got older, I revised that to “Maybe I’ll be buried on the moon.” These days, I occasionally just hope, in a grumpy sort of way, that there’s still a moon floating around when I die. Maybe they can fire me AT the moon. And miss. 😉

  5. Look, all I ask for is a space elevator, O’Neill colonies, a lunar habitat, a domed metropolis on Mars, and using the asteroid belt to construct a Dyson Sphere, within my lifetime.

    Or a lifetime running from one ruined city-state to another pursued by from vat-grown assassin-class cyber-Yakuza.

    Either way…

     

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