Space Travel: Fiction Versus Reality
In general, people have an endearing tendency to believe what they see depicted in Hollywood entertainments. This is why most people imagine that they need only stroll off into the sunset hand-in-hand with their beloved to enjoy an eternal happy-ever-after as the credits roll. It’s why people think that you can restart a heart with a defibrillator. It’s why juries convict on the basis of entirely unreliable DNA evidence. The list of follies we commit because we can’t discern the difference between fiction and reality is to all intents and purposes endless.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the topic of space exploration should be rife with confusion. Hardly anyone, including a lot of folks working at NASA who ought really to know better, fails to conflate Hollywood space cowboy fantasies with achievable and reasonable goals. In addition, politicians have nearly zero interest in funding actual science; they all want their names associated with telegenic but scientifically worthless stunts involving pushing humans briefly out of Earth’s gravity well at exorbitant expense. The general public, everyone knows, has no curiosity about what’s out there unless it involves people floating around and mugging for the camera or, better yet, humanoid-shaped aliens with bulging eyes and a deeply probing expression. As the latter will never exist, we must make do with the former.
The list of reasons people invent to justify squandering hundreds of billions of dollars provide amusement if not coherence. Some claim that “humans have always been explorers, wanting to know what’s out there.” This is hilariously wide of the mark. DNA evidence shows us that more than 99% of all humans who have ever lived did so within eight kilometers (five miles) of their place of birth. Only since the 1960s and the advent of cheap mass tourism (thank you, Boeing 747) have the great mass of ordinary people ventured more widely. For all of human history the only reason people moved away from home was because of exogenous pressures such as invasion, crop failure, or catastrophe.
Some naïve souls babble nonsense like “Columbus found America because he wanted to explore.” While this demonstrates the lack of meaningful education provided by the typical US school, it doesn’t actually stand up as an argument. Columbus’ voyages were supposed to find an alternative route to India and thereby make his sponsors (and himself) rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Unfortunately for all concerned, Columbus was a pretty useless navigator which is why when he bumped into the Bahamas he thought he’d reached his destination. This is the reason indigenous natives of North America are still called “Indians” despite the real India being many thousands of kilometers distant.
Other still more innocent souls think that because it was possible to sail across an Earthly ocean in a wooden boat it is therefore axiomatic that people can equally easily cross the vast reaches of space. Apparently, the fact that wherever you go on Earth there’s still a breathable atmosphere and gravity and the shielding of the Earth’s magnetic field and places to resupply with fresh water and food, means that ocean sailing is precisely equivalent to being in space. Well, except for the lack of gravity, the lack of atmosphere, the presence of highly lethal solar radiation, and nowhere to resupply with anything at all. But we can ignore those tiny meaningless differences because we’ve all seen Star Trek and Star Wars and the people in those shows were doing fine, which proves space is a comfy old place in which to zip around in shiny ships.
(For anyone who thinks artificial gravity is the answer, click here)
Nor is there any scientific reason to push humans into space. The ISS is a pointless boondoggle that has burned vast sums of taxpayer money without yielding a single scientific insight that couldn’t have been achieved for 0.01% of the cost far earlier. Sending people back to the moon and to Mars is likewise a hideous waste of resources. There is literally nothing whatsoever that humans can do at enormous expense that robotic missions can’t do better, faster, and infinitely more cheaply.
Furthermore, once we get past the fool’s dream of Mars, we discover that trying to get to other planets will take years. Who wants to be stuck in a small confined space for several years just to orbit a gas giant and then spend several more years returning to Earth, all the while being made sicker and sicker by solar radiation? If this sounds like a good career choice for you, Amazon is still hiring warehouse personnel.
The excessively optimistic shout about cryogenic suspended animation, artificial gravity, wondrous new propulsion technologies, and clever ways to generate a magnetic field strong enough to deflect lethal radiation. But that’s no different from claiming that one day magic will be real and we will all send our children to Hogwarts. It’s easy to conjure up fantastical notions, entirely free from the harsh realities of physics, engineering, and cost. It’s also utterly pointless and self-deluding. Why not just claim that someone will invent the whizfiction drive and we’ll all be magically whisked to whatever destination we desire simply by clicking our hi-tech ruby slippers together?
We will, eventually, learn the error of our ways. People will die horribly on Mars or on route. At some point someone will notice that 99.5% of everything we’ve learned about the universe has been discovered thanks to technology, not because of people stumbling around in bulky pressure suits waiting to die due to some inevitable system malfunction.
For a tiny fraction of the money that’s been totally wasted on the ISS we could have sent hundreds of robotic missions out across our solar system and by now learned enormous amounts about whether or not there’s life on Europa and whether Titan’s methane-based ecosystem can support life of a very different sort than has evolved here on Earth. We could have dirigibles floating in the benign upper atmosphere of Venus, scanning the ground below and relaying data from landers and probes. We could be delving deeper into Jupiter and Saturn, and we could ne enormously adding to our nearly non-existent knowledge of Neptune and Uranus. We could have sent probes far out into the Oort cloud and we could have established ultra-long-baseline astronomical instruments that would make Hubble look like a child’s disposable camera by comparison.
But instead we’re enriching fanboy billionaires like Musk, paying them to shuttle supplies to the entirely pointless ISS while they simultaneously clutter low Earth orbit with hundreds of satellites that are exterminating all hope of continuing with terrestrial astronomy.
The missed opportunities are literally incalculable.
It’s lamentable that we humans only ever seem to do what makes sense after we’ve first exhausted our capacity for doing all the wrong things and thereby creating enormous amounts of waste and damage. I won’t live to see our species adopt a fractionally less ridiculous approach to spacefaring, but I hope my children may, in their dotage, have the satisfaction of seeing a more scientifically valuable ambition beginning to emerge. Perhaps someone will need to find a way to make Hollywood churn out space cowboy movies in which autonomous robotic missions provide thrills and spills, so as to nudge the general public toward a vague realization that Star Trek is, like all the other mass-market entertainments, an entirely unreliable guide to the real universe.
These entertainments and the pointless missions they encourage show us nothing we don’t already know.
Meanwhile the real marvels remain undiscovered, because we’re too busy playing children’s games in the sand.