Space Travel: Fiction Versus Reality
Why humans won’t explore the stars, or even our own solar system
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…