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posted Monday 3 February 2003

Columbia, and the Dreams of Science Fiction

by Gary Westfahl
1 February 2003

On this most horrible of days, along with all of the normal emotions of shock and sadness, I cannot suppress some inappropriate stirrings of rage.

For the past three decades, we have endured the rhetoric of innumerable self-appointed experts — many of them part of, or associated with, the science fiction community — assuring us that space travel would be safe, easy, and cheap if only NASA would listen to smart people like them. In the tiniest of ways, they contributed to the widespread feeling that journeys into space should be routine and unproblematic, to the old complacency that led to the Challenger disaster and to the revived complacency shattered by today's events. I'm sure they won't, but they should freely admit that, once again, they have been proven dead wrong.

I said it once before, but perhaps I should say it more forcefully: space travel is by far the most technologically difficult and inherently dangerous task that the human race has ever attempted. If you refuse to accept that, I don't care how many degrees you have, you've lost touch with reality.

In a sense, however, delusions about the ease and manageability of space flight were understandable. The development of atmospheric flight proceeded far more quickly and smoothly than anyone had a right to expect. In a few decades, humanity went from a handful of single-pilot biplanes hesitatingly venturing a few hundred feet above the ground to jet planes, supersonic flight, and regular commercial flights to all corners of the globe. So, it might have seemed reasonable to assume that merely going a bit higher up, into regions beyond the atmosphere and Earth's gravity, would pose no significant hurdles.

And the emerging genre of twentieth-century science fiction picked up that speculative ball and ran with it. From its beginnings in the pulp magazines, science fiction fandom was intertwined with societies of enthusiastic amateur scientists building miniature rockets in their backyards and dreaming of greater things to come. By the 1950s, the inevitability of humanity's rapid progress into space had become absolutely central to science fiction's advances into new fields such as movies, television, and children's fiction. An entire generation grew up reading and watching countless stories about plucky young adventurers embarking upon the conquest of space in manners that precisely mimicked the sailors who conquered the oceans and the pilots who conquered the skies.

The trouble was, pushing a vehicle out of Earth's gravity well into the vacuum of space, keeping its occupants alive, and safely maneuvering them back home turned out to be a heckuva lot more difficult than sailing across an ocean or flying over a mountain range. You needed vast amounts of volatile fuel, expensive state-of-the-art technology, coordinated teams of constantly active supercomputers, and a small army of technicians on the ground continually monitoring every aspect of the vehicle's performance. And even with all of that stuff, things could still go horribly wrong, and there would be nothing that anybody could do about it.

What happened to the Columbia crushingly invalidates all the cozy dramas of science fiction's space adventures. If something was going wrong during the shuttle's reentry, couldn't an intrepid pilot have seized the controls and kept it safe with deftly improvised maneuvers, like Clint Eastwood in Space Cowboys? No. As television commentators patiently explained, taking an orbiting spaceship moving at twenty times the speed of sound and slowing it down for a soft landing while plummeting through Earth's atmosphere is far, far too complex for any human to manage; only banks of computers can direct the operations. If old Clint had been at the helm of the Columbia, it would have disintegrated even faster than it did. Or, if there was a problem with the thermal tiles, as some are speculating, couldn't the astronauts have gone out on a spacewalk, inspected the damage, and fixed it, like those astronauts who repaired their antenna in Destination Moon? No. As NASA officials patiently explained during their press conference, the astronauts on this mission didn't have the equipment to go out and look under their spacecraft, and even if they had observed terrible damage to the tiles, they couldn't have corrected the problem. The tiles are too precisely constructed, fitted, and attached to be amenable to any spit-and-duct-tape solutions.

Now, some people will say — some people are already saying — that there was only one real problem: NASA shamefully neglected to properly address some vital aspect of the mission and thus allowed the disaster to occur. But I'll let others play the blame game; I simply don't have the heart to castigate people given an impossible job. When there are six million, four hundred and twenty thousand, three hundred and ninety-six known ways for a project to go wrong, you don't snarl at the manager for failing to anticipate potential problem number six million, four hundred and twenty thousand, three hundred and ninety-seven.

Given the technology we have today, space travel is just too darn difficult. We've been stretching our capacities to the limit, and we've been doing our damnedest, but America has still launched over 150 space missions and has watched three of them end in catastrophic failure. A 2% failure rate just isn't acceptable; would trains or jets be in use today if there was a 2% chance that every trip would end in disaster?

Now, many will respond that this is the language of small-mindedness, of cowardice, of defeatism. President Bush and NASA keep saying that America must put this tragedy aside and continue humanity's journey through space. We must get the shuttle fleet up and running again while exploring new ways to better conquer the universe, such as the current administration's brilliant idea of sending a nuclear-powered spacecraft to Mars (imagine the effects of the Columbia break-up if there had been a reactor on board). Yet continuing to strive against impossible odds is noble and admirable only if there is a demonstrably worthwhile purpose in sight.

Why, at this particular moment in our history, must humanity conquer space?

There is no immediate need for any of the resources available in space, and transporting them back to Earth at the present time would be too costly to be economically viable. We can't send people into space fast enough to do anything about the population explosion. There's a tremendous amount of scientific information to be garnered in space and on other worlds, but unmanned missions are currently providing enough data to keep the researchers busy. Some may be fascinated by the prospect of traveling into unknown territories, but there are still realms on Earth that are rarely visited and poorly understood. An encounter with alien life would certainly be stimulating, but there's no chance of finding it anywhere in our immediate vicinity. And someday, it would be nice to have some humans living in space, to keep the species alive should Earth be rendered uninhabitable, but it will be decades, if not centuries, before people in orbit or on other planets can be genuinely self-sufficient.

In sum, there's a strong case to make that humanity should eventually conquer space, but not much of a case that we should be struggling to do so right now.

However, the logical arguments in favor of space travel long advanced by impassioned advocates have always been a smokescreen in any event. The real reason why so many people feel this compulsion to carry on with space travel is simple enough.

We must conquer space because science fiction has told us to.

We must conquer space because that is the way science fiction said it was going to be. After beginning with small steps into Earth orbit, we must build space stations, travel to the Moon, Mars, and other nearby planets, and set up human colonies wherever we go — a process that science fiction writers in the 1950s and 1960s thought we would complete well before the year 2001. Then, we must ready ourselves for ventures into interstellar space, encounters with alien life, and the formation of a galaxy-spanning Federation of Planets. We must conquer space so that our children can be Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and so that our great-grandchildren can be Captain Kirk.

This is the dream that the people at NASA grew up with, the dream that has driven them and their supporters to keep plugging away at the conquest of space, in spite of mounting and persuasive evidence indicating that this quite possibly doesn't really represent the very best use of their time and resources. This is the dream that will soon push our aging shuttle fleet back into orbit, fitted up with thousands of modifications and quick fixes, and this is the dream that will lead NASA to finance the construction of new alternatives to the shuttle, all bringing with them their own huge sets of impossible new technological challenges.

You've got to admire the astounding power of a form of literature that can keep inspiring people to do silly things.

But you've also got to wonder, especially on the days when those things go horribly wrong, whether this is necessarily an admirable quality.

Gary Westfahl is the author, editor, or co-editor of twelve books about science fiction and fantasy, most recently Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy and Unearthly Visions: Approaches to Science Fiction and Fantasy Art. He writes a bimonthly column for the science fiction magazine Interzone, and is the 2003 recipient of the Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to SF and fantasy scholarship.

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