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Tuesday 18 March 2008

"Tunnel Vision and the Unfarmed Sky:
Columbia, and the Dreams of Science Fiction, Five Years Later"

by Gary Westfahl

Just over five years ago, on the date of the Columbia disaster — February 1, 2003 — I wrote an essay for Locus Online arguing that this was not the right time in human history to pursue a vigorous space program, and suggesting that our stubborn determination to continue venturing into space at this time was due in large part to the influence of science fiction, which falsely promoted the idea that space travel was safe and easy. To say the least, these messages were not well received in the science fiction community, and after pondering the vociferously negative reactions (,, and elsewhere), I wrote a brief response and privately resolved to say nothing further about the space program for the next five years, in print or at conventions, breaking this vow only to make a requested contribution to a Chinese friend's website.

My decision to remain silent about this issue was not a matter of cowardice. I had said many unpopular things before February 1, 2003, and I have said many unpopular things since that time; manifestly, I have never been afraid to make myself unpopular. Rather, I felt that there was really no point in saying anything else about the subject at the time, since no arguments could possibly be effective in the face of such overwhelming denial.

Now, in the hope that moods are calmer and certain truths more evident than ever, I will finally venture to discuss the space program again — what it was supposed to be, what it has turned out to be, why it all might be fruitfully postponed, and what all of this has to do with science fiction. I hope readers will wait until I have finished before hurling any brickbats.


While dreams of space travel had been around for centuries, it was in the early 1950s that a broad consensus developed about precisely how humanity would conquer space. The plans were most notably described in a famous series of articles in Collier's magazine, but they incorporated elements that had long been common in the visions of both science fiction writers and rocket scientists.

First, a rocketship would launch a man into Earth orbit (it was almost always a man) and safely return him to the ground. Next, we would build a space station orbiting the Earth as a base for future operations, and from there we would launch an expedition to the Moon. Later trips to the Moon would establish a permanent moonbase, eventually large enough to be named Luna City, and humans would then proceed to visit and inhabit Mars, the inner planets, the asteroid belt, and the satellites of the outer planets — with all of that only a prelude to the eventual development of faster-than-light travel and the colonization of the entire galaxy. To be sure, some stories offered variant plans — for example, a space station or a direct flight to the Moon as the first step, bypassing the preliminaries — but the astronauts always traveled in large spaceships that took them to their destinations and back and then stood ready for future flights, and the quick results of their efforts were always densely populated human communities scattered throughout the Solar System.

To correct one misperception of my argument, I never intended to suggest that these science fiction sagas of conquering space were entirely free of mishaps and tragedies. Astronauts regularly dealt with significant problems, and occasionally they even died as a result. However, these unfortunate events were always contextualized within a larger, triumphal narrative of unstoppable human progress into space, suggesting that such unpleasantries would be uncommon and ultimately insignificant; Robert A. Heinlein's Rhysling died, but he died so that his crewmates could live and continue on with their routine space travels. It was rare indeed to find stories which suggested that there might be something inherently difficult about human travel into space, stories which suggested that people were perhaps not ready, or suited, for the conquest of space. (But such stories existed — check out James Gunn's Station in Space [1958], for example, or Clifford D. Simak's Time Is the Simplest Thing [1961].)

When Russian and American scientists started working on actual space vehicles, however, the plans presented and promoted in science fiction were swiftly rejected as unfeasible or undesirable. With the technology on hand, it would require far too much fuel to lift a massive spaceship into Earth orbit, so we needed to build massive multi-stage rockets simply to get small capsules into space. Seeking a dramatic goal to counter the impact of Russia's first man in space, President John F. Kennedy rebuffed plans to build a space station as insufficiently impressive and instead called for an American mission to the Moon. That, too, could not be realistically achieved by one large vessel, so we would have to send two tiny capsules into lunar orbit and have one disengage to land on the Moon before returning to rendezvous with its mate. And all of these rockets and capsules would have to be disposable, used only once and then relegated to museums or the scrap heap.

Using these approaches, the Americans and the Russians were able to develop systems that could routinely lift humans into Earth orbit and even take them to the Moon (although the Russians never attempted the latter feat). True, there were a few catastrophes (three American astronauts dead in the Apollo 1 fire, four Russian cosmonauts dead after two botched landings) and noteworthy near-disasters (the uncontrolled rolling of Gemini 8, Apollo 13), but one could generally describe this technology as workable, and after the triumphant moon landing of Apollo 11 and the five subsequent lunar missions, the United States, like Russia, might have indefinitely continued to employ these systems — to keep returning to Earth orbit or to the Moon, to construct a small, rudimentary space station or moonbase, to rendezvous with an Earth-approaching comet or asteroid, and perhaps — just perhaps — to fly all the way to Mars and back.

But none of this would have really fulfilled the dreams of science fiction — the large, gleaming silver spaceships launching off into space and returning for safe landings, the huge, rotating doughnuts in space, the vibrant Luna City with thousands of busy, contented residents. To realize these visions, it seemed, the United States would have to construct a massive reusable spaceship — to make space travel routine and economical, and to carry all of the people and hardware required to conquer space in the proper manner.


Given this assignment, NASA engineers reached a quick conclusion: as was the case during the 1960s, America in the 1970s did not possess the technology to construct a practical, reusable spaceship of this kind. However, whether driven by stubbornness, political pressure, or the dreams of science fiction, they imprudently proceeded to start building one anyway.

No reasonable person can say anything in defense of the egregious boondoggle that resulted from this decision: the space shuttle. Here was a vehicle for traveling into space that was so impossibly complicated as to involve literally millions of predictable problems that could lead to disaster as well as imponderable numbers of unpredictable problems. Here was a vehicle that could get up to the nearest edge of outer space — one hundred miles above the surface — only with the assistance of two detachable boosters loaded with combustible fuel; a vehicle that would be protected from destruction during re-entry only by a patchwork of hundreds of ceramic tiles (each individually designed and constructed) glued to its lower surface; a vehicle of such complex aerodynamics that no human being could bring it to a safe landing without turning over the controls to teams of computers.

But the space shuttle did impressively resemble the spaceships and space planes that had so long been described and observed in science fiction. And those who insist that science fiction had absolutely no impact on America's space program might consider the fact that the first, experimental space shuttle (which never reached Earth orbit) was named the Enterprise. (Indeed, to placate those who insist upon reducing my argument to the formula "science fiction caused the Columbia disaster," one might substitute, "Star Trek caused the Columbia disaster," since no work of science fiction was so dogged or widely influential in promoting the long-held outlook of science fiction that outer space was a safe and natural environment for human transportation and habitation.)

The fact that this Rube Goldberg contraption was by its nature fraught with perils has been officially, albeit indirectly, acknowledged. As someone who (among other things) teaches college composition classes, I have long been familiar with a common rhetorical device employed to soften an outrageous lie: the "not un________" description. That is, feeling compelled for some reason to praise a wretchedly inept performer, one might understandably hesitate to assert that the person is "talented"; however, one might feel more comfortable in stating that the person is "not untalented," mildly suggesting that the person has some sort of talent without directly saying so. Thus, in writing the report that insisted upon assigning blame for a catastrophe that was virtually inevitable, the bureaucrats who addressed the Columbia disaster could not bring themselves to utter the blatant falsehood that the space shuttle was "inherently safe"; instead, they retreated to the claim that it was "not inherently unsafe."

One might also note that, despite this ringingly insincere tribute to the inherent safety of the space shuttle, nobody at NASA, in the wake of Columbia, was agitating for a new, improved space shuttle as the next logical step in the human conquest of space. Rather, the decision was reached to permanently retire the space shuttle as soon as it had completed what had become the major rationale for its existence: achieving another dream of science fiction by completing the construction of a large, multi-purpose space station (albeit one so compromised by technological and budgetary limitations as to be mostly useless for any of the purposes — scientific research, a base for other space missions, a permanent home, etc. — once regularly envisioned in science fiction and scientific nonfiction). So it is that NASA is continuing to send astronauts into space in a vehicle so hazardous that, whatever other chores the astronauts are assigned, the task of simply ensuring the vehicle's survival is always the true mission of each flight — spectacular evidence that the space shuttle has failed to fulfill its promise of routine, regular, carefree space travel. I mean, would any sane person get on board an airplane if virtually every flight were delayed several times so as to allow technicians to deal with suddenly-detected, life-threatening problems? Would any sane person get on board an airplane knowing that the crew, at the moment the craft lifted off, would immediately have to undertake a detailed inspection of the entire ship in order to determine if it was going to disintegrate while coming to a landing? Every flight of the space shuttle since 2003 qualifies as a potential disaster in the making, and a scandal as well, and I fail to see why everyone does not react to every launch, as I do, with anxiety and rage.

Implicitly acknowledging that the entire space shuttle program had been a mistake from the get-go, NASA has instead announced future plans to return to the technology of the Apollo flights — defensibly described as "Apollo on steroids" to emphasize that they are not simply retreating to the past, but are rather creating something bigger and better than the past. But it all will amount to little more than a matter of using slightly larger disposable spacecraft to go into Earth orbit and to the Moon for slightly longer periods of time. Essentially, like the recently announced goals of the Russian and Chinese space programs, NASA's bold new plan is to re-accomplish everything that NASA had already accomplished by 1969. (True, the NASA agenda does include an eventual mission to Mars — but, as has been the case since the 1970s, this objective is listed as something to achieve some twenty years in the future — or, in other words, sufficiently far into the future as to require no one to develop and defend detailed plans for such a mission today.)


Now, I have repeatedly argued that these limitations on NASA's past and future efforts, and the doomed effort to exceed those limitations with the deplorable space shuttle program, stem from the inherent inability of the technology we now possess to realize the expansive ambitions of science fiction. Today, and for the foreseeable future, we simply cannot fulfill the predictions of science fiction and transform outer space into the new America — a realm where thousands, if not millions, of eager pioneers can go to set up homes and spread the human species throughout the Solar System. At best, we can only transform outer space into the new Antarctica — a harsh, forbidding environment visited by few and inhabited only by small groups of scientists and researchers. And, given the expense and the dangers involved in even such modest encroachments, one might reasonably suggest that they are not really worth the trouble until, at some future date, we finally have the technology to achieve the true conquest of space that humans have long dreamed of.

However — and recall what I said about "denial" — large numbers of people within the science fiction community apparently still believe that all of this is simply not true. They apparently still believe that human beings, using only the technology of today, are perfectly capable of doing everything that science fiction said they could be doing in the early twenty-first century, and if hardy farmers aren't planting their crops on the surface of Ganymede in the year 2008, that is simply because we have all been betrayed by a short-sighted public, gutless politicians, inept bureaucrats, and — pace Jerry Pournelle — effete academics. The only solution to the problem, then, is to unleash the forces of private enterprise and to allow courageous, visionary entrepreneurs to boldly go where incompetent governments and nervous Nellies have feared to tread. To those who hold such opinions, the most heartening news of the last five years is not the cautious new plans of NASA, but rather the growing number of private companies moving into the business of space travel, with one significant accomplishment — a successful suborbital flight — already achieved.

Well. I cannot claim to be a detailed student of all the plans now being hatched by the new, profit-driven, would-be pioneers of space. But the things I have heard about do not sound particularly exciting. First, it seems, companies are planning to send small vehicles into suborbital space or Earth orbit and charge people big money for a brief ride through outer space. Then, they will eventually place some sort of enormous tin can in orbit, call it a "space hotel," and charge people big money for a brief stay in outer space. And all of these achievements will only require technology equivalent to the technology developed long ago for the Gemini program's comparable achievements. In other words, while NASA is now planning to re-accomplish everything that it had accomplished by 1969, the bold champions of private enterprise are now planning to re-accomplish everything that NASA had accomplished by 1965.

But who is currently planning to construct a gigantic wheel in space, or an O'Neill space habitat? Who is currently planning to fly thousands of people into space to live on the Moon or Mars? Who is currently planning to send enterprising miners to the asteroid belt or farmers to Ganymede? Why are all such grand ambitions, which science fiction regularly predicted would be realized early in the twenty-first century, constantly relegated to the category of "someday, maybe"? After decades of stagnation, can anyone really believe that we have failed to accomplish these goals simply due to a lack of vision? Isn't it time to acknowledge that science fiction was simply wrong in claiming these things could be safely and easily accomplished in a few decades, and that that incorrect message has continued to have a baleful effect on our plans?


To correct another misperception of my argument, I have never called for a permanent end to space travel, and indeed, I have long embraced the logic of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's central argument for the human conquest of space: for the planet Earth will indeed cease to be a habitable environment sometime in the distant future, if not in the next few decades — and no, doomsday warnings to the contrary, I'm not particularly worried about a massive asteroid crashing into Earth next Tuesday and bringing about the end of human civilization, but that's another argument — so the survival of the human race, it appears, will eventually depend upon settlements scattered throughout space. All I have suggested is that we manifestly do not have the technology to establish those settlements today, and instead of continuing to risk lives and waste resources in efforts purportedly leading us toward such goals, we might consider a moratorium on space travel until new technologies might finally make it possible to do what science fiction has correctly said we must someday do. For example, as Stephen L. Gillett suggested in an unpublished response to my original essay, future advances in nanotechnology might be what it takes to make truly ambitious space travel scientifically and economically feasible.

However, I think we also have to consider the possibility that, just perhaps, space travel will never be a major activity of the human future. Certainly, given all of the logical arguments to the effect that intelligent species must be commonplace throughout the galaxy, and given the standard assumption that such species will almost inevitably achieve space travel, it has to be a bit disquieting that we have not, to date, been visited by, or heard from, such a species. If nothing else, we can definitively conclude that the Milky Way has never developed an extremely advanced and extremely gregarious civilization — for such a civilization would have long ago constructed a fleet of von Neumann machines, or developed some other spectacular method, to make its presence known in every single solar system in the galaxy, including ours.

Perhaps, then, space travel is not something that all intelligent species naturally achieve. Perhaps it is so extremely difficult as to discourage even the most advanced civilization from making any sustained effort to conquer space. Perhaps intelligent beings develop other strategies for ensuring their survival in the face of eventual planetary catastrophe. Perhaps they find other, more interesting places to explore and inhabit — their past and future worlds via time travel, other universes, and/or elaborate virtual realities. And perhaps, such alternatives to space travel, or others we have not yet anticipated, will dominate our own future.

And perhaps, such alternatives to space travel should be receiving more attention in science fiction.


It need not be said that science fiction today, more so than ever before, perceives itself to be in desperate straits; concerned reports of plummeting sales, shrinking income, and cancelled contracts are all too common. While many explanations can be advanced for these sad developments, I see the central problem as the genre's ongoing overreliance upon an exhausted, and clearly invalidated, "consensus future."

This consensus future was probably best articulated in Donald A. Wollheim's The Universe Makers: Science Fiction Today (1971), and has been most vigorously promoted by various incarnations of Star Trek — so much so that one might describe it today as the "Star Trek future." It's what I've been talking about all along — the idea that humanity will, in relatively little time and with relatively little effort, expand first throughout the solar system and then throughout the cosmos to inhabit thousands of worlds, bond with generally humanoid alien species, build a Galactic Empire or a Federation of Planets, and keep advancing toward an ultimate encounter with God Himself. Now, as I can confess from personal experience, it is very easy to grow tired of stories set within this overly familiar sort of future, and the events of the last fifty years, as I have discussed, certainly provide more than enough reasons for questioning its accuracy as a prediction of humanity's future.

In sum, as I mentioned in my essay on The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, this "consensus future" of science fiction is actually nothing more than a fantasy. And, if readers are going to be spending their time with fantasy, why shouldn't they go for the real thing, instead of ersatz fantasy masquerading as a prediction of humanity's future? Might this be the reason why fantasy is booming, and science fiction is floundering?

So, if they must, people may now write their letters calling me a lamebrain, a defeatist, and/or a coward because I no longer believe in the central tenet of the gospel of science fiction — that humanity is inevitably destined to conquer the universe and must work to achieve that goal as quickly as possible. (And, if likening some people's interpretation of science fiction to a religion seems extreme, please note that, in response to my original essay, I did receive a hostile e-mail message from an extensively published science fiction writer complaining that I was "pissing in the font.") However, I still prefer to regard science fiction not as a religion but as a discipline — a discipline devoted, among other things, to pondering all of humanity's possible futures so that we can be better prepared for every eventuality. Whether people are willing to accept it or not, one of those possible futures is that humanity will ultimately prove to be unable, or unmotivated, to conquer the universe in the manner so relentlessly predicted in the science fiction of the past century. And, if there is a genuine desire to reinvigorate a genre that today is visibly in crisis, perhaps science fiction writers need to devote more of their time to pondering the many interesting things — other than conquering the universe — that our descendants just might be doing.

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