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Gary Westfahl: Columbia, and the Dreams of Science Fiction  

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February 2003

Posted 7 February:
More responses to Gary Westfahl's original essay on the Columbia disaster from:

Note: Return e-mail addresses will be posted only if you include it in your closing, or your subject matter specifically requests some sort of response; otherwise it will be omitted. Letters may be edited for length.

Dear Locus Online,
     Regarding Bob Webber's remark, "I am not capable of separating grieving from looking for causes," on Patrick Nielsen Hayden's blog, Electrolite, Kathryn Cramer posted: "We should respect looking for causes as a form of grief, and an adaptive one at that. Looking for causes, however, cannot replace direct emotional expression."
     While it is certainly true that SF has inspired many individuals to contribute to the development of space travel and to the exploration of space, Gary Westfahl has covered himself with something other than glory in his hasty piece on the responsibility of science fiction for the recent shuttle disaster, and by implication all the other space-related accidents and deaths of the last half century. His shallow rant, all the worse for its apparent sincerity, is basically survivor guilt. It shows bad scholarship, bad criticism, stunted moral consciousness, and bad reasoning. In addition to withering the mind, it withers the soul.
     What SF can he have been reading? Surely not Sturgeon's "The Man Who Lost the Sea," or Bradbury's "Icarus Montgolfier Wright," or Clarke's "Transit of Earth," or Ballard's "The Cage of Sand," or, for goodness sake, Heinlein's "The Green Hills of Earth" or "Requiem." It is bad scholarship to ignore these stories and the many others like them, and bad criticism to interpret the tradition they represent as naively optimistic. Here is "Transit of Earth" by Arthur C. Clarke: A dying astronaut continues the quest for knowledge and the beauty of space travel while confronting his death:

"It is true: we all die alone. It makes no difference at the end, being fifty million miles from home. "I'm going to enjoy the drive through that lovely painted landscape. I'll be thinking of all those who dreamed about Mars — Wells and Lowell and Burroughs and Bradbury. They all guessed wrong — but the reality is just as strange and beautiful as they imagined.
     "I don't know what's waiting for me out there, and I'll probably never see it. ...
     "And when my oxygen alarm gives its final 'ping,' somewhere down there in that haunted wilderness, I'm going to finish in style. As soon as I have difficulty breathing, I'll get off the Mars car and start walking..."
(Ascent of Wonder, p. 321-322)
     And for those in a bleaker mood, for whom the Clarke is just too cheerful, seeking objectification and distance from this tragedy, try J. G. Ballard's story "The Cage of Sand" in which the protagonists watch the skies for orbiting spacecraft carrying dead astronauts. It is a vision of our dreams of space travel in ruins:
"Bridgeman stumbled back toward the dunes at the edge of the basin. As he neared the crest he trapped his foot in a semicircular plate of metal, sat down, and freed his heel. Unmistakably it was part of a control panel, the circular instrument housing still intact.
     "Overhead the pall of glistening vapor had moved off to the northeast, and the reflected light was directly over the rustling gallantries of the former launch site at Cape Kennedy. For a few fleeting seconds the gallantries seemed to be enveloped in a sheen of silver, transfigured by the vaporized body of the dead astronaut, diffusing over them in a farewell gesture, his final return to the site from which he had set of to his death a century earlier. . .
     "In a sudden access of refound confidence, Bridgeman drove his fist into the dark sand, buried his forearm like a foundation pillar. A flange of hot metal from Merril's capsule burned his wrist, bonding him to the spirit of the dead astronaut.
     "'Merril!' he cried exultantly ... 'We made it!"
(Ascent of Wonder, p. 670-671)
     Also on Patrick Nielsen Hayden's Electrolite, Kathryn Cramer posted: "In considering the Columbia, I find myself vibrating between a Clarke moment and a Ballard moment, between Mary Kay [Kare's] thought, that 'there are worse fates in the world than to die doing something you wanted more than anything else to do,' and a distanced, sublime appreciation of the magnitude of disaster."
     Surely the message of the SF tradition is that space exploration is worth doing in spite of the death, in spite of the danger. That launching humanity into space is risky, in precisely the way that exploration of unknown territory and the testing of new machinery is always risky. That human lives will be lost, but lost in a conscious attempt to do something worth doing. And that new knowledge of the universe adds to the quality of human life and is worth great risk. Scientists and explorers have a history and tradition of risking themselves for human knowledge, and there are examples of scientists who have done so foolishly and in error, but those anecdotes pale into significance, are eclipsed by the noble and self-sacrificing thousands of heroic scientists and explorers who have succeeded. The image of Earth from space, achieved only in the last half century, has already altered and continues to alter our perception of our world, has given humanity a more global consciousness.
     Also, Westfahl's claim that "2% failure rate just isn't acceptable" is quite arbitrary. Ordinary people make life-and-death decisions every day involving odds on that order. Pregnant women over 35, for example, are advised to have an amniocentesis which has about a 1% rate of loss of pregnancy; another test, chorionic villus sampling, which can be done earlier in pregnancy, has something like a 3-4% rate. And people regularly volunteer to do things with much worse odds than that — and we admire them for it.
     Regarding Westfahl's claim that, "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," space travel is only one of the flashier technological tasks the human race has put to itself. Perhaps Westfahl is from an alternate universe with neither the atomic bomb nor the threat and promise of nuclear energy — also dealt with in SF in great variety and depth. And mastering the genome also is both more difficult and potentially more dangerous as well.
     Human error, which is at the root of such tragedies as the Columbia disaster, and the knowledge that by being human we are all complicit, is nevertheless insufficient moral reason to deprive the deceased of the dignity of their intent. Nor to deny it's basis in scientific and military tradition, the noble and idealistic parts of those traditions of putting your whole being on the line for knowledge and for your fellow humans. And to further reduce those noble ideals and intentions to a copycat crime model (they read SF and went out and committed space travel) is shameful. For Shame, sir.

David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer
4 February

Dear Locus Online,
     I'm amazed and horrified by Gary Westfahl's condemnation of science fiction as being ultimately responsible for the Columbia disaster. It strikes me as simplistic to say that the literature of our field has encouraged everybody to believe space travel is without risk! That's insulting to all who risk their lives going into space, and on a par with those who, after Challenger, claimed that Christa McAuliffe didn't know the risk she was taking. Even my young grandchildren know that space travel can't be expected to be easy at first. (Maybe unlike you, Gary, they aren't taken in by scifi movies.)
     "Why, at this particular moment...must humans conquer space?" Well, Gary, it's because of two things. One — we are human after all, and two — because it, like Everest, is there.

Sheila Finch
3 February

Dear Locus Online,
     Gary Westfahl argues that science fiction has given us a cozy, unrealistic view of space travel. As examples, he offers two movies: Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys and the 1950 semi-documentary Destination Moon. Eastwood's film is one of the worst movies ever made, with a climax that is riddled with obvious technological absurdities. Destination Moon does make space travel look like something that could be handled by a small private company but its "duct tape" solutions were more realistic than Westfahl indicates. The astronauts of Apollo 13 actually did construct tape and cardboard solutions to some of their problems. On almost every Mercury and Gemini mission, the astronauts averted a potential disaster with onboard actions.
     Re-entry is another matter. Anybody who has paid any attention to NASA's efforts knows that re-entry is one of the most dangerous parts of every mission. The tiles have been the most publicized danger in the shuttle program since the program was first announced in the 1970's. John Glenn's problem with his heat shield has become an important part of his personal legend. Neil Armstrong claimed that the Apollo maneuver that worried him most was the opening of the parachutes just before touchdown. Personally, I'm surprised we haven't lost a crew on re-entry before this. We brought every Apollo capsule through re-entry even though it had to hit the atmosphere at an angle that couldn't deviate more than two degrees in either direction.
     Westfahl compares space travel to aviation and argues that space travel may be so dangerous we shouldn't be trying to achieve it now. A failure rate of two percent, he says, is unacceptable.
     A failure rate of two percent would certainly put a commercial airliner on the scrap heap. But the shuttle isn't a commercial vehicle — in spite of NASA's attempts to compare it to the first commercial airliners. The shuttle is a pioneering experimental vehicle and it should be compared to pioneering experimental aircraft.
     In the hundred years since the Wright Brothers made their first flight, hundreds of people — probably thousands — have died testing new aircraft and taking them on their first operational flights. The number would be even larger if you added in all the people who died on new airplanes in their first years of service.
     And how many people died in the development of ocean going ships? A single submarine disaster in the 1930's killed more people than the total number of astronauts and cosmonauts who have died on space missions.
     Aviation developed at a very rapid pace in the twentieth century partly because the aircraft designers kept turning out new designs. NASA is still operating the vehicle it designed in the 1970's and put into operation over twenty years ago. If astronautics had received the kind of support aviation received, NASA would now be operating a third generation orbiter, and it might be using a safer, less demanding heat shield. Materials technology advances just like all other technologies. The tiles were an impressive achievement in 1980, but they probably wouldn't be considered state of the art today.
     Aviation produced a regular succession of designs partly because it was less capital intensive — particularly in its early years. Some of the first aviation pioneers really were backyard designers. But some of the biggest leaps involved massive funding by governments, through their military budgets. The jet airliner, for example, was an offshoot of the taxes we spent on the development of jet bombers. If you add up all the money governments have spent on the development of aviation technology, you would probably discover it dwarfs the amount of money the world has spent on astronautics over the last fifty years. The contrast would be even greater if you compared the percentage of world GDP spent on the two enterprises.
     NASA developed the shuttle under severe budget restraints. In spite of all the hoopla, it is not the vehicle it could have been. NASA has been allowed to operate the shuttle for over twenty years, but it hasn't been given the funds to develop experimental alternatives and keep pushing the technological possibilities. Sooner or later, most publicly funded enterprises in the United States fall into the same rut. We can't bring ourselves to kill them but we refuse to provide them with the backing that would produce a truly spectacular achievement.

Tom Purdom
4 February

Dear Locus Online,
     One of the most famous, although certainly not the best, stories of science fiction is "The Cold Equations." It is as contrived as any Hollywood tearjerker but it remains well known because the point it makes, that nature plays no favorites, that the "cold equations," cannot be ignored or wished away, is valid. For all the fun of Star Wars and Star Trek, the roots of the genre are in science and what science tells us about the universe around us. No one who has been privileged to go into space has ever been unaware that they were taking great risks. They did not go as heroes, or to show they were brave, but because they wished to do and to know. They were human, in the most wonderful sense of the word.

Catherine Mintz
4 February

Dear Locus Online,
     Posting such an article in a forum at Locus is much like preaching Atheism in a fundamentalist church. For all that space exploration may be somewhat based upon science, it is not a rational pursuit. The only real motivation for space exploration is national pride.

Brian Sutin
Optical Scientist
Pasadena CA
The Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington
4 February

Dear Locus Online,
     The howls of execration greeting Gary Westfahlís assertion that SF is an unindicted co-conspirator in the Columbia disaster were to be expected, and I donít really wish to add to them. Westfahl made some relevant points regarding the ultimate limitations of the can-do, Right Stuff mentality; however, while posing some legitimate questions, the essay begs many others.
     For starters, Westfahl suggests that SF has contributed to the perception that space travel is easy. Whose SF are we talking about? Itís revealing that his one specific example is taken from a movie; SF on film and television does have a long-standing tradition of portraying the universe in almost any fashion other than how it actually works. But written SF has a long tradition, from Heinlein and Clarke to Ballard and Malzberg, of acknowledging the potential dangers of space travel. I donít think that the stories we may have read growing up caused us to think that the exploration of space would be anything other than the dangerous business it is.
     Westfahl also thinks that the level of danger in the current space program is too high. Again, whose danger? While I can take little comfort from the larger context in which this tragedy occurred — dying while doing something thatís important is still dyingóitís reasonable to point out that the astronauts of Columbia were highly-trained professionals and enthusiastic volunteers for a task they knew put their lives at risk. Who are we to say that they should not have done what they did? And Westfahlís suggested future for the space program — grant me humanity in space, but not yet — utterly misses the point. As others have pointed out, the signal achievement of the Apollo program emerged not from mission 11, but from mission 8: not the footprints on the moon, but that one photograph that showed our Earth hanging in space, in all its splendid beauty and fragility. One must be bereft of spirit not to be continually moved by this and all the other photos that have followed, and by the sheer joy evident on the faces of the astronauts as they sail about their habitats, and the determination with which they scramble to get back up there and do it again. There is an immediate need to keep going out there, right now and hereafter, with people as well as machines, to learn as much as we can about everything else precisely so we can take better care of this only planet that weíve got.
     The space program is perhaps the one thing my country does with its huge machines that increases knowledge and causes no global harm. I am proud that we have invested so much time, effort and money in what is fundamentally a poetic endeavor. I grieve for the lost astronauts and their families, and I remain confident inthe continuation of this worthy dream by which I have clocked my life.

F. Brett Cox
4 February

Dear Locus Online,
     While a great deal of what Mr. Westfahl says may well be true, it is also irrelevant. We take risks to do new things because to do otherwise is to stagnate or die. He seems not to know the difference between pursuing dreams because they're worthwhile and embracing a fantasy without regard to reality. To blame science fiction for lulling us into a false sense of the doable is a specious argument. SF grew up alongside a growing desire to go to the stars. Of all the things we've embraced that carry risk, this is one of the few with no downside for the species. So the question is, will we go to space because Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, and the rest suckered us with propagandistic illusions or because it's a truly neat thing to do?

Mark W. Tiedemann
5 February

Dear Locus Online,
     Westfahl thinks we should wait till space exploration is safer. Who does he think he's he talking to? Surely not humans — a species who prefer individual internal combustion engines because they're so darn handy, and never mind that they kill and kill and kill. A species many members of which dance with death for fun, and count the fun well worth the risk? When NASA has trouble recruiting people to go into space; when all the astronauts are people who couldn't find better jobs, then I'll think Westfahl has something. I'm not holding my breath.

Bonita Kale
5 February

Dear Locus Online,
     At the risk of getting it cut off, I'm going to stick my neck out here and say that I thought Gary Westfahl's anguished and angry essay was also one of the most thoughtful pieces I've seen in a while. I don't think it showed gall or disrespect for the dead astronauts, who were indeed both courageous and aware of the risks they faced. I am glad that there are people like them, prepared to face the hard things, prepared to risk everything. But I also feel instinctively that Gary Westfahl's piece, in its sorrowful rage, counters much of the gung-ho, triumphalist aspect of those who would have us believe that progress is infinite and that nothing can stop humanity's drive into space. It may have overstated the case; but we need to have it said.
     I'm a fantasy writer and as such perhaps more subject to a deep strain of what some might call pessimism, and I'd venture to call realism. Despite its occasional depiction as 'wish-fulfilment' by our more optimistic cousin, science fiction, fantasy is deeply driven by the notion both that progress is at best a very imperfect thing, and that human beings only, at best, learn the lessons of their own lives, and not that of previous generations'. Every generation has to start again, making the same mistakes, fighting the same things. And not even then can progress be seen as a line constantly evolving into the distance, a kind of bright chart which we only need to follow to reach our true inheritance.
     However, nothing is so simple, and we should all surely be open to different ideas. That's always been for me one of the great things about the speculative fiction field: we're not afraid of ideas, of disturbing reality, of mining the past, present and future in our quest for story and meaning, we are not so bound by political correctitude or ideological soundness or religious rightness as too much cultural commentary is. I'm certainly prepared to admit that my own pessimistic — yet not hopeless, I hasten to admit — view of humanity is balanced by a similar feeling that progress is real, in some aspects. And that good can be found even in events of great evil.
     For instance, Michael Swanwick summarises the twentieth century as 'Hitler, Hiroshima, Gargarin' (to which I'd have added Stalin, Pol Pot and co) which presumably means that Gargarin was the one bright spot in that catalogue of evil and disasters. However, as Hitler was defeated and Nazism wiped off the face of the earth and humanity forced to confront the terrible fact of the Holocaust; as the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed the world that nuclear war must never ever happen; then maybe the innocently bright voyage of Gargarin into space also has its dark side.

Sophie Masson
6 February

We also heard from
Mike Allen, Louis Antonelli, John D. Ballentine III, Gregory Benford, Robert Brown, Bowie Hawkins, Roxanne Hutton, Marc Laidlaw, Barry L. Newton, Eric Pobirs, Pete Rawlik, Meredith Schwartz, Michael Sherck, Roger D. & Lorrie J. Shorney,, Allen Smith, Kim Owen Smith, Kevin Standlee, and John Zaccone
Thank you all.

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