Roundtable on Space Exploration

Space travel is still super rare and super expensive, but there’s some hope on the horizon that the costs may be coming down. If it were reasonably available to you, would you be willing to go into space yourself? For a day trip, weekend trip, months-long grand tour or into the up-and-out explorer? If you were willing to escape our gravity well, which of the sfnal portrayals of space travel would be most appealing to you?

Rachel Swirsky

I want implausible, humanoid, Star Trek aliens with whom we have easy communication who have profoundly different but fascinating cultures and who are excited to exchange ideas and knowledge.

I also want easy Star Trek space travel with absolutely no inconvenience at all.

I am not, I fear, the actual adventurer type. I don’t much like risks. Holodecks, though? Yes.

Brian Evenson

One of the biggest fights my ex-wife and I used to have involved whether we’d go to Mars or not if the possibility was available. My position was yes, definitely go to Mars, doesn’t matter if I have to be frozen for five years along the way or eat some sort of tasteless paste for months and months or go half-insane from being inside a cell-like metal shell for years. I have the attitude of an early adopter when it comes to space travel. I’d go in any circumstances.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

When I was in first grade in 1963, I owned a book entitled You WILL Go to the Moon. I loved the imperativeness of that title. It was a given, back in the early years of the space race (when NASA had deeper pockets), that eventually space travel would become as regular as travel by airplane.

If space travel were affordable, I would find it hard to turn down the experience of going into space, if only for the novelty factor (which would soon NOT be novel if everyone could undertake it). Mind you, I’m a nervous flyer, and it’s easy for me to be eager about something that I’ll likely never be able to avail myself of.

Which sfnal portrayal of space travel would be most appealing. That depicted in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Bradbury makes it seem like even the average Joe can build a rocket in his backyard and launch it. And when I touch down on a planet, I want to be able to walk around in a breathable atmosphere, unencumbered by a clunky space suit.

Jeffrey Ford

There’s a time in my life, about 40 years ago, when I would have definitely said yes to a trip into outer space, but now it seems like it would be, from what the actuality of space travel currently is, like getting stuck in an elevator for a weekend. No thanks. Hard driving space adventure is not my strong suit these days. If they had a spaceship with a porch and big rooms with comfortable furniture, I might go for it. Just the training, though, being spun around at a thousand miles an hour till I puke? I can think of better ways to kill an afternoon. That paste shit they serve in outer space, like something you scraped off the bottom of your shoe, holds no allure. I’ll take a ray gun, though, or sit on my porch and shoot the breeze with ass head aliens from the planetoid Valshavar in the Oort Cloud, no sweat. To those more adventurous, I wish them safe travels with many startling discoveries. I’ll hold things down on Earth while they’re gone.

Paul Witcover

Like Brian, I would go in a heartbeat. What sort of experience would I most enjoy as a traveler? The Douglas Adams universe, without question . . . as long as I don’t get blown up too soon!

Russell Letson

If we’re going full-out wish-fulfillment fantasy, then I opt for the Jack Vance ocean-liner-in-space version: nice private rooms, big viewports in the common areas, and exotic and mysterious fellow-passengers to puzzle over when not staring out at the void. But given the limitations of our bodies and the harshness of the environment, I suspect that kind of comfort is not going to be economically (or even physically) possible in any reasonably close future. As much as I enjoy, say, Paul McAuley’s settled-solar-system stories, I’m inclined to think that Charlie Stross’s take on the hazards and time-and-distance issues of space travel (in his Saturn’s Children future) is closer to the reality we face. Thus as strongly as I believe that some kind of human-tolerable space travel is not only useful but necessary, it’s most likely to be limited to our immediate neighborhood (say, out to the Moon) and maintained for planetary defense against wandering rocks and maybe for R&D and some kinds of manufacturing–not unlike the kind of presence that Jerry Pournelle argued for in his old Galaxy columns (though probably not with as expansive a horizon). For my own self, life in a can–or even tourism in a can–doesn’t hold much appeal. Reading about it, however, remains intensely interesting, so there must be a twelve-year-old still lurking undergrowth of my old-man brain. I note that I’m not the only one so disinclined. But then, I concluded decades ago that adventures are events that one would much rather read about than experience. If there’s not good music or a good meal at the other end, I’d as soon stay home. That’s why we invented the screened-in front porch, the bird feeder, the bookshelf, and the guitar.

Nick Gevers

I’d love to go on a grand tour, in the circumstances of Jack Vance’s Gaean Reach. Long interstellar journeys in luxurious accommodations aboard starships with wonderfully odd names, punctuated by stop-offs on worlds full of eccentric colour, good food, and good conversation. Unspiek, Baron Bodissey as my guide, all twelve volumes of his masterwork Life readily to hand.

Cecelia Holland

Bet your sweet bippy. I’d love to go to Mars with the never-to-return crew, although since I’m a little over the hill they might not find a use for me. I could tell stories, hey.

Stan Robinson’s 2312 suits me fine.

Gardner Dozois

They could cut steaks out of me and eat for weeks, thus allowing me to make a valuable contribution to the mission.

Cecelia Holland

Gardner, you’d be too tough. Even with A-1.

Karen Burnham

I was privy to an illuminating conversation soon after I joined NASA. An engineer who had started working right when the shuttle program was starting (around 1980) said that when he started, he couldn’t imagine that we wouldn’t have people on Mars by now. After everything NASA had accomplished, it seemed completely reasonable. A younger engineer who started at NASA around 2005 responded by saying that she couldn’t imagine NASA getting people back to the Moon, much less Mars, by the time she retires. A painful view of just how much things have changed.

My husband and I have always been in Brian’s camp: sign us up! (Until we had kids. Now that hypothetical is on hold at least until our son is self-sufficient.)

Stefan Dziemianowicz

In the ideal sfnal experience of space travel, you’d be able to take your son with you.

Whaddya think, folks? In the future, will they sponsor “Take Your Daughter (and Son) to Space” day?

Cecelia Holland

Occasionally I have days when I would send them all into space.

Kathleen Ann Goonan

It’s true that in the sixties space exploration seemed destined to unfold with all of our (and the German’s) powerful engineering expertise. It was glorious, but it was war, and war often pushes technological achievement. We had to gain the high ground. And the high space. As with Kennedy’s assassination, I think everyone knows where they were and on what kind of television they watched the Moon landing. We were, as a nation, enthralled and proud.

It was, and is, a dream of the technologically sublime. I do still have this dream, though I don’t have any useful skills regarding the process, just as I can’t design a bridge, a dam, a skyscraper, or a phone. But these dreams seem even more realizable now than they did in the sixties. However, I think that the general public either doesn’t believe that settlements on the Moon or on Mars are actually technically possible or, if they do, they ask why do it and say that it would cost too much. If a private company established a living base on either body, I’d say that such a colony would draw money, expertise, and willing adventurers.

We have become a science-phobic society (I heard the Director of NIH on NPR yesterday contemplating the possibility of our government extinguishing NIH) and seem to be moving into a kind of dark ages, nationally. But I wonder if my POV is darker than the reality. Hard to tell.

If we’re just talking about a trip around the planet, then I’m ready today. I am so thrilled just to look out the window of an airplane that I’d probably be willing to pay just to take a ride, even if I wasn’t going anywhere.

Ellen Datlow

I’d love to go for a week or so, if the flight was no worse than flying from NY to Perth, which is a trek in itself.
Funny, I don’t recall ever actually wanting to go into space. It was more like a fairy tale to me than a possibility growing up (until we got to the Moon) and then once we did land on the Moon, it sounded wayyy too uncomfortable. I enjoy my creature comforts. Although now that I’m getting older and creakier, the possibility of jumping around in low gravity sounds like fun.

Star Trek, with its companionable crew and its mission of “going where no man has gone before” is appealing. But basically, if I was offered a trip into space right now, I’d likely wimp out and stay at home, here on Earth.

Maureen Kincaid Speller

Were I on my own, I think I’d say ‘yes’, on the understanding that this is going to be a weightless equivalent of travelling by banana boat, long, slow, not a lot going on, but I’m packing a hell of a lot of reading material and staring out of the window a lot.

Though what I’d really like to do is visit the International Space Station, on the understanding I could do something useful rather than sit around being ornamental, taking up space, in between staring out of the window at the view.

Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I feel that being a tourist in space is somehow rather frivolous, but I am the sort of person who doesn’t really approve of Sunday driving either. I like a purpose in my journeying. I can’t really imagine what sort of sf portrayal of space travel would suit me. Of things I’ve read recently, Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles speaks most strongly, perhaps because it’s not really about space at all, and that rather undermines the premise. Possibly Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space, because the spaceships are so cool?

Cat Rambo

I’m coming in late, but going into space is on my bucket list. I want to go, want to see the Earth and stars from that perspective, want to know that I’m in that world that Heinlein predicted – because space, to me, will always be the place he drew in Have Spaceship, Will Travel and Starship Troopers and all the rest. I expect it’s achievable – at least I hope so, but this aging thing does seem to be catching up with me in its relentless fashion.

Gardner Dozois

We’re at the very beginning of the real Age of Space. Everything that came before will be seen as historical prelude.

I have no doubt that by the end of the century, and certainly by the end of the following century, supposing that we don’t become extinct or have our civilization crash back to the Dark Ages, we’ll have spread widely throughout the solar system.

Love Jack Vance, but I think Paul McAuley here is the best guide to how things might work out over the next century. For near-future, near-space stuff, Allen Steele.

Gary K. Wolfe

I’m more or less with Russell on this one: I distinctly remember a couple of “I want to go to there” moments, but both involved unrealistic levels of luxury. One was when I first saw 2001 with its gleaming white Pan Am spaceliner, and the other (perhaps a bit odd) was when I first read Cordwainer Smith’s “The Burning of the Brain,” in which the interior of the spacecraft (I think it was called the Wu-Feinstein) was an exact replica of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, with people sitting around on lawns drinking–but presumably with the possibility of checking out the actual spaceship part if they wanted to. When I was a kid, watching some of the early stuffed-in-a-can NASA orbital flights (including the Moon landing) more or less cured me of earlier fantasies of joining a rocket crew, because I quickly surmised that it wasn’t going to get much better than this during my lifetime. Even today, seeing a movie spaceship like the one in Prometheus, I find myself asking “Where did they get all that real estate?” and “Why did they build a spaceship with a briefing room the size of an NBA stadium?” and “Who paid for this?”

So I’m no longer much of an adventurer, but on the other hand I’m keeping an eye on Virgin Galactic and similar ideas, and if the price should come down from where it is now (roughly my entire net worth), I’d give it a serious thought. As for what kind of universe, I have no problem with what we’ve apparently already got in the solar system: dead but glorious.

Elizabeth Hand

I’m torn between boldly going where no man has gone before and agreeing with Jeff: it would be like an endless commuter airline flight where the food comes in tubes. Plus I’m suspicious: remember those Offworld Colonies ads in Blade Runner?

I see that China is inviting folks to sign up for a one-way trip to Mars scheduled to take off in the next few years. Two men, two women will be accepted. Once you arrive on Mars, you get to live in a pod that looks like it’s been designed and furnished by Ikea. Maybe someone here will go and report back on it — the application fee is only eleven bucks!

However, if you can promise me a Gene Wolfe-style generation starship, I’ll think about it.

Paul Graham Raven

Part of me would love to go, because, well, it’s the ultimate travel experience, isn’t it? To say you’d been up there, felt what it was like, seen Earth as a place where, however momentarily, you were not? Most of my big adventures have been into inner space (ahem), but outer space strikes me as being the DMT of travel: if the opportunity is there, you should maybe do it at least once… even if it would be like Ian Sales’ first Apollo Quartet novella, only with the pages of narrative split up and randomly inserted between 10,000 pages of absolutely nothing happening…

That said, the most plausible portrayal of life and travel in space (beyond our current dabblings at the edges of the pond) I can think of would be Chairman Bruce’s Schismatrix… which would make bumping around Mexico on local-service buses feel like a 1%ers-only cruise on the QE2, unless you were pretty tight with someone high up in one or other of the factions. But if the Earth’s wrecked (which, let’s face it, is pretty inevitable in any scenario where anyone but specialists get to go topside; either the efforts of departure do the wrecking, or the wrecking forces the departure) and all the posthuman biohacks are available (deep into hypotheticals here!) and I had the contacts to help me avoid hitching on beater tugs that were little more than a mouldy food tin built around an air scrubber? Well, maybe. When the constant possibility of being exposed to vacuum, mutant viruses and berserk posthumans with politics you don’t even have the right words for is the only game in town, might as well put your tux on and hit the casino, I guess.

(Shorter version: no. I could spend my entire life travelling the Earth’s surface and never see all I want to see, and I think that’d be a better thing for me to do than go to space.)

Stacie Hanes

Based on a lifelong pattern of previous behavior which can best be described as a series of long feasibility studies followed by irrevocable decisions, I would almost certainly do it.

Let’s join the Navy! Let’s jump out of this plane! Let’s jump into these rapids! No, the spooky noises came from this direction, why are you going that way?

Of course I’d go into space, and at the end of the day I might not care whether it was a one-way trip. There are so many to choose from, but Tunnel in the Sky keeps coming back to me.

F. Brett Cox

Would I go into space? In a New York minute. Just give me my Scopolamine patch. But anyone who agrees should read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars to get a clear sense of what you’re in for.

Karen Burnham

Packing for Mars is one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books. I work at NASA, but they keep most of us engineers far, far away from any actual astronauts. I learned a ton from Mary Roach’s book.

Fabio Fernandes

I’m with Cecelia – I thought nobody would mention KSR’s books. Although, even preferring 2312’s panorama, being stranded in the 21st century would leave me no alternative other than following the First Hundred (so, Red Mars, anyone?), or being one of them – I would like that. Even though I agree with Paul and know that there’s much to see and do on our old Earth, I’d go to Mars right now if I had the chance. Even eating a crappy paste and having to deal with clumsy suits or whatever hurdles are sent in my way. I’d rather see them as opportunities to learn and build upon (I’m in a mildly Utopian mood these days).

Oh, Packing for Mars is also one of my favorite books on the subject. I used it as research material a while ago for a series of stories about life in the void.

Rachel Swirsky

Yeah, under the best circumstances, I’d vacation in space. But I doubt I’d ever move unless we’re talking about some serious science fictional changes like “well, it doesn’t take any longer to get back to Earth from Paradise Planet X than it does to fly from San Francisco to Aukland,” or “no, the Earth is SO MISERABLE that you really want to go, trust me.”

Or, maybe if there were dinosaurs on the other planet.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Which would explain why they’re no longer here (asteroid strike–BAH!) and establish the premise that the dinosaurs discovered space travel before humans did.

Where’s Erich von Daniken when we need him?

Karen Burnham

For my preferred sfnal mode of travel, I’ve gotten to be a bit partial to the Egan/Stross disembodied uploaded brains traveling at near-light speeds, then deploying nanotech at the destination to build whatever sensors/buildings/bodies needed to suit. Then you get the luxury of a space liner in something a bit more economically priced. 🙂

Paul Graham Raven

See also Gwyneth Jones’ “Gravegoods”; disembodied consciousness raises a whole raft of other questions. Would it still feel luxurious if you were constantly wondering whether you were really you?

Karen Burnham

I’ve read Permutation City, so I feel totally prepared for several flavors of existential post-human angst! (Although I will definitely look up “Gravegoods”)

Cecelia Holland

I like this. but going to Mars seems extraneous. I want the nano-thing anyway to design a new body, young, strong, sexy and unbroken down, for me right now, here.

Gardner Dozois

If we could generate new young, strong, sexy, unbroken-down bodies for ourselves, right here and now, why would anybody bother going to Mars?

Cecelia Holland

Because it’s there, buddy.

Russell Letson

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Not that everyone does or should feel the same way. But the older I get, the more rooted I feel.

Fabio Fernandes

Not necessarily. Going on 47 here and still want to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Maureen Kincaid Speller

Yes, that sense of rootedness is what gets in my way, I think. I’ve had this suspicion, ever since I wrote my initial response, that as a professed reader of sf I was somehow letting the side down by not wanting to go into space and do all the shiny exploring stuff. But, well, I am too tied to this place to want to let go. Which, perhaps, in the end, is why I read sf and follow Chris Hadfield on Twitter. Happy to let others do the exploring for me, mostly … I have enough trouble getting myself together these days to travel from one continent to another. It’s always a wrench, even for just a week or so.

Marie Brennan

I was going to say that hell yes, I’d absolutely go — but then I realized that if somebody found a way to replicate what I really want here on earth, that would make me very nearly as happy, with much less hassle and risk. See, I read Ender’s Game at an impressionable age, and ever since then, have been madly in love with the idea of flying around weightless. The Vomit Comet is not a good enough substitute. I want a large open playground-ish space where I can quite literally bounce off the walls for as long as I want. That, more than actually being in space, is what I dream of (though the being-in-space thing would also be very cool).

E. Lily Yu

I would happily go for a four-day weekend on the Moon or spend two weeks hiking across Mars. (I once had a love affair with that planet. I’d spend all day flipping through THEMIS images and imagining what it would be like to walk down there.)

James Patrick Kelly

I’ll play curmudgeon this time around, because I do think that the kind of space travel that has been getting discussed is about as likely as to happen as trips to Oz, Narnia or Middle Earth. What sticks out for me in the initial prompt is the missing adjective before “reasonably available:” safe. I’m not worried about equipment failures; those will happen or not. What I am worried about is the effects of space travel on the human body. We were not designed to be weightless; spending time in micro g is not good for us. And we were certainly not designed for extended exposure to cosmic rays.  And let’s not forget the distances that we need to travel; long trips means longer exposure to galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) and large solar energetic particle (SEP) events. This exposure can be mitigated, at unknown cost, but can it be reduced to zero? We don’t know enough about variations in GCR (it’s not a constant) at this point to say, but it seems unlikely.

I do think that we will send people into near space and maybe even to Mars. But those people will pay a high price in longevity and the ability to have children that will give many-would be astronauts pause.

I drank the space adventure Kool Aid as a young lad, and it grieves me to type these sentences. If, at the end of my life, some traveler just returned from the stars throws them in my face, I will die a happier man. But I am not holding my breath.

Cecelia Holland

I’ve had children. I’m 70. I’ll go tomorrow.

To be continued…

One thought on “Roundtable on Space Exploration

  • July 7, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    Wow – I’m underwhelmed by the enthusiasm. “Maybe…too old…not practical…uncomfortable…things-to-be-afraid-of”. With such overwhelming interest as is displayed here, we’re sure to get back into space real soon now….


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