What is it that inspires so many people to gape in jaw-dropping awe at the spectacular landscape and ecology of Pandora, the imagined Earth-like extrasolar planetary moon in James Cameron’s Avatar movies, or to share Mark Watney’s deep sense of loneliness and gritty determination in the face of the hostile Mars environment in Andy Weir’s The Martian?
Or, for that matter, what social or evolutionary force appears to be driving more than a half-century of continuously-successful and compelling space-based blockbuster films, TV shows, books, blogs, and web sites in general?
I believe the answer is simple: In the realm of space, at least, science facts inspire science fiction, and the more we learn about the worlds around us, the more we dream about visiting them ourselves.
Of course, most of us are gravitationally glued to planet Earth.
Fewer than 600 people (out of the 100 billion in human history) have yet had the opportunity to travel in space; only 27 of those guys (all guys) have gone out to deep space, orbiting the Moon, and only 12 of them have actually walked on the Moon. The astronaut corps has been quite an exclusive club during the Space Age so far, and one could imagine that the low odds of joining that club would make people in general less interested in space. I think that might have been the case, except for one thing: NASA and other space agencies don’t just send people into space, they also send robots – hundreds of them over the past 60 years – as advance scouts, explorers, and avatars. Robotic space exploration has allowed us to virtually see, taste, touch, walk, and fly over previously unknown lands (and seas), beaming images and other data back to billions of us all stuck back here on Earth. The textbooks and Wikipedia pages have been re-written countless times now as what were once mere points of land become transformed into real worlds.
And that is precisely where science fiction can take over.
In my opinion, some of the best science fiction is “best” because it is rooted in what is real, what is practical, what readers and viewers can imagine might really be possible, perhaps even within their own lifetimes. So Mark Watney’s Mars is the cold, dry, windy, hostile world that we already know it really is; Cameron’s Pandora is an entirely plausible habitable moon around a giant planet because we already know that there are habitable moons around giant planets in our own solar system. We can even give authors and directors some leeway on the physics – warp drive, transporters, light sabers – if the settings are compelling and evocative of places that we might know or can easily envision to be real, and if the stories and struggles of the people in those environments can be projected into our own psyches.
But what about the “vice versa” part?
How can science fiction inspire science fact?
That path is perhaps less direct, but no less powerful. To me, it starts with writers, filmmakers, artists, and others with specific visions that they convey through their work. They could be technically-oriented visions, as in the imagined geosynchronous satellites that Arthur C. Clarke first wrote about in the 1940s, or societal visions, as in the semi-utopian United Federation of Planets envisioned by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in the turbulent late 1960s.
When I was young, the vision of the space future depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was particularly powerful. Why wouldn’t the airlines eventually become spacelines? Why wouldn’t there be bases on the Moon, and people traveling to the moons of Jupiter soon? Fiction created prescient, realizable futures that not only inspired, but motivated some people to vector their lives and careers in those directions. It was (or, will be) only a matter of time as technology, geopolitics, and the human urge to explore catch up with the powerful visions of influential science fiction and make some of those possibilities become realities.
I believe that we’re on the brink of a major expansion in the global economy of our planet, extending it out into deep space. The region from low Earth orbit (300-500 km up) out to the geosynchronous satellites (around 35,000 km up) is already a multi-billion dollar place of business and government expenditures, producing tangible benefits in communications, weather forecasting, Earth monitoring, defense, and materials science that is improving life down on Earth. But that is really close to home: If the Earth were a basketball, the International Space Station would only be as high above the surface as a dime held against that basketball, and the weather satellites would only be about 3 basketballs away.
What I’m talking about, however, is an expansion into deep space, destinations (dozens or many thousands of basketballs away) like the Moon, asteroids that orbit not too far from our planet, or even Mars and beyond. And I believe that there is a great business model, tried and true from Earthbound experience, that will make that potential expansion a reality: tourism.
Sure, we need advances in technology and reliability to reduce the cost of getting into space (just like the airline industry a century ago), but we’re seeing those advances already starting to happen now, with startup companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, as well as many previously-established space companies, using a combination of government and private funding to revolutionize the launch market.
For commercial space tourism to become as routine and economically mature as Earth-bound tourism might take a century or two; maybe more, maybe less. Thanks to 20th and 21st century astronauts and robots, however, we already know many of the most stunning and exciting places that families, adventure travelers, lovers, and citizen science eco-tourists will want to go.
Now all it will take is the vision and brainpower to make those science fiction fantasies into a fun, affordable, educational, and fact-based reality.
Jim Bell is an astronomer, planetary scientist, and Professor in the School of Earth and Space
Exploration at Arizona State University. He is President of The Planetary Society (planetary.org),
and the author of “The Ultimate Interplanetary Travel Guide”, available now from Sterling.