Ah yes, we science fiction writers dream of interstellar travel and meeting otherworldly aliens. Imagine the excitement of a young lad watching Walter Cronkite broadcast Apollo 11’s moon landing. I must have visited the Disney Futureworld’s, Spaceship Earth a dozen times. Can’t tell you how many times as a tyke, I dreamed my real parents were due to pick me up from the star system Yucantgetthrfromhere. As an adult, it’s depressing when we have to face the real possibility, humans can’t get there from here.
The World is Not Enough, a WSJ book review by best selling sci-fi author, John Gribbin summarized a mostly positive outtake of Chris Impey’s new book, Beyond: Our Future in Space, which claims human wanderlust will eventually draw mankind to the limitless unknown. I especially like the book cover; a fully suited astronaut entering an elevator. Going up, sir?
In Gibbon’s review, Beyond takes the reader down the road of “human restlessness that drove us out of Africa”, starting with 2,000 hardy souls who survived a near extinction event 60,000 years ago (I wrote about the extinction event last year and you can find it here). Impey’s premise is that wanderlust is in our genes, and eventually humans will yearn to explore our solar system, offering a timeline for a commercial space industry starting in 2035. Holy disappointment, Heinlein, we were supposed to be on Mars by the year 2000.
As a writer, dreamer, casual ponderer of the cosmos and our place in it, I’m left to wonder why space exploration is grounded.
Money is a realistic explanation. Plucky individuals looking for the new uncharted territory will need a lot of it to break free of earth’s gravity with regularity, certainly a lot more than Christopher Columbus needed for not discovering America. Seven billion souls to care for right here at home has already become a budget breaker, and momma is still getting pregnant.
Gribben had an interesting counter opinion to Impey’s valuation of present day developments. Our rocket science is stuck with 1960’s technology akin to a steam locomotive. “You equip it with a computer, air conditioning … put a driver with a university degree in the cabin, and it will still be the same steam locomotive. It brought to mind Rockhound’s offhand comment when their shuttle takes off in the movie Armageddon. “You realize we’re sitting on 45,000 pounds of fuel, … and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder? Makes you feel good doesn’t it?” No wonder the Russians had vodka on their missions. With this kind of technological progress, it’s hard to imagine going interstellar anytime soon, or anytime period.
Gribben referenced Impey’s timeline when we can expect a starting gun for exploring our little cul-de-sac in the galaxy. Not surprisingly, Impey offers that by 2115, “children born off-Earth who’ve never been home, will come of age and agitate for self-governance.” Can you hear the fife and drum, heralding the twenty-second century revolution? It’s a common theme in human history and regular occurring plot line in science fiction. We certainly won’t get beyond our own solar system unless we get past our human predilection for playing an old childhood game, Kick the Can.
As for hearing from alien relatives in the galaxy, Gibben cites Impey’s book gives us the oft-quoted reality check, “why are there no alien space probes signaling their presence to us“, alluding that we may very well be alone in the universe. Gibbon wrote a book on the subject in 2011, Alone in the Universe. Another 2011 article on this very question is worth a revisit if you want to know more about The Great Silence. The article suggests sentient aliens may have existed, but with our youngish 4 billion year-old birth certificate in a universe that’s well past puberty at fourteen, civilizations may have gone extinct before earth was born. Guess my imaginary alien parents aren’t coming after all.
I’m not ready to give up on the dream of interstellar travel. If humanity has learned anything, it’s that humanity still has a lot to learn. The last two decades have confirmed the presence of black holes, developed space telescopes to see extrasolar planets, revealed space isn’t just a vacuum, and enlightened us with possibilities of a multiverse. Surely we can do better than strap oversized bottle rockets to our kiesters to mine asteroids.
Based on John Gribben’s review, Beyond: Our Future in Space, looks to be an upbeat discourse about man’s journey to reach the unknown and a worthy add to my TBR stack. However, I’ll continue writing about a more distant future where we don’t go extinct before taking the road to another star system.
Guess that’s why they call us writers, dreamers.
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