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The Unreachable Frontier

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Science fiction writers arguing about space exploration is a bit like fantasy writers arguing about which sword to use in a melee. The nearest the latter will have got to an edged-weapon is rolling a D20, and the former likely don’t know Max-Q from LOR. And there’s no reason why they should. Many sf writers, in fact, have no interest in the science and engineering of space exploration – by humans or by robots. It has no bearing on the stories they tell.

Some sf writers, of course, are actual working space scientists and engineers. Like Gregory Benford, who is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. Or Geoffrey A Landis, who works for NASA, and has presented his idea for living in dirigibles high in Venus’s atmosphere both on television and in fiction (in a recent issue of Asimov’s).

Myself, I’m no rocket scientist, but I’m interested in the subject and have read a number of books on it – see my other blog, A Space About Books About Space. Admittedly, I’m particularly interested in the hardware and engineering of the Apollo programme, which is pretty much a historical subject. Fascinating as the engineering solutions used by NASA were, progress has rendered many of them obsolete. Except for launch vehicles. The rocket engine has not substantially changed since the days of the Verein für Raumschiffahrt. Nonetheless, you can’t help pick up some of the relevant science when reading books by the likes of Tom Stafford (Gemini 6A, Gemini 9A, Apollo 10, ASTP), Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17), or Michael Collins (Gemini 10, Apollo 11). Not to mention books about individual missions, or various aspects of human space exploration.

Sf writer Charles Stross recently posted an interesting piece about colonising space on his blog here. He argued that “space colonization is implicitly incompatible with both libertarian ideology and the myth of the American frontier”. The dream, he explained, is driven by nostalgia. And there’s an impedance mismatch between aspirations fuelled by the achievements of wild West pioneers and the reality of the inimical environment found outside the Earth’s atmosphere. In ye olde days, you could run away from what you felt was unwarranted interference in your affairs – sod society, I want to do what I want – and head out into the blue yonder. There was hardship and danger, but the environment those Randian pioneers were entering was an environment for which the human organism was adapted. That’s not true of space, or of worlds other than Earth.

S Andrew Swann, a libertarian sf writer, whose books I admit I’ve not read, took exception to this – see here. He counter-argued that the collective effort required to colonise space is not incompatible with libertarian ideology, “as long as the colony is a privately run enterprise and the inhabitants were all there by their own choice, and aren’t living off the threat of force to appropriate the resources needed for their survival”. Rubbish. In a privately-run enterprise, the inhabitants will not be there by choice, they will be there because they can afford to be there. And if they can no longer pay for the environment which keeps them alive, then… It’s a bit like health care. Can’t afford it? Whoops, sorry: you die. Unless, of course, you have a national health service.

The Apollo programme was a socialist programme, and deliberately so. James Webb spread throughout the country the money provided by the US Administration to meet Kennedy’s goal. By distributing the billions of dollars required to reach the Moon, he improved industry, education, and general standards of living in many parts of the US. Of course, there was a lot of wheeling and dealing taking place in Washington, such that some areas were chosen in preference to others.

Space is not an environment fit for human beings. You have to carry everything you need for life with you. One in ten space travellers is likely to catch cancer from cosmic radiation. If anything breaks down, you’re stuffed. The Apollo Lunar Module was one of the most reliable vehicles ever built. If it hadn’t worked, the astronauts it carried would have been stranded on the Moon; they could not be rescued.

But if libertarian politics are incompatible with the realities of space exploration and colonisation, they’re not apparently incompatible with space opera. But then most science fiction set in the Solar system, or on other planets, is essentially fantasy in that regard. It features magical drives which allow ships to travel faster than the speed of light, and magical devices to create a gravitic field inside the ship. Not to mention magical technology to create hulls which are not susceptible to meteoroids and space debris, magical closed-loop environment systems which function without any apparent maintenance or reprovisioning, magical navigation systems which can take a ship across distances measuring hundreds of light years with phenomenal accuracy… In science fiction, Clarke’s dictum would be better recast as “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from wish fulfillment”.

There is little or no sf which engages realistically with the realities of living and working outside the sustaining envelope of Earth’s atmosphere. New Space Opera allegedly introduced some hard sf to space opera, but that chiefly seemed to be a recognition that the universe is a very big place. It’s possible technological quantum leaps in our future may make interstellar – or even interplanetary – travel a reality, but we have a fairly good understanding of the universe right now and there’s very little room to maneouvre in what we know.

There are those sf novels which describe a near-future in which humanity – well, the US – has spread out among the planets and moons of the Solar system. Even they skate over the difficulties of living and working in space; and they’re also predicated on the same sort of libertarian claptrap espoused by the likes of S Andrew Swann – “there’s gold in them thar ast’roids!”

That may well be why most sf – space opera or hard sf – uses magical wish-fulfillment technology to create an environment in which a story can be set. That environment need not be realistic – or rather, it need only create a sufficiently earth-like environment in which realistic stories can be set. The universe is, after all, the biggest canvas of all. Science and technology and engineering and politics and economics prevent us from writing on it. So we must use our imaginations. And if we must imagine away those hurdles in order to use that canvas, then why shouldn’t we?

But I’d still like to see some sf that makes a serious effort to depict humans in space realistically…

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11 thoughts on “The Unreachable Frontier

  1. What do you think about Robinson’s Red Mars? I felt his take on the colonization of Mars and the development of the program was BY far the best and most realistic I’d ever read… I wish I remembered more about the build-up though – i.e., if he uses any “magical wish-fulfillment technology — hehe

    Love the post. Thanks! Nice food for thought…

  2. Interesting post as usual Ian but you certainly haven’t shown that libertarian principles and space colonisation are mutually exlusive.

    Rubbish. In a privately-run enterprise, the inhabitants will not be there by choice, they will be there because they can afford to be there.

    Why does that make it un-libertarian? It makes it un-egalitarian, true. But egalitarianism has nothing to do with libertarianism.

    Do we need government and “socialist” enterprises to get us into space? Well, I don’t think it helps when governments agree that no private organisations/individuals are allowed to own land on the moon. That’s bound to discourage private endeavour in that regard (leaving asside the question of whether it would be viable anyway).

    Was the Apollo programme as beneficial to society as you claim? Where did those billions of dollars come from; the tax payer. Who’s to say they would not have been better off if they kept their money? Or that the money could not have been used more effectively if the objective had only been to improve people’s standards of living? I’m not denying their are spin off benefits from government sponsored space programmes. But I’m not so sure that the benefits outweigh the costs to society.

    • Libertarianism means little government and a free market. The idea of a government body responsible for maintaining the environment would be anathema to them. And since no free-market capitalist would run a business without expecting to make a profit… then it follows that only those who can afford the services will be able to use them. And that includes air, food, water, shelter from radiation, etc…

      As for the need for government organisations to get us into space. I don’t see any private corporations willing to shell out the amount of investment needed. They’re focused on short term gains, and while some markets may have a high entry-cost – throwing satellites into orbit, for example – they’re still a damn sight cheaper than the capital required to set up a Helium-3 operation on the Moon.

      The contracts for NASA’s space programme were spread across the US, rather than simply being concentrated in a handful of industrial areas. They built an entire high-tech space centre from nothing in Texas, for example. People moved to the area to work there, and that pulled in the support and retail infrastructure they required to live. The influence of Webb’s largesse in many areas is well recognised. As for spin-offs… your life right now would be very different without at least two devices which are benefits of the space programme: the computer and the mobile phone. NASA ordered millions of integrated circuits when building the Apollo Guidance Computer, and arguably kick-started the semiconductor industry into existence.

      • As I said, I’m not denying the many benefits of the space programme, only pointing out that you’re only looking at one side of the equation. The other side being much harder to measure because it involves lost opportunities. How many job creating enterprises were curtailed or not started at all because of the increased tax burden to pay for the space programme?

        And yes, it might still be un-economically viable (un-profitable) for private enterprise to start colonising space. It doesn’t mean that it always will be. Private enterprise will start colonising space when it becomes profitable to do so. Until then, one could argue, there are better uses for our scarce resources…

  3. Other NASA spin-offs (and research areas) include…

    Enriched Baby Food
    Improved water treatment systems
    Scratch Resistant Lenses
    Swimming pool purification!
    Portable coolers/warmers
    Sports Training Equipment

    NASA research also helped develop
    Athletic shows (the shock absorbing shoe soles)
    SHock-absorbing helmets
    Smoke detectors
    Trash compactors

    Also, NASA research helped make more viable solar panels etc…

    In short, the list is virtually endless…
    Sports Bras!!!!

  4. Simon, I don’t get your point. Are you saying the US Administration would have used the money they spent on the Apollo programme on creating new businesses? Because that’s not how the US government works. The money spent on putting twelve men on the Moon was a fraction of that spent on the Vietnam War – in fact, some of the companies involved in Apollo, such as Grumman and North American, already had the US government in the form of the armed forces as their biggest customers. The increased tax burden… IIRC, Apollo cost the US taxpayer approx $5 a year for a decade. But it’s not like there was an additional “NASA Tax” implemented to raise that money.

    It’s not that space-based industries or colonies are unprofitable, it’s that the ROI is really long-term and the cost of entry is phenomenally high. There are certainly profits to be made – all those minerals in the asteroids, for example. Or free energy. But no company is going to say to its shareholders, “Sorry, no dividends for the next 100 years while we invest in the infrastructure for our space operations. But just think of the huge profits your great-great-grandchildren will make!”

    I also think it is horribly unsafe to let private companies run the utilities required to sustain life in an off-Earth colony – cf Enron and the California brown-outs. Unless they’re really heavily regulated. Which is exactly what libertarians don’t want.

    • I guess that for private enterprise to engage in space exploration, it would require the long development process to be split up into smaller steps that would yield profits after each stage and not only after the final completion of the entire process. Which is not inconceivable I think.

      • Not so much “one giant leap” as “lots of small steps”… But even then, each step is hideously expensive. A company could invest heavily in launch vehicles – as, say, SpaceX, has done – and then turn a profit throwing satellites into orbit. But an entirely different order of engineering is required once you move out of Earth orbit. And heading somewhere any distance away, such as Mars or the Asteroid Belt, is several orders of magnitude more difficult still. I’m not saying it’s impossible, or will never happen, just that the economic realities of it don’t support the pipe-dream.

  5. I’m pretty sure NASA receives some minuscule .7% of the budget or something… Obviously it was higher during the Apollo Program but still, it’s very small in comparison to the costs of war. The benefits gained massively out weight the tax burden.

  6. Michael Flynn (two-time winner of the libertarian Prometheus award) wrote a fairly convincing, quasi-libertarian accout of privately-run space exploration in Firestar. After all, it does look like the American government won’t be doing much significant work in space for a while.

    That only has to do with exploration, though, and not colonization. A libertarian solution, I think, would be something to do with companies having responsibility for their workers, but I can see how that would still get one into the some of same problems as you note above. Very interestingly, I should add.

  7. Pingback: Calling occupants of interplanetary craft « It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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