On 8 November, Phobos-Grunt, a Roscosmos mission to a moon of Mars, launched. Unfortunately, soon after achieving orbit the rocket engine designed to boost the space probe out of Earth orbit and on its journey to the Red Planet failed to fire. Engineers are working hard to fix the problem. They have until 12 November. After that, the space probe will not have enough fuel to make the trip.
Phobos-Grunt is an interesting mission. Yes, it’s a robot, and a crewed mission would have been much more exciting. But. It is a sample-return mission. Phobos-Grunt will land on Phobos, scoop up some of the regolith, and then a small section of the space probe will return the sample to Earth. The trip to Mars will take almost a year. And the same back again. In order to return some 200 gm of soil from a moon only 26.8 by 22.4 by 18.4 kilometres in size. It will be the first space probe to return an extraterrestial sample to Earth since Luna 24 in 1976.
Mars at its closest approach to Earth is 56 million km, when Earth is at aphelion and Mars at perihelion. John Carter might be able to travel there in the blink of an eye – and lose all his clothes in the process – but Phobos-Grunt is having to make the journey the non-magical way using a Hohmann Transfer orbit. That puts the distance it needs to travel closer to 200 million kilometres. Phobos-Grunt will leave most of itself behind on Phobos and only a small capsule will return to the surface of the Earth.
Perhaps a detail or two there need to be stressed. 200 million kilometres. That’s roughly the same as travelling from London to New York about 36,000 times. If you did that continuously, refueling in the air, you’d be flying constantly for around 30 years. And then, once you’d completed your journey, you’d present scientists with a handful of dust. This is not to stress the inefficiency of the Phobos-Grunt mission, but its difficulty. Or rather, the near-impossibility of space travel to other planets. Which is something science fiction has traditionally ignored. Unless, of course, you count arriving stark naked at your destination a “difficulty”…
Looking closer to home, there are places which present real challenges to explorers. Such as, er, Challenger Deep. It’s considerably closer than Phobos, but it’s still 10,900 metres beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean. That’s more than the height of Everest (which is 8,848 m). Challenger Deep has only been visited three times, and only once by human beings (see here). Two subsequent visits by robotic vehicles, in 1995 and 2009, took samples from the ocean floor. But Challenger Deep presents its own difficulties. The trip there might be relatively trivial. You just sink. But the pressure down there is something else. It’s over 1000 atmospheres, or 1250 kilograms per square centimetre. For Phobos-Grunt, the reverse is true: though extreme heat and cold, and radiation may cause problems, the vacuum of space is almost benign by comparison. On the other hand, whatever you send to Phobos has to survive a year-long trip…
It sometimes seems to me that the point of science fiction is to show how science and/or technology could overcome such problems. Not render them trivial, or even completely ignore them. But overcome them. Solve them. When Hugo Gernsback started Amazing Stories in 1926, he saw the genre as chiefly didactic. I don’t think it needs to be that – or rather, it doesn’t need to be overtly didactic. When Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange, he intended for the novel to “brainwash” its reader into understanding Nadsat. That’s what sf should do. And while I don’t subscribe to Kim Stanley Robinson’s “the infodump is just another narrative technique”, I do think a reader should put down a sf text knowing more about something than they did when they picked it up. But as long as the genre continues to ignore the issues which science and technology can address, as long as it turns a blind eye to the obstacles which actually prevent its plots from occurring, then readers will not learn anything new from a sf text.
Does that mean science fiction should comprise only “improving” texts? Yes, why not? It’s not as if learning is a bad thing, after all.