Space, The Same Old Frontier
Posted by hyperpat on October 30, 2008
Over at SF Signal, there is an extended discussion about whether SF has at least partly caused the current general disinterest in space exploration, occasioned by a comment by Buzz Aldrin to that effect.
My answer to that is yes, it’s at least partly true that some of the presentations of SF, especially those by the visual media, have caused a fair number of people to dismiss space exploration as either silly childish dreams not worth spending money on, or have focused the attention on wildly unrealistic expectations of being able to merrily zip around universe in minutes, against which the real space program’s accomplishments look extremely drab and uninteresting.
But it’s far from wholly true. Again and again, when you talk to the people who are actually involved in doing the real work of space exploration, the scientists and engineers for whom this field is their daily bread and butter, you hear the statement that SF was one of the major things that inspired them to get into the field in the first place. What many forget, when they see the overall lack of interest in space exploration, is that those who actually work in this field of endeavor constitute a tiny fraction of the entire populace. For the great majority, all they see and care about is their shiny new tech toys, their ever more capable Dick Tracy phones, their awesome high-definition flat panel TVs, their amazingly capable video game machines, and these people have no idea how these devices came to be, have no idea of how much effort and money it took to create them, have no concept of the deep infrastructure needed to build them, do not understand the economics driving their development, have no clue about the scientific principles and discoveries that make them possible, nor do they care.
Space exploration is merely the most visible result of what science can accomplish. The real ‘final’ frontier is not space exploration itself, nor has it ever been. The frontier is human knowledge, and additions to that mass of facts has always been the prerogative of a small group of people who just have to know what is over the next hill, who have to understand how a bee flies, who are completely unhappy about things that they can’t explain, who continuously dream about doing something no one else has ever done before. It is exactly this type of person that has continuously driven civilization beyond existing boundaries, has made the average human existence much more than pure subsistence. Every once in a while, the dreams of such people have invaded the space of the average person, and for brief moments have ignited a collective drive to accomplish a particular goal. One such moment was the initial drive to reach the moon. But such moments never last for long, and the average person goes back to his everyday concerns, of putting bread on his family’s table, and money spent on ‘dream’ goals again is looked upon with deep suspicion as not doing anything for them.
Science fiction is all about what is possible. It’s roots are deeply grounded in the concept that there is always something new to discover, and as such it mainly appeals to exactly the type of person who is not satisfied with the status quo, who needs something beyond the everyday to satisfy their internal reason to exist. For this type of person, science fiction stories with imaginative ideas can inspire, and in some cases even lead directly to new discoveries and accomplishments, as the inspired person drives to make that idea a reality. But for the average person, SF is merely another form of entertainment, and when the real world doesn’t provide the same level of drama as what he sees on the movie screen, concludes that it is just fanciful fiction, and doesn’t deserve dollars out of his pocket.
It’s not that SF has killed interest in space exploration, it’s the everyday, humdrum demands of living that have killed it in the absence of any great drama or immediately visible economic benefit. Space exploration is merely one more thing that’s barely visible on the average person’s radar, as it apparently has no immediate, direct affect on his life. And this will probably always be true: the very few will drive what’s new, the great majority will merely stumble on.