Reader Request Week 2022 #7: Space Exploration
Posted on April 14, 2022 Posted by John Scalzi 25 Comments
What is your relationship to and opinion of, as a science fiction author and just as a person, the present-day effort of space exploration? (Human astronauts, robotic probes, astronomy with ground-based telescopes, or any other aspect of it.)
I don’t think it’s going to be a surprise when I say that I am an unabashed geek for all of it. I love all the whole gamut of exploration, and happily consume whatever news pops up about astronomy, astrophysics, planetary exploration, and crewed missions. I know astronauts and people who have landed probes on Mars! They’re all super cool people! My enthusiasm for it existed prior to my becoming a science fiction writer, and I suspect, in the worst case scenario that sees my science fiction career coming to a grinding halt, I’ll still enjoy our space exploration endeavors. This is all a no-brainer to me.
With that said, some subtle wrinkles to my enthusiasm:
One, in general I lean toward robotic missions over crewed missions, because I think at this point they offer more value, in terms of what we learn about our universe, than crewed missions do. Please note this is a lean, not a “do only one kind of exploration,” and I think we as a nation and as a species are perfectly capable of doing both robotic and crewed missions. And should! If I were the one planning missions for NASA (or whomever), however, I would probably prioritize telescopes and planetary missions and such over putting human footprints back on the moon, or on Mars.
Two, on the subject of crewed missions, I’m reasonably optimistic about the upcoming Artemis missions to the moon, but I’m deeply skeptical that we’ll actually land humans on Mars before I shuffle off this mortal coil (presuming a reasonable lifespan). This is because, in nautical terms, going to the moon is like leaving England and traveling to Ireland in gentle seas; going to Mars is leaving England and traveling to the Antarctic Peninsula, with gale force winds and five-story waves the whole way. Boasts by administrators and oligarchs aside, it’s gonna be a whole project, and I suspect whoever goes first should be planning on it being a one-way trip for them. People would still go! But, yeah.
Three, more than a few of the private crewed space missions seem little more than expensive press releases for billionaires, which I don’t love; again, I would like space missions to be about science more than anything else. But also, no one is asking me, and also, with regard to the incipient wave of space tourism, if millionaires want to give ridiculous sums to billionaires just to go into the upper reaches of the atmosphere to experience microgravity for a few minutes, well, it’s their money, I suppose. In their place I would spend that money elsewhere.
Four, what I really want are probes to the moons that we are reasonably sure have bodies of liquid water on them. If we’re going to find extraterrestrial life anytime soon, this is going to be the one of the most likely ways, and I think finding that life should be one of the priorities of our space missions.
(The other was we’re going to find extraterrestrial life? Super massive telescopes that can image the atmospheres (or at least, the spectral absorption of atmospheres) of planets around other stars. Atmospheric oxygen (probably) doesn’t just happen, folks!)
But again, I’m happy with what I get, which is good because it’s not like I’m making the policy or building the spaceships. Space! It’s my jam.
Pretty much the same. I was just at NASA down in Florida last month and they’re definitely gearing a lot of their content toward kids somewhat with the idea that we’re-gonna-need-a-lot-of-bright-STEM people in the next decade or two because of Artemis.
I also spent a fair amount of time musing over why we rather abruptly stopped going to the moon in 1972. I think the practical idea was, they started working on the Space Shuttle around that time and didn’t have the financial resources to do both.
And I suppose sort of apropos, I was interviewing a guy recently for a white paper for the biopharma industry and he made some comment about, “We put a man on the moon, we should be able to do this,” and I reflected that it’s been 50 years since we bothered putting a man on the moon, maybe that’s an expression that requires an update.
Going to the moon in the 60’s was a great PR campaign to dump tons of money into developing ICBM’S to keep us ahead of the russians. Sputnik proved Russia could nuke us from siberia.
Once we had icbms, we didnt need to keep going to the moon.
“People would still go!”
And that might be the problem with crewed missions. No matter how dangerous the mission and how unnecessary the crew onboard – the space agencies would still find volunteers for these suicide missions. I don’t consider it ethical to use their naivity about the dangers of outer space to create some real-life hero stories for an audience here on Earth. I’ve just been googling Stanisław Lem (by the way – he is really worth reading), because I think I once read an interview in which he said something quite similar.
First things first, I think before humans should return to the Moon or even land on Mars, we need to send robots and probes ahead to build the necessary infrastructure.
The recent fuss over ‘Who will be the first billionaire in space?’ did all seem a bit DuckTales to me.
Suicide mission to mars got plenty of volunteers
I grew up as a Space Coast baby, and I’m still a supporter of most things space related.
My dad was an engineer at Cape Canaveral. He played a role in the launch of many satellites, including Mariner, Surveyor, and Voyager (still going !). A lot of science came out of unmanned missions.
The last Saturn V launch occurred while I was in college. A group of us traveled down from Gainesville and I was able to witness the most awe inspiring sight of my life so far-a Saturn V lifting off at night. I hope we have more missions involving astronauts our future.
And those volunteers are the reason I hope that mission never takes off.
The missions to the moon were an inspiration because the astronauts didn’t die on the moon.
This way they inspired millions of young kinds to be interested in science and technology.
A few years after these volunteers landed, Mars will be the planet on whose surface their dead and desiccated bodies lie. Mummified forever with their dead eyes unendlingly starring into eternity. Instead of an interest in science and technology that might only inspire a new genre of horror stories from outer space.
Anything other than robotic probes to Mars is premature, IMO. First, let’s figure out what’s needed to maintain a long-term settlement on the Moon, where if something hits the fan (and isn’t instantly lethal) we’ve got a decent chance of being able to send help. Then, once we sorta know what we’re doing and have tested our ideas, we can start thinking about a manned Mars mission.
The Moon mission would also make most sense. One of the favorites, if you asks astronomers, would be a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon. And while most of it would also need to be built by robots, I see how it would justify having a maintenance crew there.
“Instead of an interest in science and technology that might only inspire a new genre of horror stories from outer space.”
IDK, I like that opening you just wrote.
Going to the moons sounds interesting, but these days I’m not sure we can be trusted. The Ukraine/Russia war is not reassuring. We shouldn’t go anywhere else until we can trust ourselves to behave.
(Illogical but so is this war & destruction.)
@ Stephanie: It may be quite awhile…
Michael”Mars will be the planet on whose surface their dead and desiccated bodies lie”
In another life I would consider going. The reason for it is physics. Mars has little atmosphere, so theres no air braking you get for free and parachutes arent very useful. But its still a big planet, so its a big gravity well to climb out of, which means a lot of fuel for lift off. Which means a lot of fuel has to be brought down, which means more fuel to slow it down and land.
So, right now, we could get humans there, but we couldnt lift off again. If we could make fuel on the surface, maybe with robots, maybe we could refuel a rocket and bring them back home.
But right now, a one way trip is just the cold equations.
Stephanie:”Illogical but so is this war”
The war is terrible. But not illogical. Up to 25% of russia’s gdp comes from fossil fuels. Much of that money comes from selling it to europe, about 80% of those exports to europe go through ukraine, and ukraine and russia have had a lot of disputes recently over these pipelines that cut into russias (and therefore Putins) profits.
If russia can install a puppet government in ukraine, all these disputes go away, and all profits go back to russia.
Space isn’t easy. But it’s worth the effort.
All those exoplanets, too, photobombing the stars with their weirdnesses.
Personally, I don’t get out much any more. I still have a reservation for a lunar flight with PanAm somewhere, but it’s been delayed.
::insert snarky comment about Matt Damon eating potatoes grown in his own poop here::
In response to Michael’s strange comment about not going to Mars ever? I don’t think Scalzi meant it as “They’d go to Mars to die!” as much as “They’d go to Mars to explore, and to build a life on a new frontier.”
That last bit sounds strangely familiar….
At some point in my past, millionaire was paying Soviet Union (which I guess counts as billionaire) $20M for a ride into space. And I said, if I won a $21M lottery I would spend $20M of it for that space ride. Of course I wasn’t so old and set in my ways then.
JanOZ: Just to be THAT guy, strictly speaking Apollo 17’s night launch wasn’t the final launch of a Saturn V. The Skylab space station was put in orbit by a Saturn V the following May. But Apollo 17 was indeed the last manned Saturn V launch.
The Moon-landing program wasn’t a guise for a secret plan to build ICBMs. We had plenty of Cold War impetus to build all kinds of expensive programs, both with and without rockets, without the Moon landing as a cover.
No, the reasons the Moon program was cut off were 1) general budgetary cutbacks, initially on anything that wasn’t Vietnam; 2) that it had begun as a way to beat the Russians on a tag race. Once we’d accomplished that, NASA found it very hard to convince the policymakers that we should keep going back.
Manned space flight is risky, and we haven’t done enough of it to do it as reliably as we might wish. Every major setback brought our space program to a screeching halt, sometimes for years, while we evaluated what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again (Apollo 13 was an anomaly, because despite the initial catastrophe, we brought the astronauts home again safely and it was a technical win.)
That said, there will eventually be pioneers to other planets. Some will likely die in these other places, occasionally gruesomely. Humans however are stubborn; if you give them a valuable enough goal, they will keep trying, and we maybe will get off this rock permanently.
The thing about space exploration that makes it very definitely not like Age of Exploration voyages is that there is nobody to enslave or steal from at the far end of the trip, and no big piles of their already-collected-and-refined wealth to loot and cart home. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of this difference so it’s ordinarily ignored instead.
Also, have you ever looked, I mean really looked, at how much harder and more expensive it is to send a canned ape to do a robot’s job?
Also too, have you ever really thought about the health effects of long-term residency in space and what that means for interplanetary travel, especially since the long-term space residents so far have had Earth’s magnetic fields to shield them from the worst of the cosmic rays?
I’m one of Heinlein’s Children. I learned to read, almost, from the juveniles. I was a little Apollo nerd at age 9 when the moon landings were starting, able to explain to the ignorant grownups why there were so many parts to the spacecraft and mission. When I was 17 I still thought I might be an astronaut someday.
Von Braun had no idea what kind of practical problems there would turn out to be with building his space station. Hell, 40 years after the Space Shuttle started flying there is still no mass-production of space suits. The basic person in space is still a fighter pilot or a PhD engineer, not a 22-year-old welding rigger with a HS education. And there is no sign of these things changing basically ever.
Don’t even get me started on the problems with building a sealed environment that could possibly keep people inside alive for even a one-way trip to Mars.
In summary, the use cases for manned space travel are basically nonexistent and the practical obstacles are outrageously high.
Exploration by robots is fine, but we must aim for finding opportunities for colonization – that is the reason for one-way crewed missions. I would volunteer for that in a minute. We also must cultivate interest and passion for Science so we don’t destroy our homeworld, and our civilization.
You and others seem to be assuming that NASA (or others) would be willing to send astronauts on a one-way mission. I really don’t see any evidence that that has ever been considered an option. If they don’t have a solid plan to get them back, they just won’t go. The many years since the last moon landing are a testament to that. NASA has gotten very good at not going somewhere as far as manned spaceflight is concerned. If it were not for SpaceX, they would not have a manned spaceflight capability at all (and don’t get me started on the boondoggle that is Artemis).
The one-way trip thing is a popular trope in fiction, but NASA has never worked that way and I don’t think SpaceX would send someone one-way unless they had a reasonable plan for staying indefinitely, which will be very hard to do.
On a completely different subject, may I compliment you on your choice of musical accompaniment? The soundtrack to Cosmos was and still is one of my favorites, the piece by Vangelis in particular.
There is no purpose for humans in space except studying what happens to humans in space. Since the answer is pretty clearly “Nothing good,” there is no longer a purpose for humans in space. It is now just a stunt.
And no, we will never go to Mars.