Reader Request Week 2022 #7: Space Exploration
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.