What Killed the Space Race?

Science fiction did, argues Adam Roberts.

For a number of reasons I have been thinking recently about the 1969 moon landings. Partly it was the fact that the recent series-finale of the AMC TV serial Mad Men was set during that hot July, with all the characters agog at the splendour of Armstrong’s one small step. The show recaptured the mood of that time: a whole world was filled with an almost transcendent excitement—and with good cause. In my opinion, in a thousand years the names of all the politicians, artists, movie stars, scientists and philosophers will be long forgotten, but people will still know the name of Neil Armstrong.

Another reason this has been on my mind lately is because of one of my hobbies: collecting science fiction magazines from the 1950s-70s. I happened to pick up some old copies of Analog from a junk shop, and was reading through the way they reported Apollo. Of course the contributors were all tremendously excited by the moon mission, as you would expect them to be. But without exception they saw it as the start of something bigger: manned missions to the other planets; a permanent moon base; the colonisation of outer space by mankind. It was the dream of science fiction. It was the dream I grew up with.

You’ll notice I’m using the past tense. It was a dream that did not come to pass. Travelling to other planets is something our grandparents did, not something we do. We send tiny, intricately clever machines to fly past the planets instead. Instead of going out there, we have developed immensely ingenious methods for analysing the trickle of data from space that reaches our world. It’s cheaper that way. Keeping human beings safe in the ultra-inhospitable environment of space is complex and expensive, and we have other things to spend our money on. Big expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t fund themselves, you know.

What happened to the dream of space exploration? In a nutshell: people got bored. By “people” I mean the human race, considered globally, not the outliers and eccentrics for whom the dream kept burning in their souls – and they got bored with it depressingly quickly. In July 1969 the whole world held its breath, filled with an almost holy excitement at what our species was achieving and could achieve. By the mid-1970s missions into space had become dull. People lost their taste for it. Politicians, who depend for their careers on attending to the vibe of the populace, de-prioritised space exploration.

Of course Apollo was created out of the pressure-cooker environment of the Cold War as a way of claiming propaganda victories against the Soviets whilst also demonstrating to “their” military strategists how reliable and accurate “our” rocket technology was. But it became something more: it captured the imagination of the world. And the real reason Apollo petered out, and space exploration became something out ancestors once did instead of something our children could look forward to, is that it lost the imagination of the world.

Why? It never released its grip on my imagination – but then, I’m a professional writer of science fiction. It’s part of my job. And I’m aware of a certain, shall we say, smugness amongst sci-fi fans on this topic. We like to congratulate ourselves that we have kept the faith. We still believe in the necessity of humanity expansion from this planet! We still yearn for a manned mission to Mars. We write our stories about humans exploring the galaxy. We’re the good guys here – right?

Wrong. This issue may be the really crucial one for the long-term future of the human species. And it is an issue over which science fiction should have the guiltiest of guilty consciences.

Why? Because we killed the space race.

For that brief historical moment, humanity was united in a vision of actual, achievable space exploration. But the vision faded.

Actual space travel is slow; laborious; painstaking. It is expensive and frustrating. It takes three days to travel to the moon, and the moon is our own back yard. It would take long, uneventful years to travel to Mars, Jupiter or further away. The reality of space exploration is 90% dull.

But in the middle of the 1970s, at the height of NASA’s power, when real people were really travelling in space, a work of science fiction captured the imagination of generation. You may have heard of it: George Lucas’s Star Wars.

The success of this film was, of course, global. It did more than establish Star Wars as a massively lucrative (and ongoing) franchise. It kick-started a new wave of commercial, cinematic, and televisual science fiction. Many of the biggest movies from the 1980s to the 2010s have been about space adventure. Avatar is the highest grossing movie of all time, while Star Trek and Doctor Who have planet-wide followings. Sci-fi visual texts have been prodigiously successful.

Here’s the thing: in Star Wars and the works that followed it, space travel is fast, easy, fluid and exciting. We can zip to the farthest stars in the galaxy in moments, and when we get there we have brilliant adventures and thrilling, colourful encounters – we don’t stumble around in a grey land picking up geological samples.

There is, I think, a genuine human fascination with outer space. Apollo could have capitalised upon that fascination and expanded into broader and better conceived programmes. But it didn’t, and the real reason it didn’t is that people found a more satisfying way scratch their metaphorical itch. Like a diet of sweets and pastries instead of spinach and brown rice, big screen sci-fi quelled our appetite for space travel in a way both delicious and fundamentally unhealthy. Why should people around the globe give up a significant fraction of their respective gross national products to pay for actual space travel when Hollywood could give them all the thrills of outer space in virtual form?

A couple of years ago, David Graeber pondered on the logic of what we used to call “postmodernism”:

Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened? The question struck me as I watched one of the recent Star Wars movies. The movie was terrible, but I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects. Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now
only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”

The bitter truth is: sci-fi has been too successful. It captured the hearts of millions. And how dire the consequences.


Image credit: First Footprints On Another World (Archive: NASA, Marshall, 07/20/69)

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Paul Cooper 24 October 2014

What a privilege to have the social life where one can make the statement "Every astronaut I know would disagree"!

Edward Wright 23 October 2014

Adam Roberts mistakes the nature of Apollo. It was never about "colonizing outer space." It was a political competition and never "became something more," despite what some writers in science-fiction magazines may have believed. (While reading those back issues of Analog, Roberts should pay attention to the columns of G. Harry Stine, who got it right.)

Adams says "the reality of space exploration is 90% dull." Every astronaut I know would disagree. The only people who became bored with Apollo were those who didn't have the chance to go. Unfortunately, that was well over 99.999% of the human race.

Space exploration did not end after Apollo, however. In fact, the vast majority of space missions came after Apollo -- not just unmanned missions, as Adams says, but astronauts, too. This will increase dramatically in the near future, as new low-cost commercial spacecraft come online. There is no physical reason why space travel has to be prohibitively expensive, if we develop reusable vehicles that can operate like aircraft instead of guided missiles.

Adams says space exploration is "slow" -- "it takes three days to reach the Moon." The implication is that space itself is simply an obstacle, something to be traversed as quickly as possible, to reach the surface of a moon or planetary body. This ignores everything to be seen, studied, and experienced along the way. It's like complaining about the "long boring drive" through Yellowstone National Park just to reach the visitors center.

Roberts asks why people would spend money to go into space when they can stay home and watch Hollywood movies. But travel and tourism are the world's largest industry, despite Hollywood and the Travel Channel. Clearly, many people are not content to sit home and watch teevee. There is no reason to think space will be different.