We are incredibly lucky to live in a time of creative superabundance. Anyone with an inspiration and a peripheral device can produce and send their creation out into the world, for better or worse, to educate and entertain the masses.
We are also lucky to have at our fingertips almost the entirety of human knowledge and opinion. The accessibility of on-demand information has allowed recent generations the ability to peruse topics before only available to the educated elite and to design from them ways to expand our minds and change our world.
For example, we see the advancements coming out of the scientific community today and they are nothing less than mind-boggling. Interstellar exploration, nanotech, bio-mimicry, and molecular 3D printing are, among many others, groundbreaking technologies that are currently in development. It’s the stuff of modern science fiction. Of course, discovery and fantasy have always gone hand-in-hand.
From the very first accounts of human existence, people have observed the world around them, creating myths to make sense of what was considered unknowable. Philosophers and artists absorb the knowledge of their day, giving birth to speculative accounts of what these new revelations could mean to mankind. What do these discoveries mean to us in terms of economy, psychology, or physiology? Science fiction, as we know the genre today, pulls heavily from technology both in the biological and mechanical realms to answer these questions.From H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, the pioneering story of time-travel and human evolution, to The Old Man’s War, John Scalzi’s tale of intergalactic colonization and the ability to transfer human consciousness into genetically modified super-bodies who encounter a variety of aliens across the universe (try saying that three times fast), there are more amazing examples of science influencing the very best storytelling than can possibly be listed in one place. Movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, Arcadia and Fear Agent in comics, and games like Halo and Destiny are just a few.
However, the pace of current science fiction has reached a stage where modern science is beginning to catch up and is nipping at the heels of innovative narrative creativity. And it is incredibly exciting.
Elon Musk announced, in his 2017 SpaceX presentation to the International Astronautical Congress in Australia on September 29th, that they are planning manned missions to Mars within the next 10 years, which will include the establishment of a Martian urban development. Granted, there have been dozens of attempts at getting to the red planet over the last few decades — many of them successful — but none have ever included humans at the helm. SpaceX’s latest rocket evolution, the currently named B.F.R. (“Big Fucking Rocket”), will host up to 40 passenger cabins and will be one of the largest vessels ever launched into space. He envisions it as almost a cruise liner experience to Mars.
“Fundamentally the future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we are a spacefaring civilization and a multi-plant species than if we are not. You wanna be inspired by things. You wanna wake up in the morning and think the future is gonna be great. And that’s what being a space faring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.” -Elon Musk
Another potential use of the rocket is Earth-wide commercial travel to practically any destination in about 30 minutes. Musk estimates actual flight time between New York to London will be 29 minutes, with air speeds up to 18,000 mph in low Earth orbit, once the shuttle leaves the planet’s atmosphere. To put that into perspective, the average speed of a current commercial airliner is now about 550 mph. Many have speculated that this announcement is purely an attention seeking ploy by the billionaire-entrepreneur to garner interest and potential funding, but what a thrilling fantasy. After all, science and sci-fi do tend to follow each other.
While that inspiration ignites our own creativity, it’s important to look also with a skeptical mind. According to Robert Zubrin, president and founder of the Mars Society, an organization that promotes human settlement of Mars (preferably through private funding), last year’s SpaceX presentation was “much too big and fantastical.” Zubrin had likened the mission to a D-Day landing. “Instead,” Zubrin said, “Musk should be thinking of sending just ten people to set up an agricultural base.”
He did feel, however, that the 2017 presentation was, “a much more practical approach. It means he’s serious.” Still, the SpaceX projections are impressive but extremely ambitious. Many of the proposed innovations are untested outside of a lab environment or have yet to be produced to be tested at all. They simply are not currently ready for direct human interaction. However, with each little step forward, with each tiny success, we’re closer to attaining a future where humanity will become a space-faring civilization.
And Musk’s not alone in that quest. Virgin’s Richard Branson wants to make commercial suborbital tourism a reality for the consumer, taking passengers “at a reasonable cost” (we’ll have to see what reasonable looks like) into orbit around the Earth, and potentially the Moon and beyond. Robert Bigelow, the CEO of extended stay hotel chain Budget Suites, wants to put you up in a space habitat similar to his inflatable modular unit that is currently being tested on the International Space Station.
Stranger than Fiction?
As these developments become reality, and here’s hoping they do, it will be exciting to see where the storytellers of our time take us for our next adventures. How will they depict the political and economic landscape as we begin to mine asteroids and the Moon? As we travel to distant stars? Do we end up in a dystopian multi-planetary battlezone fighting over rocks in space for economic gain, or will we celebrate our ingenuity as we successfully settle into our new homes throughout the universe?
It is through stories that we learn to know ourselves better. It is here we are allowed to explore the best and worst in our natures and see those characteristics play out to the end. We find the tragedy and the comedy in fiction so we know better how to better handle ourselves in real life. Carl Sagan said it best, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it, we go nowhere.”