Space Travel: Fiction vs Reality

I always had a problem with the concept of space ships in SF. Though we imagine a universe where we can break the laws of physics, creating ships that fold the galaxy in two (as Herbert imagined in Dune) or star ships that created warp capacity (as in Star Trek), the reality is that to leave our own solar system it would take around 35 years. That’s how long it took Voyager 1 to reach interstellar space and that probe is a lot smaller than what we’d need to take with us just to survive. Voyager 1 is also travelling at 38,200 mph and we’d have to travel a lot faster to get their before we are drawing our pension. Then there is the cost of such an endeavour and how that stacks up against global hunger and poverty which by the time we reach for Mars will be greater.

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I grew up with Voyager 1 and 2 and both have now left our solar system, they won’t ever come back and the chances of them ever reaching anywhere else is astronomical because we know our solar system is huge but the galaxy…phew! We know that there are more planets and exoplanets floating out there in the void just surrounding our sun. The fact is the objects that spin around our sun may be more than we can even begin to conceive. Now, consider the space outside our solar system. Carl Sagan saw the opportunity when Voyager 1 was 6 billion kilometers out from Earth to look back and this is what the world saw, a pale blue dot. See if you can spot us and consider how long it would take for a spaceship to get here and all the resources it would need.

The Pale Blue Dot of Earth

Carl Sagan put his thought more beautifully than I can in one of the most thought provoking criticisms of our world, even though is acknowledges our weaknesses and joys, it also pins something firmly to our psyche, that this pale blue dot is all we have ever known and probably ever will:

‘Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’

All the hogwash we have been fed about interstellar travel is a pipe dream. A beautiful pipe dream. If we had the technology and the willpower by now we would be on the moon and planning to colonise Mars (which is a strange decision as the planet has a dead cold core and would need immense energy to restart that dynamo. Best skip onto Europa) but instead we turn to fiction to get our fix, we turn to the big screen from the golden age of SF to how fast we could do the Kessel run. There’s whole areas of the web were fans argue that.

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I love SF, I love the flagrant ignoring of the laws of physics, I love how they simply ignore the path they took to get there (though Star Trek Enterprise TV prequel tried to envisage how we got from ISS to warp drive in a rather ponderous opening credit). Yet, there is a way that we have proven we can get into deep space. The Voyager series showed us. It is technology devoid of human flesh. That sounds grim but stay with me. The down factor in us getting into deep space is us, our bodies, but what if you took them away? With the growth of neuralink, the mind will and can fuse with the computer creating human A.I.s. Pitched by Elon Musk as a way to accentuate the human mind, to repair brain damage and to enhance our abilities. This is nothing new, Iain M. Banks discussed it in his Culture series. Take the body out of the equation and you could explore the universe. Olaf Stapledon cottoned onto this in the 1937 novel, Star Maker, in which the protagonist dumps his body on a hillside and meets God. Over one hundred years ago Edgar Rice Burroughs made John Carter leave his body in a cave and travel to Mars. No need for rocket ships. We may use space ships within out solar system but if we want to explore beyond we must become probes, machines, A.I.s and that’s a frightening concept and something that I am exploring. Who would you send first? As I consider this I see parallels with the first prisoners at Botany Bay.

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How many could you send out? How would you make them better, bigger, more than the sum of their parts? When we talk about enhancing the brain what does this do to education? Does it cease to be a Socratic model and become something that rebuilds from the inside out? I am not talking about downloads, as we saw in the film, Matrix, this is not a construct, it is part of you and develops beside your own code. For the more we discover about ourselves the more we have in common with computers, we are all code and code can be life changing and a deadly virus. If we consider the Gaia model, where is humanity on that equation? On the 50th anniversary of the moon landings what will we need to become to be real pioneers?

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