Imaginary Space Programs Are Always Better Than Reality (But Reality Is Pretty Amazing)

Yuri’s Night approaches. With it comes the inevitable cloud-shouting from persons my age about all the space habitats and Moon colonies we were promised and currently don’t have. Hold on, guys…some of this discontent might go away if we adopted a different perspective.

Larry Niven’s 1973 “All the Bridges Rusting” is a problem story about rescuing an obsolete spacecraft with newer and incompatible space technology. It has a subplot that was, for me, quite eye-opening when I reread it some years ago. The rescue effort in the story will be expensive. Public support for the space program is lamentably low, or so the characters assert.

The complaint sounds familiar, but the context makes it illuminating: “All the Bridges Rusting” is set in 2035, by which time every planet in the system has been visited by spacecraft and not one but two crewed vessels have been dispatched to Alpha Centauri (the first in 2004, the next in 2018). By the standards of our timeline, the Bridges people have little to complain about. This led me to coin what I call the Rusting Bridges Principle:

No matter how much the space program you actually have has achieved, whether it’s first contact with aliens or trips to nearby stars, it can never have achieved as much as the space programs you can imagine would have achieved in its place, given that imaginary programs aren’t limited by issues of politics, funding, or engineering.

We see this a lot in the real world. Every planet in our Solar System—and Pluto as well, not to mention various minor bodies—has had flybys. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Moon, Ceres, and Vesta and various minor bodies have been visited by orbiters. The Solar System swarms with curious robots.

Before Oct. 4, 1957, nobody had the ability to put objects in space. Between Oct. 4, 1957 and Jan. 31, 1958, only one nation had a demonstrated ability to put objects in space. Today, Russia, the United States, France, Japan, China, India, Israel, Iran, and North Korea have indigenous launchers, more nations have routine access to launch vehicles, and there are even a handful of private companies with the proven capacity to deliver payloads to space. Once-empty orbits are filled with satellites, to the point that worries about the effect on ground-based astronomy have arisen.

Before April 12, 1961 no human had ever flown in space. As of the time of writing, twelve people have walked on the Moon and 565 have been as far as Low Earth Orbit (albeit some only briefly).

Before April 19, 1971 there had never been a space station in orbit above Earth. After May 14, 1973, there has always been at least one space station in orbit, and sometimes as many as five.

Moreover, funding for space efforts has trended upwards for decades.

I could go on (feel free to point out all the cool stuff I missed down in comments!) but you get the point: our achievements to date aren’t bad, considering that one long lifetime ago we were still experimenting with heavier-than-air flight.

The fly in the ointment, particularly if one is old enough to have lived through the brief period when the US was pouring what turned out to be a wildly exceptional amount of money into their space program, is that it’s easy to imagine having done so much more. Paper studies are cheap: for every program that resulted in bent metal, there have been thousands of suggestions (not all of them deranged!) that never got close to reality. If one follows such things, the ratio of Bold Suggestions/Actual Results looks depressingly low.

Also, what turned out to be doable is quite different from what was promised before we had any actual experience doing stuff in space. None of the other planets are habitable, as some people hoped they’d be. Humans turn out to be surprisingly delicate for a species that managed to spread across almost every continent armed only with pointy sticks and fire. Keeping humans alive and healthy in space has turned out to be more challenging than post-War visionaries could imagine.

Machines, on the other hand, can be robust and in any case expendable in a way humans should not be. Most importantly, thus far the killer app for space turns out to involve information and not material goods. Thus, the flotilla of robots scattered across the Moon, as well as the distinct lack of doughty Welshmen sifting regolith for lunar Helium-3.

People my age may well die before humans return to the Moon. That’s a little sad. But letting ourselves be blinded by all the stuff that wasn’t accomplished because of funding issues, because the science was flawed, or the tech had unacceptable environmental costs, or because the idea was completely unsound (hello, crewed Venus flyby!) overlooks the accomplishments that were achieved, all the successes humanity has had, and all the marvels to come.

Let me leave you with one of my favourite passages from Poul Anderson’s The Enemy Stars:

They manned her by turns, and dreamed other ships, and launched them, and saw how a few of the shortest journeys ended. Then they died.

And other men came after them. Wars flamed up and burned out, the howling peoples dwelt in smashed cities and kindled their fires with books. Conquerors followed, and conquerors of those, an empire killed its mother aborning, a religion called men to strange hilltops, a new race and a new state bestrode the Earth. But still the ships fell upward through night, and always there were men to stand watch upon them. Sometimes the men wore peaked caps and comets, sometimes steel helmets, sometimes decorous gray cowls, eventually blue berets with a winged star; but always they watched the ships, and more and more often as the decades passed they brought their craft to new harbors.

 

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.

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