Remember when space travel – real space travel – was exciting? Remember when the TV networks – all three of them – preempted regular programming to broadcast every rocket launch? Remember watching blurry black and white pictures of spacesuited figures bouncing around on the moon? Remember when there was nothing in the world that could keep us away from that? There are a lot of people who don’t remember any of that because they hadn’t been born yet.
Well, space travel is still exciting to some of us. And now we have the Internet. Who cares if the major TV networks have gotten bored with space travel? We can look at the pictures – actual photos from another planet! – any time we want, for as long as we want. It’s not quite the same as sitting breathlessly on the edge of our seats watching blurry black and white video of spacesuited figures bouncing around on the moon but it’s still very cool and maybe, in some ways, even better.
Since those first primitive rocket launches in the 1960′s, science fiction has given us more exciting space travel. How can the mundane reality of routine trips into orbit or a robotic lander on Mars compare to the exciting fiction of traveling to distant stars and meeting humanoid aliens that look pretty much like us except for pointy ears or superfluous head bumps and ridges? And it’s all so close. We can get there in a few days. Mars is just our next door neighbor. But the point of science fiction is not really to predict the future; (although it occasionally does a fairly good job of it) the point is to create a setting where things can happen that couldn’t happen in a realistic Earthly setting. Centuries ago authors only had to take us across the ocean to unexplored lands. As recently as the early 20th century Mars was far enough away but now we know, generally, what’s there and what isn’t so it’s too close.
We know, because we are told over and over again, that even our neighboring planets are very very far away but most of us just can’t wrap our minds around that much distance. Think about this. If you built an accurate scale model of the solar system using a standard size classroom globe, Earth would be three miles from the sun and Mars would be four and half miles from the sun. Now picture scale models of us on that Earth globe. We’re not even as big as fleas. Our largest vehicles are not even as big as fleas. Now imagine something smaller than a flea finding its way to an exact point more than a mile away. And both the starting point and the destination point are moving. That’s how hard it is to get to Mars and we did it. And did it again.
But why go to Mars anyway? Most of us will never get to go there ourselves. And what if they do find a few fossilized microbes, or even living microbes? What’s that to us? People who were hoping to find something will be excited. Most of the people who didn’t believe it was possible still won’t believe it’s possible. And most of the people who just don’t care, still won’t care. There are many reasons. My favorite reason: it feeds the imagination. I can’t go to Mars but I can look at the pictures and imagine walking around out there. No matter how good the set designers and CGI artists are, when we watch science fiction we know we’re still looking at Earth. When we look at the pictures of Mars we know we are actually looking at the surface of another planet.
Speaking of imagination and Mars, I’m currently in the middle of Blue Mars, the third book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I like this one the best of the three. I think it’s mainly the terraforming that appeals to me. I suppose all the detailed descriptions of the topology and emerging ecosystems would bore a lot of people but to me it’s fascinating – much more interesting than the politics of the earlier books, although this one does have politics too.