Science Fiction Studies

#72 = Volume 24, Part 2 = July 1997

Gary Westfahl

The Case against Space

Like many science-fiction readers of my generation, first captivated in my youth by Robert A. Heinlein's juveniles, I long considered myself an advocate of human space exploration. I attentively followed the American space program in the 1960s, cheered when Spiro Agnew proposed a manned Mars expedition during the Apollo 11 flight, and lamented the stagnation and hesitancy of American space activities after the Apollo program. In the 1980s, when I launched a survey of science-fiction stories featuring space stations, I often encountered vigorous polemics supporting the human exploration and exploitation of space, thought that I agreed with them, and then wrote a critical study, Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature, seemingly in favor of an extensive space program.

More recently, however, I have reluctantly recognized that, deep in my heart, I no longer believe in the rhetoric I had read and written, and I no longer regard human space travel as an important priority in the near future. The odd thing is that, except for a few discouraging words regarding immense space habitats, I had read during my science-fiction research very few arguments against space; thus, I had been persuaded to oppose human space exploration by its strongest advocates.

The sorts of arguments which had this counterproductive effect should be familiar to science fiction readers. Today, the most vocal writer-advocates are probably Ben Bova, Jerry Pournelle, and G. Harry Stine (Lee Correy), who have made their case both in nonfiction (Bova's The High Road, articles in Pournelle's Endless Frontier anthologies, Stine's The Third Industrial Revolution and The Space Enterprise) and in fiction (Bova's Colony and Sam Gunn stories, Larry Niven and Pournelle's “Spirals,” Correy's Manna and Space Doctor). But consulting these or other particular authors is not necessary; as subtexts if not as main themes, the arguments they present are endemic in the modern literature of space travel. And, if these arguments are suspect, that inevitably raises questions about the literature that draws upon and expresses them.

While strict boundary lines are impossible, supporters of space travel usually employ three approaches, each characteristic of a different era in recent history. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was an emphasis on philosophical arguments; in the 1970s and 1980s, a shift towards practical or economic arguments; and in the 1990s, an emerging focus on defensive or preventive arguments.1 Yet none of these arguments can withstand scrutiny.

First, according to the philosophical argument, humanity must venture into and occupy outer space to fulfill an inherent human drive to explore and inhabit unknown realms. In the introduction to his Pale Blue Dot, previewed as an article in Parade magazine,2 Carl Sagan saw this impulse operating both as a basic pattern of human behavior and as a basic human instinct:

We were wanderers from the beginning .... For 99.9 percent of the tenure of humans on Earth, we were hunters and foragers, wanderers on the savannahs and the steppes.... Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we still remember. The open road still calls, like an almost forgotten song of childhood. We invest far-off places with a certain romance. The appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection as an essential element in our long-term survival. (14)

Many science fiction writers have echoed this argument: writing in 1969, for example, Philip K. Dick maintained that “it was essential that we send a man to the moon; exploration is natural to man; it is virtually an instinct. It is, at least, a force in man so powerful that it cannot be denied.”3 And this argument was even wrung from that most unpoetic of souls, Neil Armstrong, when he was pestered to explain the reasons for the Apollo 11 mission: “we're going to the moon because it's in the nature of the human being to face challenges .... we're required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.”4

However, although Sagan described the lives of prehistoric humans as “nomadic” (14), the surviving hunter-gatherer societies we observe today in fact usually establish a base camp as their home, where they return every day after searching for food. They move their camps only when there is a problem —not enough food in the area, disastrous changes in climate, or the new presence of dangerous predators or hostile neighbors. And when they move, they tend to remain in the same general area. Grand migrations to distant regions are the exception, not the rule, in both human prehistory and human history. When the New World was discovered, Europeans did not rush over to satisfy an instinctive desire for the new and unknown; instead, groups later travelled to America for specific and urgent reasons: Puritans to freely practice their religion, the Irish to escape starvation, and Eastern European Jews to avoid persecution. As best we can determine, the vast majority of people, the vast majority of the time, have been content to stay pretty much where they were. So if there is as Dick claimed some basic “instinct” driving people to travel to new places, it is curiously inactive in most humans.5

Yes, space advocates might say, a lot of people are like that; but they are the ordinary, the dim-witted, the cowardly dregs of humanity. The best representatives of our race—the visionary, the intelligent, and the brave—move humanity forward by their admirable impulse to venture into the unknown. This theme is developed with mind-numbing fervor in most stories about space habitats: the superior people will go into space to breed a new and better human race, while the inferior people will remain on Earth. By this logic, however, Hernando Cortes and Juan Pizarro were among the most noble and enlightened citizens of the European Renaissance, while Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, and Isaac Newton were mediocre and narrow-minded clods. Clearly, history demonstrates no correlation between travel and virtue; if anything, those people who stay put often seem to be better people than those who cannot stop moving.

There is a broader objection to the notion of wanderlust as the engine of human progress and improvement. As Sagan accurately noted, 10,000 years ago represents a crucial turning point in human history; by that time, the great migrations were largely over, and humans had moved from their birthplace in Africa to occupy the continents of Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas, with only a few remote regions and islands left uninhabited. It is at this time, according to Sagan, that stagnation set in: humans became “Unadventurous. Overweight. Careless.” Having “domesticated the plants and animals,” humans lost their sense of initiative: “Why chase the food when you can make it come to you?” (14) Thus, we must now return to extensive travel to break humanity out of its rut.

Sagan implied that hunting and gathering are by nature stimulating, while agriculture and animal husbandry are by nature stultifying. Yet it requires a great deal of human intelligence, ingenuity and imagination to choose or develop varieties of plants that can regularly provide a lot of food, then to raise those plants in a systematic manner, irrigate them, fertilize them, harvest them, store them, and breed animals and develop tools that can help you do these things quickly and efficiently. Once you start doing all these things, other interesting developments soon occur. To organize large groups of workers, you must develop a system of government, which soon becomes valuable for other purposes; you must have various kinds of trained and skilled artisans, who soon learn how to do other helpful things; you need to invent some sort of currency and economic system, which also enables you to trade with other peoples and obtain other worthwhile goods; and to keep track of when to plant crops and how many bushels to store for the winter, you must create some system of astronomy and some form of record-keeping, which soon evolves into an extremely useful written language. In short, once you abandon hunting and gathering, and take up agriculture, the result is not stagnation; it is civilization.

The evidence on this point could not be clearer: during the hundreds of thousands of years when humans survived by hunting and gathering, and were occasionally driven to long wanderings or massive migrations, human beings developed an effective means of oral communication, learned to make and use clothing and a few tools, and mastered the use of fire. An impressive list of accomplishments, no doubt; but during the last 10,000 years which were largely characterized by settled existence in villages and cities, humans developed —everything else. Every single human achievement one might celebrate as representing our best qualities—including literature and the arts, philosophy and religion, architecture and engineering, politics and economics, and, not incidentally, the tradition of theoretical and practical science that Sagan was heir to—resulted from the decision to abandon travel and live in one place.

In short, the history of our species powerfully suggests that progress will come from continued stable life on Earth, and that a vast new program of travel into space will lead to a new period of human stagnation. Ironically enough, this is exactly what is suggested in the fiction written by advocates of human space exploration. For in stories about future colonies in outer space or settlements on other planets, writers rarely describe bold new departures in human lifestyles or attitudes; instead, they envision these outposts as beneficial throwbacks to the past, the favorite metaphors being the space colony as the new United States formed after revolting against evil colonial masters, or the asteroid belt as the New American West, with grizzled old miners digging away at the asteroids they staked a claim to before taking a break to blow all their money at the company store on Ceres. Space travel is predominantly pictured as a way to help humanity return to some idealized past existence before the bureaucrats, internationalists, politically correct professors, and other villains started to destroy civilization.

In Nemesis, Isaac Asimov was less sanguine about this imagined return to the past:

     “What all the Settlements [space colonies] fear and hate most is variety. They don't want differences in appearance, tastes, ways, and life. They select themselves for uniformity and despise everything else.”
Fisher said, “You're right. And it's too bad.”
Wyler said, “That's a mild, unfeeling way of putting it. `Too bad.'... We're talking humanity here. We're talking about Earth's long struggle to find a way of living together, all cultures, all appearances. It isn't perfect yet, but compare it to how it was even a century ago, and it's heaven. Then, when we get a chance to move into space, we shuck it all off and move right back into the Dark Ages. And you say, `Too bad.' That's some reaction to something that's an enormous tragedy.”6 (118-19)

      Of course, whether one sees space travel as a return to Rugged Individualism or to the “Dark Ages” is a political, and hence a controversial question; personally, I believe with Asimov that the last century of human history cannot be accurately characterized as a gradual decline into decadence and decay—in many ways, I think, humanity has done quite well in recent decades—and, despite their myriad flaws, I am not prepared to abandon the systems of government we have in favor of the system of letting all the really smart and talented people do whatever they want to do, which is an uncharitable but uncomfortably accurate description of the political agenda advanced in many science fiction novels.

But the key issue is this: when space advocates say on the one hand that space travel is necessary for the human race to progress, and on the other hand say that space travel is necessary to allow the human race to go back to the Good Old Days, there is an unexplored contradiction here.7

We must also recall exactly when and why this notion of travel as the defining instinct of humanity first originated. It is not a cultural universal: such ideas are not found in ancient Greece and Rome, for example, and many impressive civilizations, like that of China, were founded on the notion that staying where you are is the best policy. In fact, this picture of human nature first emerged in nineteenth-century Europe, where it functioned as a useful rationale for imperialism in general and for certain explorations in particular. That is, if you define moving around as the key characteristic of enlightened people, then the globe-trotting Europeans were obviously superior people who had the right to rule over those inferior people who didn't have the initiative to travel to Europe; and if you are trying to raise money for a basically pointless effort to reach the South Pole or climb a high mountain, you must describe the trip as an essential fulfillment of a basic human need, not a personal quest for fame and glory. No one openly defends colonialism any more; but it is disheartening to see the basic argument for colonialism warmed over and advanced as a basic argument for space travel, with an element of moral superiority entering the equation only because the proposed conquest of space does not appear to involve subjugating native inhabitants.

When the 1970s brought visible shrinkage in the ambitions and extent of the American space program, the argument that humanity must go into space for the same reason that salmon must swim upstream had proven to be unpersuasive; so a new element came to the forefront in calls for space exploration. Now, after waxing poetic about Our Basic Human Need To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before, space advocates abruptly shifted to a practical approach, as seen in books like Bova's The High Road and Stine's The Third Industrial Revolution. According to these polemics, outer space can solve many problems now confronting humanity on Earth; and the people who step forward to solve those problems are going to make an awful lot of money. Outer space is an infinite Horn of Plenty for those with the courage and foresight to seize its treasures. Do we need new sources of energy? The Sun is blanketing the Solar System with all the free energy we can use; all we have to do is put up a network of solar power satellites to collect the energy, beam it in microwaves to receiving stations on Earth, and sit back and watch the profits roll in. Are we running short of key metals and minerals on Earth? We can mine them on the Moon, or perhaps drag an asteroid into Earth orbit and strip all the metals we need from it. Are there vitally needed new devices or life-saving medicines that can only be created in a perfect vacuum or weightlessness? We can build space factories to manufacture them and make big money from selling them. Are there disgruntled and dangerous groups of people living on Earth? We can build and sell them their own space habitat, make a profit, and enable them to live the way they want to without bothering anybody else. Thus, when people were unmoved by calls to fulfill the basic destiny of humanity, it was hoped that the magnetic allure of the dollar sign would draw them to the space camp.

Some objections to these proposals are obvious: space travel is very expensive and is likely to remain so in the future; the profits from space activities will not materialize for a very long time; and by the time they bear fruit, we may well have developed terrestrial solutions to the problems they address. Space advocates like to talk about the unique conditions that are available only in outer space: uniform temperatures at a few degrees above absolute zero, a perfect vacuum, and of course, weightlessness. But we can imperfectly duplicate all these conditions on Earth. Good refrigerators can make small areas cold enough; the machines we have can create an almost perfect vacuum; and with certain types of centrifuges or a rapidly descending elevator, we can even simulate some of the effects of weightlessness. Space may do all of these things better than we can on Earth, but the high cost of getting there and staying there may not justify that improvement. If a company president is told of a wonderful new manufacturing process that demands very cold temperatures, he does not immediately plan to move all his factories to Antarctica; he plans to build some big freezers. Similarly, instead of spending massive amounts of money to build space factories, it makes more sense to keep working to improve what we can do on Earth.8

Now, if I argue against the economics of space travel, space advocates may respond that I just don't have the latest information: an engineer has recently devised the Perfect Plan for space exploration, a new rocketship that can lift the entire population of Dubuque into geosynchronous Earth orbit for a few million dollars. Forgive me for being skeptical. During the last twenty years, we observe a cycle in the literature of space advocates. First, they proudly announce that someone has developed the Perfect Plan for space exploration, a new rocketship that will cheaply and effectively achieve all our goals. Then, other people examine the Perfect Plan and find a few little problems: this new rocketship will actually cost about fifty times its announced cost, will probably have a failure rate of 25%, will demand some new alloys that we don't know how to make yet, or will possibly scatter radioactive dust over an area the size of Australia. As objections mount, the people who first proposed the Perfect Plan stop talking about it and instead proudly announce that someone else has developed a New Perfect Plan for space exploration—and the cycle begins again. Even if somebody really has devised a cheap and effective way to get into space and build things in space, I have no reason to believe it; for space advocates have cried wolf far too often in this regard.

In any event, all this talk about the economic benefits of space travel always rings a little false, because it is painfully obvious that the people making these arguments are simply enthusiastic about going into space and are making these profit-oriented proposals only to persuade people who lack their enthusiasm to bankroll their projects. In effect, they are atheists quoting scripture in an effort to convince Christians to support them; and as such, they are almost by nature unpersuasive. Perhaps all one needs to say is this: during twenty years of agitation for the economic exploitation of space, the smart money, except for modest efforts to launch ummanned orbital satellites for various purposes, has stayed away from space—has emphatically stayed away from space. The obvious conclusion is that the smart money realizes something about massive investments in space that Pournelle and Stine aren't talking about.

When the 1990s brought no new space initiatives other than ongoing, and glacially slow, progress toward a new international space station, the arguments about the practical benefits and massive profits to be garnered from space exploration and travel were clearly working no better than the earlier arguments about an hypothesized human instinct driving people to explore space. A new set of concerns is now entering the picture, inspired by growing scientific evidence that a massive asteroid struck the Earth 65 million years ago, causing the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species. Such an impact, experts gravely testify, would have the destructive power of thousands and thousands of nuclear weapons, leading to massive and deadly earthquakes, shock waves, firestorms, and a cloud of dust particles covering and chilling the entire planet. And, if it happened before, it could happen again; indeed, given the vast amount of debris drifting throughout the Solar System, it will definitely happen again. By now, we have all repeatedly seen—on book and magazine covers, in films like Asteroid, and in the computer-generated animation of science documentaries—pictures of a large, irregular asteroid falling toward the Earth, then hitting the surface to produce a blinding and devastating explosion; and given our diminishing concerns about nuclear war, the crashing asteroid has arguably replaced the hydrogen bomb as our generation's defining image of global apocalypse.

The connection between these nightmares and the benefits of human space travel is not always emphasized, but quickly emerges from a little thought. If we learned that an asteroid was heading directly for our planet, what could we do about it? Trying to stop it with missiles from the ground, once it had started to fall, would most likely only alter its course slightly or split it into several smaller but still lethal projectiles. The best alternative would be to send astronauts to the asteroid while it was still far away in space, to change its course to miss Earth entirely. This is exactly the scenario of one recent science fiction novel about this subject, Arthur C. Clarke's The Hammer of God, which first appeared as a story in Time magazine; and Sagan's Pale Blue Dot devoted some space to the possibility of a comet or asteroid hitting the Earth and causing a catastrophe so as to convey a more general argument for a human presence in space that could watch for and destroy approaching objects. Now, as concerns about deadly asteroids continue to grow, we can logically anticipate more explicit arguments about the need for a vigorous space program especially designed to respond to envisioned emergencies of this kind. (In fact, a few days after writing that sentence, I happened upon a television documentary in which a scientist explained that the best way to deflect approaching asteroids would be to deal with them when they were still far away—by setting off explosives on their surface, or attaching solar sails to them—effectively demanding human astronauts to carry out such assignments.)

With menacing asteroids as a new focus, we note that the emotional dynamics of space advocacy are surprisingly reversed. By both the philosophical and practical arguments, space travel was for the brave and visionary people, while the cowardly and craven preferred to remain on Earth. Now the cowards wish to move into space in order to ensure their safety, while the brave—or the foolhardy—would rather stay home and ignore the menace. Earlier arguments for space travel at times included undercurrents of paranoia about malevolent alien invaders, but there was never any convincing evidence of actual aliens to validate these concerns. Errant asteroids, in effect, are potential alien invaders that we know are real and that we know have attacked our planet in the past, and as such they are much more effective as an incentive to immediate action.
Though the danger is real, however, I have no nightmares about asteroid impacts for the same reason that I never play the lottery—namely, I have a rudimentary knowledge of statistics. A large asteroid hitting the Earth in the near future is possible, but extraordinarily unlikely. And even if a resource is priceless, people do not insure against every conceivable calamity: if a volcano erupted tomorrow in my town and destroyed my house, for example, I would be ruined; my insurance doesn't cover volcanoes. Yet, given the geological history of the area I live in, the odds against volcanoes are so prohibitive (despite the plot of a recent film) that my disinclination to purchase volcano insurance is wholly defensible. For similar reasons, it is hard to justify huge expenditures on a space program designed to prevent a disaster that will almost certainly not occur in our lifetime. Further, to be coldly practical about it, even if an object small enough to have so far escaped detection did suddenly hit Earth tomorrow, the effects would certainly be catastrophic—perhaps up to a hundred million immediate deaths, and many more deaths from subsequent effects such as a worldwide blanket of dust cooling Earth's temperature and ruining several years of crops—but the human race would not be wiped out. People may talk about the dinosaurs, but recent evidence suggests that the dinosaurs were already dying out at the time of the Yucatan impact; the asteroid hastened their demise, but did not entirely cause it. Anyway, human beings are a bit more intelligent and adaptable than dinosaurs. It would not be pleasant to live in a world devastated by an asteroid impact, but more than enough humans would survive to keep humanity alive. Overall, then, the odds against doomsday from space seem high indeed, so we are safe in assuming that the human race will survive for the next few centuries without a large space program as an insurance policy.

If the three major arguments for human space travel are largely unpersuasive, are there other, better arguments one might employ? As it happens, I think there are a few which surface in the literature from time to time, but none of them suggest there is any immediate need for a human space program at this time.

First, while I have no fear of an asteroid impact destroying life on Earth in the foreseeable future, there is no doubt that someday, eventually, the planet Earth will no longer be suitable for human life, so that people will have to live elsewhere—their planets, space stations and habitats, generation starships—for the race to survive. This argument dates back to Russian space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and its logic is compelling. However, if this happens to occur in the next few decades or so—because of an asteroid collision, nuclear war, a new and deadly plague, or anything else—humanity is doomed in any event, because with current technology an isolated space station or planetary outpost could not survive without regular support from Earth. And if this does not occur until farther in the future, then we have plenty of time to worry about it.
Second, while I am not convinced that there is a basic human drive to travel, there is a basic human curiosity, a desire to obtain knowledge; and travel is one way to increase our knowledge. If we had many humans living in space or on other worlds, we would surely learn a great deal about the universe, which would be both intellectually stimulating and eventually of some unpredictable practical value. But today we have an alternative way to obtain knowledge from space without human travellers: satellites and space probes. These do not work as well as human explorers, but they provide a reasonable amount of new knowledge at a reasonable price. The Viking Mars landers, Voyager space probes, and Hubble Space Telescope demonstrate that we can significantly advance our knowledge and understanding of the universe without actually moving into space ourselves. Even the most recent development that has inspired calls for new space initiatives—evidence of ancient life on Mars—can be investigated with machines more quickly and efficiently than with people. In the long run, we may learn more from people living in space; but in the short run, we will surely get enough knowledge from robotic surrogates to keep scientists busy and happy.

Finally, if the ancient human migration to all parts of the globe did not necessarily lead to progress, it did lead to great diversity in the various world cultures; and without going to the extremes of political correctness to argue that all cultures are equal in value, or even that all other cultures are superior to the despised Euro-American tradition, one can agree that diversity is a good thing. It is interesting to examine the different customs of various cultures, their different mythologies and literatures, different political and social systems, and different philosophies; and it is valuable to consider their perspectives to gain further insight into our own beliefs and attitudes, perhaps to discover flaws and weaknesses in them. Someday, people may be living in outer space and on other worlds, and since differing cultures stem in large part from differing environments, we can anticipate that the cultures developed by these people will be vastly different than any previous human culture. When you live on a world where a walk outside your house without a protective suit means instant death, or on a space station where the words “up” and “down” have a totally different meaning, you are going to develop attitudes and philosophies that are unprecedented in human history; and the continuing progress of the human race may be powerfully assisted by the insights that such people may offer their Earthbound relatives. Yet the problem with this argument is obvious: while the unique cultures that will develop in space may be the most valuable long-term result of a vigorous space program, no sane person will propose spending billions of dollars today so we can someday find out what the space people have to say; the new culture of space, like the new culture of America, will have to be a beneficial byproduct of a program undertaken for other reasons. In the meantime, humanity can survive a few more centuries without valuable contributions from our space cousins.

I am forced, then, to an unpalatable conclusion: given the illogic of the arguments being presented in favor of an expanded space program, and given the weakness of other arguments that might be offered for such projects, there is no compelling reason for present-day governments to expand or even continue their space programs. Though others have held this opinion, I am innovative at least in refusing to advance or endorse one standard argument against space programs: “Before we go into space, we should solve all our problems on Earth.” Not only is this proposal by nature impossible—when, if ever, will all human problems on Earth be solved?—but it also conveys an inaccurate assessment of our present situation. What I would argue in contrast is that we should not go into space today precisely because the human race faces no major problems. To answer the howls of protest, I emphasize that I am characterizing the modern situation by comparing it to human situations of the past. Today, we are properly concerned about starvation, poverty, disease, homelessness, and the like; but we must remember that in previous centuries, people endured all of these conditions to the same or a greater extent, and they did not have the benefit of any of the public or private support systems now available for people facing these difficulties. Today, human life expectancy in Western countries is about 75 years, and even in developing countries tends to be around 40 to 50 years; yet only a few hundred years ago, the life expectancy, based on the available evidence, was only about 30 years. Today, we recognize that AIDS is a terrible scourge that must be vigorously combatted; but recall that in medieval Europe, the bubonic plague killed something like 40% of the population, while despite mounting deaths, AIDS has yet to destroy a significant portion of one percent of the American population. As I suggested, people typically uproot themselves and travel great distances only in response to urgent and terrible problems; if the human race today seems curiously apathetic about advancing into space, it may be because there are no urgent and terrible problems that require travel into space.

The importance of my conclusions to science fiction scholars, to be sure, might seem a matter of debate: if one of the messages typically presented by science fiction writers is flawed or even false, so what? One reader of this paper urged me to note that not all science fiction writers have been supporters of space travel, citing Barry N. Malzberg and Stanislaw Lem as examples of vocal opponents. But consider the fates of the writers he mentioned: Malzberg's viciously revisionist Beyond Apollo made him one of the most vilified authors of the 1970s, and dealt a body blow to his career from which he has never fully recovered. And while Lem's critical comments on American science fiction led to his problems in the 1970s, it is at least a curious coincidence that a major opponent of human space travel was also the only science fiction writer ever drummed out of the Science Fiction Writers of America for political reasons. Therefore, while the science fiction community embraces a wide diversity of viewpoints, there is some evidence at least arguably suggesting that opposing space travel constitutes some sort of ultimate heresy which may lead to figurative, or even literal, excommunication.

In fact, I would argue that advocacy of space travel is the central, defining ideology characteristic of modern science fiction. When Hugo Gernsback first established the genre in the 1920s, he offered his magazine readers many types of stories, but he soon figured out that “interplanetarian” stories were what they wanted most, and by the 1930s was sponsoring contests to obtain more “Space Plots” for stories. Gernsback also published nonfictional materials supporting space travel in his magazines, including Hermann von Noordung's The Problems of Space Flying and a note from Robert Goddard about launching a rocket to the moon. Many early fan groups, like the New York Scienceers, combined an interest in science fiction with a devotion to rocketry, a combination that endures to this day in groups like the L-5 Society. I have elsewhere noted the recurring connection between science fiction and the iconic image of a rocketship, and stories about space travel dominated the juveniles of the 1950s and later that expanded the audience of science fiction. Virtually all major series of science fiction novels, from E.E. Smith's Lensman novels to C.J. Cherryh's Merchanter novels, have envisioned a vigorous human expansion into outer space, as is also true of numerous films and television series; Donald A. Wollheim's The Universe Makers even asserted that the human conquest of vast interstellar space constituted the key element of a “monomyth” permeating the entire genre. And while many narratives are set far in the future, with no clear connection to current events, there remains in them an implicit argument for contemporary space activity so as to achieve those future worlds; for example, in a little-noted document from the Star Trek universe published in 1980, crafting a plausible chronological history of the future that culminates in the world of the starship Enterprise demanded predictions of a human settlement on the Moon in 1998, an L-5 space habitat in 2007, a Mars base in 2012, and human expansion into the asteroids beginning in 2018.9

Now, if such predictions are not going to come true, and if that is because the logic generating such predictions was fundamentally defective, there will first emerge the need to revise some standard views of modern science fiction. Successful space travel is regularly cited as proof of the perceptiveness of science fiction: the mundane world said it couldn't be done, science fiction said it could be done, and science fiction turned out to be right. I would revise this contrast: the mundane world said that space travel couldn't and shouldn't be done, science fiction said that it could and should be done, and science fiction turned out to be half right. That is, science fiction was correct in arguing that the scientific and engineering problems involved in space flight could be overcome—it could be done—but science fiction was incorrect in underestimating the economic costs of these projects and in failing to note the absence of any compelling reasons for such projects—it shouldn't be done.

Also, to borrow a term from an unpublished essay by Steven Lee Gillett, if science fiction has indeed engaged in “overselling” space travel to its readers, there emerges the issue of culpability. In 1968, Clarke told the world that in the year 2001, there would be regular tourist flights to orbiting motels and moon cities, and thousands of people put their names on waiting lists for such flights established by all the major airlines. Today, the lists continue to gather dust, with no prospect of their being consulted in the foreseeable future, and we will celebrate 2001 not by mounting a flight to Jupiter but by observing, if we are lucky, the addition of a new module to a six-person orbiting space station. Science fiction repeatedly asserted that human expansion into space would be quick, easy, and widespread, and that assertion, which once might have been mildly criticized as overly optimistic, must now be reclassified as a bald-faced lie. And lying to people not only damages your credibility but can damage those people as well. Thus, while it would be unfair to entirely blame their beloved Star Trek for the recent suicides of the Heaven's Gate cult, there was a grim logic behind their decision: since the world had failed to provide the easy access to outer space and aliens that science fiction had promised well before 1997, it was clearly time to investigate alternative ways of getting out there.

And modern science fiction for the most part continues to manifest a willful blindness to certain fundamental truths: that space travel will likely remain for centuries an expensive, difficult, and dangerous activity; that outer space is almost universally a cold, barren, and inhospitable place; that efforts to make space more hospitable—space habitats, terraforming, and so on—will demand solutions to scores of huge technological problems and will be slow and costly beyond measure; that travel to other stars will probably never be achieved in timespans less than hundreds of years; and that contact with alien intelligences, except perhaps for the faint sound of a distant radio message, is at least a millennium away and may in fact never occur.10 All of these things were pretty clear thirty years ago, and are even clearer today. It is as if few people in the science fiction community want to publicly admit these truths, because the entire genre has generally developed out of and remains dependent upon entirely different assumptions. Poul Anderson once described the feeling of loss he and Jerry Pournelle felt when data from the Pioneer One mission to Jupiter first reached Earth: “we compared notes and found we had been thinking the same thing. As one revolutionary discovery after another came forth, we had thought: `There goes Farmer in the Sky. There goes “Meeting with Medusa.” There goes “Desertion.” There goes “Call Me Joe.” There goes “Bridge.”' And so on for every memorable story ever written about Jupiter.”11 Well, if what I maintain here is accurate, “There goes” virtually every science fiction story about space travel ever written.

A foundational assumption in science fiction is that the genre presents not only colorful flights of fancy but reasonable descriptions of discoveries and events that might actually happen someday; and many of its supporters have referred to this element of plausibility to argue for the unique, practical value of science fiction as a creator of and commentator on our actual and possible futures. If science fiction is revealed to be trafficking in outright impossibilities, its stories may be valuable in many different ways, but they are not truly science fiction according to standard definitions.

By my argument, therefore, most of modern science fiction is actually fantasy. Ben Bova's near-future space adventures, Heinlein's Future History series, Cherryh's Merchanter novels, Gordon R. Dickson's Childe cycle, Star Trek, Babylon 5—all of these worlds are based on assumptions about humanity's near-future space activities that are simply not tenable. And by focusing on these fantasy worlds, science fiction is consistently neglecting the real future of humanity and the real problems we will face in the centuries to come.

A case against space, in other words, is also a case against science fiction.

1. I ignore another set of once-common arguments stemming from the Cold War —Americans must venture into space to prevent the Russians from gaining a military advantage in space—since subsequent political developments have rendered all these concerns obsolete.

2. Carl Sagan, “Wanderers,” Parade, September 18, 1994: 14, 16-17. Later page references are to this issue.

3. Philip K. Dick, “That Moon Plaque: Comments by Science Fiction Writers,” in Men on the Moon, ed. Donald A. Wollheim (NY: Ace Books, 1969), 172; anthology first published in 1958 without this section.

4. Cited in Norman Mailer, Of a Fire on the Moon, 1969 (NY: Signet Books, 1971), 43-44.

5. Along with the already noted dissonance with certain rhetoric in Islands in the Sky (San Bernardino: Borgo Press, 1996), some may see a contradiction between this article and another recent article of mine, “The Quintessence of Science Fiction, Forged in The Crucible of Time,” Foundation #69, Spring 1997, where I suggest that there is a fundamental human instinct to move upward, and where I seem to endorse the drive to inhabit space described in John Brunner's novel. While I might simply quote Ralph Waldo Emerson and move on, I note briefly that space travel is not necessarily a proper or logical response to an innate desire to move higher—a treehouse or functioning pair of wings might work as well—and that there is no contradiction in sympathizing with the long and difficult struggle of Brunner's aliens to reach space literally in order to survive while opposing immediate efforts to move large numbers of humans into space without evidence of any immediate peril.

6. Asimov, Nemesis (NY: Doubleday, 1989), 118-19.

7. Space advocates may respond that the human race has recently been stultified by the growth of repressive governments and bureaucracies, so space travel will help people eliminate these hindrances and put humanity back on the course of progress. But it would be interesting to ask these people to identify the exact point in time when humanity first went astray. In L. Neil Smith's The Gallatin Divergence, the turning point for the United States was the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s, when George Washington's suppression of the rebels set the American government on the road to tyranny; but in Smith's utopian alternate world, a coup removed Washington from power, vindicated the rebels, and maintained a United States that respected individual freedom. By Smith's logic, then, every action of the federal government since that time—including the purchases of Louisiana and Alaska, the abolition of slavery, the Homestead Act, the building of the Panama Canal, Social Security, the Manhattan Project and, for heaven's sake, the American space program—all represent the work of an evil, totalitarian bureaucracy trampling on individual rights. But I cannot accept the argument that all forms of government control are malevolent and that Rugged Individualism is the only workable system; in fact, a devastating critique of Rugged Individualism comes in a story from a man usually seen as the patron saint of space advocates: Heinlein's “Coventry.”
Further discussion of the questionable philosophy behind fictional and nonfictional arguments for space habitation are in Islands in the Sky.

8. Other dubious arguments about the virtues of weightlessness are found— significantly—only in the science fiction, not the nonfiction, of space advocates. Some writers posit that weightless conditions will prove beneficial to humans who will no longer need to endure the constant struggle against gravity; a few stories, like Arthur C. Clarke's “The Secret” and Fritz Leiber's A Specter Is Haunting Texas, propose that weightlessness might prevent aging and make humans almost immortal. It is unsurprising that such claims never find their way into these writers' nonfiction books on space. Today, the only known effect of prolonged weightlessness on the human body is a progressive loss of bone calcium that eventually makes it impossible for the person to walk in Earth gravity; this does not seem a blessing. Indeed, since the human body was designed by eons of evolution to work in Earth gravity, it seems unlikely that it will start to work even better when gravity is removed or reduced; it is more likely that continuing study of humans in weightlessness will reveal additional ruinous effects. And if constantly fighting gravity is so harmful to humans, we might examine the present-day humans who are largely exempt from that struggle: those who must spend their lives in wheelchairs. It does not seem to be doing wonders for their health.

9. Stan Goldstein and Fred Goldstein, Star Trek Spaceflight Chronology (NY: Pocket Books, 1980), 27, 32-34.

10. Of course, as I should note somewhere, not all science fiction stories have ignored these unpleasant truths. In addition to the works of Malzberg and Lem, two significant counterexamples that come to mind here are James Gunn's Station in Space, an extended argument against space travel of all kinds for all reasons, and Mack Reynolds and Dean Ing's Trojan Orbit, a devastating critique of the space habitat.

11. Poul Anderson, “Nature: Laws and Surprises,” Mindscapes: The Geographies of Imagined Worlds, ed. George E. Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989), 8.

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