For the last three days, I have been attending the 100 Year Starship Symposium sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (Twitter search: 100YSS) The following statement from their website describes the intent of the symposium.
The 100 Year Starship™ Study is an effort seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible.
The genesis of this study is to foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to consider “why not” and to encourage them to tackle whole new classes of research and development related to all the issues surrounding long duration, long distance spaceflight.
I went to this event with my son, a recently graduated aerospace engineer whose Master’s thesis was on nuclear propulsion for spacecraft. He wanted to go because this is directly related to his field of expertise. I went because I am a speculative fiction writer with a long time interest in the dream of space exploration and because ten renowned science fiction authors were there as panel members to talk about science fiction and its influence on science fact: Stephen Baxter, Geoffrey A. Landis, Allen Steele, Gregory Benford, Robert J. Sawyer, Elizabeth Bear, Joe Haldeman, G. David Nordley, Charles Stross, and Vernor Vinge. I was privileged to speak with Robert J. Sawyer, during one of the breaks. He is an amazing fellow.
The sense of wonder the DARPA statement mentions above struck a chord with me. I feel that sense of wonder. My children seem to as well. I almost cannot conceive why everyone does not share this feeling.
When I was a child all too many years ago, I was inspired by books for young adults with space faring heroes, most notably, or at least memorable, was the Tom Corbett Space Cadet series. I had them all. The science was badly flawed, the characters were shallow, but the books conveyed a dream of space exploration and discovery and I became infected. I read more science fiction, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Sagan and others. I was fascinated with movies about human exploration of space, especially 2001 A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, and, years later, Contact. Star Trek created such a hopeful vision for the future that I eagerly embraced it and its cancellation as a television series felt like the end of the world to me, or at least the end of a dream. Later, I felt a resurgence of the dream with the airing of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Of all the science documentaries ever produced, Cosmos, in my mind, is the one that best conveys that sense of wonder the DARPA statement talks about. But again the dream seemed to be shared by only a few.
Humanity must explore and expand to the stars. I believe this as almost a matter of faith. When I was younger, I felt that our exploration of space was inevitable. Now I think it is imperative but that it may not happen — at least, not soon. I feel that somehow we have lost our communal sense of wonder. We have lost the dream. I support the mission of the 100 Year Starship to reinvigorate that dream. I sincerely hope it can. But what can I do, what can we do to help?
Each according to his or her abilities, I suppose. I am a fledgling soft science fiction writer. I saw the genre of speculative fiction, especially books targeted at young adults, trending toward heroes who resolve problems with magic. I have nothing against magic as a plot device and I enjoy fantasy fiction but I felt there was a need for more fictional heroes who expressed skepticism about magical explanations and who searched beyond them to discover how things really were. My first three books carry that as a theme. They begin with items purported to be magical and the characters need to look beyond that simple explanation in order to resolve their problems. Although the setting for these books is a human colony on a distant planet, they are not specifically about space exploration. After my experience at the 100 Year Starship symposium, I am toying with ideas for my fourth novel that will more prominently feature space exploration. This may be the best I can do to encourage this sense of wonder. What can you do?