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With Space Travel, Fiction is More Exciting than Fact

By Daniel L. Leonard
Daniel L. Leonard ’21, a Crimson editorial editor, is a joint History of Science and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House.

I love space, and I’m certainly not alone. From “The Avengers” to “Star Wars,” many of the world’s highest-grossing film franchises feature space travel as a key theme. Humans have been fascinated by the cosmos for millenia, and in the decades since the Moon landing made space travel a reality, our interplanetary wanderlust has reached a fever pitch. So, why have all our post-Apollo space achievements been so underwhelming?

This was one question I pondered during my trip to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kennedy Space Center last summer, which was funded by a generous Rosenkrantz Travel Grant from Harvard’s History of Science Department. My trip aligned with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, the 1969 mission that first landed humans on the Moon. Apollo 11 is a continuous source of pride for this country — it’s featured on almost every list of America’s greatest accomplishments.

However, it’s important to remember that the Moon missions weren’t as popular in the sixties as they are in contemporary culture. The proportion of Americans who considered the Apollo program a worthwhile expense peaked at only 53 percent during Apollo 11 itself. Some of the most outspoken critics were African-American activists, who pointed out the stark contrast between the government’s disregard towards living conditions in black neighborhoods and its willingness to spend billions of dollars to land Whitey on the Moon.

Today, Americans remain critical of funnelling billions into space research without any direct benefit to the public. NASA has responded by pointing out that many useful technologies have been created as spin-offs from the space program. But, if we just want consumer technologies, a space agency doesn’t seem like the best destination for our tax dollars.

NASA should be honest with the public and admit that the space program is not something with direct, tangible benefit to the average person. Rather, the benefit of space travel is ideological. Humans are a naturally curious species; we have an innate desire to expand our horizons. From myths to movies, we tell stories about travelling to strange new lands. Then, when some of us accomplish daring feats of exploration — such as going to the International Space Station or landing on the Moon — we feel collective pride. (I’m aware that, historically, “exploration” has gone hand-in-hand with exploitation, but I’m hopeful that international agreements can protect the natural beauty of our planetary neighbors. Perhaps this hope is naive...)

Regardless, we need to face the fact that our ability to explore space is limited. If modern physics is correct, then the speed of light is the speed limit imposed on all things in the universe. Massive objects — such as manned rockets — would require near-infinite energy to get anywhere close to the speed of light. So, given the vast emptiness of space, human exploration to planets outside of our solar system is likely to remain an eternal fantasy.

The same is not necessarily true of unmanned exploration. Breakthrough Starshot, a project chaired by Harvard professor Abraham “Avi” Loeb, hopes to accelerate tiny “nanocrafts” equipped with cameras to 20 percent of the speed of light and send them on a mission of around 20 years to take photographs of our nearest star system. While this would be a big achievement for science, it’s unlikely to satisfy our natural wanderlust in the same way that human missions can.

So, what do we do when our desire to explore the unknown is met with the realization that our exploration has a limit? One answer is to turn to science fiction. If it’s true that the purpose of space travel is to fulfill our desire for awesome new experiences, then can’t sci-fi serve the same purpose? We may never get to fly near a black hole, but we can still feel exhilarated watching Matthew McConaughey do so in “Interstellar.”

And yet, an existence in which our wanderlust is indulged by fiction alone would seem deeply unfulfilling, much like Robert Nozick’s “experience machine.” It seems important that we balance science fiction with science fact and continue our human space program, with Mars as the ideal next step.

This doesn’t mean we must pour billions of dollars into space agencies so they can get us to Mars as quickly as possible. The process is what’s exciting; until the moment a human steps on Mars, the planet is an unexplored world of unlimited possibilities. But when we actually get there, disappointment will set in — the barren, dusty planet can never live up to the idealized vision we’ve had for decades. After Mars, we’ll quickly turn our attention to sending humans to Venus, then Mercury, then the outer planets, and … then what?

Humans prefer the idea of exploration over exploration itself; we’d probably fall into cultural despondency if there was nowhere left for us to explore. So, rather than rush out into the solar system, why don’t we take it slow and enjoy the ride? A gradual approach to space exploration will allow us to appreciate each step of the process and will keep the space program cheaper and safer overall.

So, I encourage my fellow space enthusiasts — I know there are many at Harvard — to be patient. If it takes 50 more years to reach another planet, that’s okay. In the meantime, we can always watch “Star Trek.”

Daniel L. Leonard ’21, a Crimson editorial editor, is a joint History of Science and Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House.

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