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© 1999 by Donald F. Robertson.



This article may be distributed at will, but only if it is not changed in any way, and only if the author's name, the copyright notice, the name of the journal it first appeared in, and this notice remain attached. In addition, this article may not be sold for money, or published for sale in any way, without the author's prior written permission.

This letter originally appeared in Interzone.

Dear Editors,

Thank you for publishing Stephen Baxter's excellent discussion on science fiction's failures, and few successes, at portraying the real world of spaceflight (Interzone 105, July 1996).

In general, I agree with much of his analysis. However, Baxter waltzes right to the edge of one vital insight, and then fails to fall in, or even to get his feet wet. Without explicitly saying so, he shows that much of the American hard science fiction crowd lives so completely in the past that, even when the world is viewed entirely on their own terms, they fail to recognize success when it slaps then in the face. The are so busy crying over milk spilled a generation ago, they fail to see that, today, humanity's expansion into space is going very well indeed. It is healthier, both economically and politically, than it has ever been.

["Hard" science fiction is a well-defined sub-set of science fiction wherein the story is supposedly based on accurate scientific research, with certain generally accepted exceptions, e.g., unexplained faster than light travel.]

This whole idea that humanity could conquer the vast reaches of the Solar System - or even of the surface of Earth's not-so-tiny moon - in the thirty-nine years since 1957 is patently absurd. Yet it was, and is, this desperate belief that "we can go there ourselves" that has caused so much of the bitter disappointment that Baxter describes.

Let us put that single absurdity aside, and out from under its heavy shadow, we can take a quick look at the human expansion into space as it really stands.

Today, just thirty-nine years after the first satellite, we have private and semi-private companies from half-a-dozen countries offering commercial transportation to space. For a few tens of millions of dollars, you too can buy a ride into orbit. The rockets can lift more than twice the payload at half the cost of their military-sponsored forebears. Developing countries and ex-Communist states are successfully earning hard currency by launching commercial satellites on converted ballistic missiles. Before the end of the century, a new generation of commercial rockets (Ariane-5, Delta-III, Atlas-2AR) will orbit even greater payloads at substantially lower cost. The vital point is that, except for Ariane, the new rockets are being developed entirely with private funds. The hard-nosed companies and banks that are coughing up this money believe that they can make a buck in space, or the money would not be there.

A dozen or more private companies are successfully raising several billion dollars each, all in the private market, to orbit vast networks of commercial satellites. The first satellites of the first network have already been orbited; others will begin flying before the end of the year [1996]. These new satellites will offer more different kinds of communications services than anyone could have imagined even five years ago.

Meanwhile, month after month, the much maligned Space Shuttles trundle into orbit. True, the Shuttle orbiters failed to reduce the cost or complexity of human spaceflight by the orders of magnitude advertised, but that wasn't really in the cards for a first-generation vehicle. What the Space Shuttles have done is orbit the same mass as a Saturn-V (if you count the orbiter as payload); executing almost ten times as many flights so far as the Saturn-V ever achieved; at a steadily declining cost-per-flight of one-third or less that of a Saturn-V launch (assuming the very highest estimates for the true cost of a Shuttle launch, i.e., about $500 million). All of this is providing a vast base of practical experience on working in space.

It looks very likely, now, that the International Space Station will finally see orbit, while Russia's space station, Mir, has been permanently inhabited for years. The most significant thing about the International Space Station is that, once it is built, it will become a market, requiring that n kilograms of supplies be delivered day in and day out, without fail. This giant orbiting base is the guaranteed market that the commercial space transportation industry needs to raise the money to develop new, second-generation shuttles.

The second most significant thing about the Space Station is not how often the project's opponents have come close to killing, but how tenaciously it has clung to life. Every time one excuse to build the thing has fallen by the wayside (competing with the Russians, growing semiconductor crystals in orbit), a new set of excuses is found (cooperating with the Russians; growing protein crystals to help develop new medicines). It seems that humanity, or at least Western civilization, is bound and determined to get into space and will dream up whatever reason is needed at the moment.

Meanwhile, much of the hard science fiction community, at least in the United States, dreams the 1990s away. They are still lost in the 1950s, still looking for that vast, expensive government program that will instantly open the Solar System with no justification except to let us science fiction fans get our rocks off on Mars. . . .

None of this means that hard science fiction has been a total loss at anticipating real spaceflight. I think the mid-Century American science fiction writer who came closest to foreseeing the way real spaceflight would evolve was Poul Anderson. Remember his flamboyant entrepreneurs building vast corporate empires, wheeling and dealing their way into a profit in space; slowly expanding first into orbit, then the Solar System, and finally along the nearby galactic arm - then read, in the business section of any major newspaper, about the equally flamboyant characters running the comsat industry. Right or wrong, the seeds for Anderson's future are all around us.

Baxter chastises Anderson for concentrating on the far future, but, ironically, while everyone else was looking for the next Apollo project and not finding it, Anderson looked at history and saw a balkanized push into space by essentially ugly characters motivated mostly by personal profit. In the process, he has captured the long periods of time it will take to conquer the stars, just how vast the distances to be conquered are, the many false starts and disasters that lie along that road, and the diversity and tenacity of human effort and motivation that will be required. Most other hard science fiction authors simply ignored these facts, setting their stories in a space program indistinguishable from an idealistic crusade, or so far in the future that all of the hard work had already been done.

It is a safe bet that no one reading these words will see more than the first, tentative steps into the inner Solar System - but that does not mean that it will not happen. As Poul Anderson saw, history, even just human history, is far longer and grander than the wishes and dreams of any of us.

For further discussion of some of these ideas, see my article in the Mid-December 1995 Analog, Reach Out and Touch the Stars.


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