I was scrolling through my news app this week when I saw the headline: “Virgin Galactic plane makes successful test flight.”
It was the first rocket-powered test flight of Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo, a snazzy-looking thing designed to take (rich) tourists on quick trips to space to float around in zero gravity and see our planet as a ball.
Sweet, I thought, and went back to reading Ringworld.
Ringworld is a classic sci-fi novel set in 2850. Two humans and two aliens travel light years in days to explore an artificial world shaped like a ring around a sun, with the habitable surface area of 3 million earths.
I made it a couple sentences before the contrast hit.
I know better than to compare science fiction to reality — honest. Just appreciate the progress, I tell myself. Enjoy the story. But the gap is too wide and the possibilities too exciting not to stop every now and then and ruminate. It’s not sadness that I feel. It’s not even frustration. (What am I going to do — tell the brilliant minds building a @#! spaceship that they’re not moving fast enough?)
What I feel, thinking past the limits of humanity, is longing. A deep, pensive want for experiences I’ve imagined a thousand times but may never actually get.
Inevitably I think of the Star Trek universe, where human development of warp drive gives the signal to alien races that we’re ready to say hello.
Space travel. Is there any other science where we dream so hard?
About 500 human beings have gone off-world since Yuri Gagarin reached orbit in 1961. Virgin Galactic wants to take 500 more up in 2014. “Book your place in space,” goes the website. For $200,000 a pop.
We innovator types — we don’t do well with waiting. How much of our space travel fantasy will come true when it counts the most — in my lifetime? And what do I make of this longing? Is it productive, harmful or just one big whine?
I can barely aim a telescope, let alone do rocket science. So I talked to someone who can — University of Washington Aeronautics and Astronautics Professor Adam Bruckner.
Bruckner researches things like space propulsion and how best to populate Mars. You know, the usual. When I emailed him about my layman’s existential moment, he was good enough to pick up the phone and talk it out.
“Our dreams are getting ahead of us here,” Bruckner said. “But we have to be rooted in physical reality.”
First, Bruckner offered hope in the mysterious pace of science. In 1900 they thought heavier-than-air flight was impossible, let alone space flight, he noted. Then there’s the stuff we barely imagined. The Internet. Cellphones. One-hundred thirteen years later, here we are.
Yes, I said. Of course. But space travel seems exponentially harder. We went to the moon, what, 50 years ago? Technology’s zoomed ahead, but we’re not going anywhere else. I’d love to rest on the assurance that it’s only a matter of time and the future is full of surprises, but it’s not enough.
Bruckner acknowledged the leap in scale. The Wright Brothers made a plane fly pretty cheaply, he said. The resources we’ll need to get to another star are clearly something else.
And resources won’t be enough.
“We’re talking about a problem that even if we marshal the entire resources of the entire world we may still not solve, because of physical constraints,” Bruckner said.
So there it is. The cold hard truth.
So what do we do? Those of us who know, work. Those of us who understand, theorize.
And those of us who neither know nor understand, dream.
Bruckner talked about the astronautics conferences he’s been to where researchers get in a room and talk about the most out-there things, like how we could build worm hole portals from one end of space to the other.
Scientists thought Robert Goddard was a nut when he talked about building rockets. Then he launched one in 1926. They think Robert Zubrin, head of The Mars Society, is a nut now. He’s not, Bruckner said.
“Without dreams you don’t get people motivated about the possibilities, about doing the impossible,” he said.
I guess that’s where I come in. I can’t build spaceships, publish research on extraterrestrial environments or hash out faster-than-light travel. But I can want, and I can rally.
Science fiction is a genre of great stories and mad hopes.
Our dreams are getting ahead of us. But that’s where they belong.