The Importance of Fictional Space Travel

Just a few days before science fiction pioneer Ray Bradbury passed away, I found a quote – the epigraph to The Martian Chronicles – that fit perfectly into a graphic design I’d been tinkering with for weeks, a design that incorporated spaceships from scifi film and television around the words ‘space travel.’ When I found the quote, it seemed like kismet.

“Space travel has again made children of us all.”

The words not only referenced the awe inspired by the triumph of humans traveling to the stars, they seemed the perfect complement to the unique sense of nostalgia that surrounds scifi on the screen. How many serious adults lose their composure when Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek is brought up in conversation? How many families are raised on the adventures of the Fourth Doctor and his ridiculous scarf? Few things send a person back to his or her childhood faster than a Millenium Falcon reference.

So when I realized that the 2012-2013 American television season wouldn’t have a single spaceship, my inner child cried.

It’s not exactly a sudden development. The last Star Trek series, Enterprise, went off the air in 2005. The Stargate franchise died unceremoniously with Stargate Universe last year, and the current crop of TV shows that fall under the heading of science fiction are all firmly grounded on Earth (or a parallel universe.)

With Prometheus in theatres and the untitled Star Trek sequel filming, there are still a few outer space epics to cling to on the silver screen, but it seems as if the days of serial exploration are done. It should come as no surprise considering we don’t seem very interested in the real thing anymore either.

People with multiple doctoral degrees have already discussed the troubles facing our space program. Neil Degrasse Tyson, a man I really admire, continues to speak out about the need for inspiring a love of and interest in science, not by instructing on the past, but by asking questions about the future. One line of his in an interview with The Atlantic in March of this year, particularly caught my eye:

“My favorite quote, I think it was Antoine Saint-Exupery who said, ‘If you want to teach someone to sail, you don’t train them how to build a boat. You compel them to long for the open seas.'”

So how do we get people to long for the open universe? As a scientist, Tyson applies a practical approach. As a writer, I consider a fictional one. Books have been written on Star Trek‘s influence on the scientific community, and hundreds of children grow up wanting to be Jedi. But as Tyson explains in the Atlantic interview, inspiring children isn’t the problem – it’s the adults who need to be educated.

“Kids are born curious about the world. What adults primarily do in the presence of kids is unwittingly thwart the curiosity of children. Let’s say, for example, a kid wants to jump into a muddy puddle. What does the parent say? “No, don’t do that. You’ll get your clothing dirty.” Well, that’s how craters are formed on the Moon!”

Perhaps the key to reigniting the country’s interest in space is getting them to feel what they felt as children, reminding them of the awe they felt when they first learned about the cosmos and the idea of traveling through it. Nothing melts the heart of a jaded adult quite like a space saga about human pioneers.

In our day to day life we act as if we’ve seen it all. It’s difficult, if not impossible to tell a brand new story. But maybe we don’t need a brand-new story. Maybe we need old stories in new places. Science fiction takes us back to a time when everything is possible because we don’t know any better. Stories on spaceships encourage us to think about the possible, the impossible, and the impossible only for now. (How much 60s Star Trek technology is now in every home in America?) We joke about the lack of flying cars and moon colonies, but we have space stations and robots on Mars, creations that were once just a part of stories.

If you want to inspire greater interest in the space program, I say start by recruiting storytellers to set new goals for those scientists to reach.

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