Early in Apollo 13, when a reporter asks Jim Lovell (i.e. Tom Hanks) why the Apollo program should continue on after ‘One small step…’, Tom’s answer is (loosely paraphrased) ‘Imagine if Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, and no one followed in his footsteps.’ At the time, it seems a strong response, and the reporter at least acts as if his question has been answered.
This line struck me immediately and instantly as oddly flippant and insufficient, partially due to the fact that we now know that someone (i.e. the Vikings) actually reached America nearly 500 years before Columbus and that for those five centuries, no one did follow, and partially because it reflects the degree to which Hanks’ character in the film (not necessarily Jim Lovell in real life) has become removed from the real world realities that govern his world.
The first issue is of course one of hindsight. Lovell likely did not know at the time that the Vikings had reached North America, or at the very least would not have considered it a confirmed fact. However, to someone in our present situation, this knowledge is significant as it provides both a precedent and a cautionary tale. The precedent is that of outliers, of concerted efforts and overachievement that extend past the boundaries sustainable by societal structures. The cautionary tale is the flipside of that equation, and concerns what happens when we overextend: failure, suffering, and – in the case of the Greenland settlers – starvation and ultimately extinction.
This dovetails nicely with my second issue with the response – namely, that it reflected the idealistic fervor of a true believer. To Hanks/’Lovell’, it is inconceivable that we would not continue to fly to the moon, to mine its secrets and perhaps the moon itself, whether that made economic sense or not. But of course, in the 1970s, it made absolutely no economic sense to colonize the moon – reaching it had been a primarily political achievement, a proof that the strongest nation in the free world, through a combination of concerted efforts and supported by the free market, could achieve more, and more quickly, than a totalitarian state. Once this political end was achieved, there was little left on the moon that was of interest to society as a whole.
Nor has this absence of interplanetary purpose been overcome since. The probes to Mars and Venus, and across the rest of the solar system, only served to reinforce this: outside of the spectacular announcement of life on another planet, there has been little of interest off-world to a society that has developed none of the cultural or technological structures to support an extraplanetary presence. Even now, the ISS is little more than an ultra-high-altitude observation balloon, conducting scientific experiments whose primary cultural function is to exist and occasionally upload cool zero-gravity (or more precisely, low-gravity) clips on YouTube.
More broadly, the question of whether space exploration has reached a near-term apex is one that bears serious thought. Despite plans to launch to Mars by 2030, despite various plans (including the aforementioned Mars One reality TV concept) to extend the reach of human space exploration, and despite the work that the various Mars rovers are doing, the merit/relevance of space exploration is not yet proven in the cultural psyche. For better or for worse, and James Cameron’s half-baked idea of mining asteroids notwithstanding, space exploration is a big ‘so what?’ at present, one that is somewhat hard to answer. Let’s not forget that, while the Viking expeditions to North America were the result of petty individual one-upsmanship and fortune-making, the Columbian expedition was one fueled by a global arms race for riches and dominance. In other words, despite some evidence that the Americas existed prior to Columbus’ expedition, there was no need to follow up on this information before the factors that launched Columbus in the first place made the new lands relevant. We may, unfortunately, need significantly higher pressures on Earth to overcome a similar hump in our space exploration.
Finally, there is a third, nagging question regarding the above question: “What if no one had followed in Columbus’ footsteps?” Why then, millions of Native Americans might have survived and thrived, the Incan culture might have reached new heights, and the eventual global confluence might have had a very different power dynamic. That the outcome was what it was is partially due to the factors that created the demand for exploration in the first place: an exploration born out of a thirst for power and riches is not likely to be a benign one. If our space exploration is likewise fueled by greed for wealth and power, as it inevitably will be if we wait for the large-scale cultural factors supporting permanent settlements off-world to be in place, then it can be expected we will meet similar disasters. This, then, to me, is a healthy portion of my reason for writing near-Earth science fiction: to make real the potential, to consider the present possibilities, and to light a fire under our cultural backside and make it happen – before the economic and political imperatives kick in.