SpaceX: Promises, Promises

Arthur C. Clarke set his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey in the first year of the twenty-first century for two reasons:  to assure us that science and technology were on the cusp of great, far-sweeping changes, and to suggest that such changes would occur much sooner than later. One example of the great-changes-in-the-offing narrative is all the hoopla over SpaceX. And who knows? Maybe the hoopla is well-founded.

However, as a science fiction writer, I remain unconvinced.

Modern science fiction is typically only science fantasy. While science fiction extrapolates on current technology to discuss its implications for the future, science fantasy uses technology as a theme to tell an imaginative tale outside the bounds of the scientifically plausible. What is reported in the news about science often suffers from an inability to tell fiction from fantasy. This may be the case with what we read about SpaceX.

As much as I admire Clarke, as a visionary he was full of beans. As a predictor of things to come, in fact, he was downright awful.

To see this, we need look no further than his 2001, a tale chock full of promises that either have come only partly fulfilled or have failed to manifest themselves entirely.

In Clarke's vision, the world possessed:

  • Commercial aircraft ferrying passengers from Earth to outer space
  • Hotels in space
  • Routine trips to the moon
  • Lunar research colonies
  • Actual physical evidence of extraterrestrials
  • Manned, interplanetary spacecraft
  • Crew members in artificially-induced suspended animation
  • Computers so intelligent they were considered regular crew members -- whose artificial intelligence programming was so sophisticated they could experience paranoia and psychosis
  • Human beings evolving into higher life forms.

And all this by the early twenty-first century, mind you.

So what can we say about Clarke's vision? For starters, it's less than twenty-twenty.

The closest we have to the commercial spaceliner has been NASA's space shuttle, and now the SpaceX Dragon. Despite its enormous success, however, the shuttle had its failures as well; most notably the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Further, we should note: As there were only five shuttles in NASA's entire inventory, the loss of two shuttles represents a 40% loss of fleet. Name, please, the number of idiots willing to pay for a flight aboard an aircraft whose company boasts a mere 40% loss of its fleet. Harry Reid can only do so much.    

Hotels in space? The closest we have is the International Space Station. It's not a hotel.  It's a glorified fishbowl in shallow orbit, ready to be pierced at any moment by a passing scattershot of micrometeorites. In other words, a death-trap. Until 2001, there was the Mir, showing what the Russians could achieve with only a bit of Soviet-era engineering, hard work, chicken wire, and wads of duct tape. And should I mention that flaming fireball known as Skylab?

As for trips to the moon to visit the research colonies, there are none. For that matter, we haven't been to the moon in forty years. In 2010, Obama called on NASA to end its Constellation program.  Apparently, "never" is the new "regular."

Try though we have to find ET, the little guy continues to elude us. He doesn't phone. He doesn't write. For all we know, SETI is merely the place where old scientists go to die.

If the Apollo 13 mission taught us anything, it's that space exploration is not only enormously difficult and prohibitively expensive, but unforeseen dangers can pop up at any moment and threaten the lives of every crew member. The dangers are so great we seem to have given up entirely on the idea of sending human beings to other planets, preferring instead to send unmanned rovers like the Spirit and Opportunity, or other robotic functionaries. After all, robots don't require a self-contained atmosphere. They don't need to rehydrate pre-packaged meals or drink Tang. They don't have to figure out how to use a zero-gravity toilet. And if the spacecraft gets wiped out by a passing meteor or asteroid, who cares? We'll just build another prohibitively expensive rocket and send it on its way. What's another few billion bucks to the Obama administration?

Suspended animation? What's that? Do any modern-day scientists even talk about this sort of thing in public? These days, the idea is like an embarrassing interlude, best unsaid because best forgotten -- like a particle physicist recounting that Christmas party at Fermi when he got blitzed on eggnog and performed a dance for the crowd in his wife's underwear.

The one Clarke prophecy coming closest to reality has been the development of artificial intelligence. AI programming is used in everything from video games to security interfaces, and continues to find new and beneficial applications. That being said, let's not kid ourselves, either. We are nowhere close to establishing the real-world equivalent of the HAL 9000 computer. Computers can't go out of their minds in the way depicted in 2001 because they don't have minds to go out of. In fact, "artificial intelligence" is a complete misnomer; computers aren't artificially intelligent -- they have an artificially-programmed simulacrum of intelligence, mimetic of intelligence but not the real thing. (At this juncture, I'll skip the obligatory crack about Joe Biden, thank you!)

Lastly, there's evolution. Despite what your friendly neighborhood evolutionary biologist will tell you, evolution remains not only unproved but unobserved as well, a kind of secular religion, with its articles of faith, its prophets, its martyrs, and its message of salvation for mankind. Further, the theme of evolution as present-day creation myth is inadvertently presented by Clarke himself; of the two instances of evolution in his book (one, when the ominous monolith, millions of years in our past, prods a tribe of ape-men into tool-using proto-humans; and two, when the alien intelligence that created the monolith changes spaceman Dave Bowman into the super-human Starchild), neither event is an act of Darwinian evolution. Read Origin of Species: evolution is supposed to be a change in speciation brought about by natural selection and/or random genetic mutation. An artifact or intelligence finessing one species into another is not evolution.  It is, rather, an act of intelligent design.

All in all, the launch of the SpaceX Dragon is likely a good thing. At the very least, it takes space exploration out of governmental hands and puts it into the free market, which is bound to reduce costs. 

But allow me to make a less optimistic prediction. Suppose for a moment that SpaceX achieves no greater success at getting us to the stars than the government did. What would that mean? One answer might be that our great technological age has reached its practical limit. After all, science and technology can only do so much, and cannot do them indefinitely. Think about it: if technology is limitless, then we are not men but gods; we just haven't realized it yet.

The problem with that idea is that Someone already is God, and He doesn't seem to like lesser beings encroaching on his territory. Ever hear of an archangel named Lucifer?

If you experience technical problems, please write to