One of the reasons I’m a science writer is the sheer excitement generated by spaceflight when I was young. The Sky at Night was one of my favourite programmes, but you could hardly avoid Patrick Moore and many others cropping up all over the place in the media to discuss the space race, because it was big news. I had science fiction from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Trek telling me we were going to be out there in the future, and I had the reality of more and more dramatic manned missions, leading up to 1969, when I was allowed to stay up all night to watch the moon landing. And this, we thought, was just the beginning.
Since then, reality has been disappointing. The Space Shuttle might have been a step forward, but the missions were mundane, never reaching far away from the Earth. It seemed increasingly that people were just an inconvenience for space exploration. They made missions far more expensive and risky – they simply weren’t cost effective when it came to doing space science. When I started writing Final Frontier, to capture the excitement of the manned conquest of space, it seemed as if I was writing an epitaph. Yet the more I got into it, the more my enthusiasm grew. Not only was there the nostalgic recapturing of the old thrill from my teens, but it really did seem as if we are on the verge of a different view of exploring the final frontier.
Two factors influence this. One is the ability to pull together more international effort. The original space race was very much a political battle between the USA and the USSR, with national pride and glory at stake. But with projects like the Large Hadron Collider we have come to realize just how much more can be achieved with good international cooperation. (Compare this with the US Superconducting Supercollider, cancelled after huge amounts of money had been spent on it.) In fact it’s more than just glossing over national boundaries. It’s interesting that in early SF, most space exploration was expected to be by private companies and individuals. Now private money is back in the business, providing new ideas and impetus. Joint national and private enterprise really could make a huge difference to the future of manned space flight.
The second factor is the realisation that the battle for science funding should not exist. A while ago I interviewed a Nobel Prize winning physicist, who was dismayed about the amount of science money going to the ISS, because scientifically it had practically no return on investment, while that same money could do so much more on the ground or in robotic probes. What we need to realise is that the science is secondary when it comes to this kind of exploration. When Cook and Magellan and Columbus were out there, they may well have picked up some scientific information, but it wasn’t the driving force behind their expeditions. They weren’t scientific missions on a science budget. The Beagle, for that matter, was a survey ship, on which Darwin’s work was at best a secondary role. Similarly we have to see manned expeditions into space being about prospecting, exploring, perhaps finding future homes, widening our horizons and doing what makes life worth living. This shouldn’t be eating into a fragile science budget – it’s more about defence, though defence of humanity rather than an individual nation.
So what I started in a negative vein ended up feeling much more positive. Of course there was also the chance to bring in all kinds of interesting context, from space travel in science fiction to the potential realities of reaching the stars, and whether a warp drive really does make sense from the viewpoint of physics. It might seem corny, but the spirit of that old intro to Star Trek really came home to me, along with the hope that we really will continue to boldly go where no one has gone before.