I’ve had friends at NASA who would complain about how the unrealistic expectations of the public, fostered by SciFi, were such a problem for making real progress in space — until it was pointed out to them how the true origins of those expectations were often the space agencies themselves. Sure, there are always a few kooks who will write letters demanding to know where NASA has been hiding the aliens and warp drives, but the public generally doesn’t have a problem conflating the fantasies of SciFi with the realities space activity. As the author here points out, Star Trek wasn’t fooling anyone, given it’s production value. But if the public seems to prefer to give their attention to the fantasies rather than the realities, perhaps it’s because they’ve already been disillusioned or disappointed by those realities. I’ve often said that the public prefered Star Trek to the real thing because Trek made our future life in space look swank while the reality presented by NASA looked like sub-duty in a junkyard viewed through a kaleidoscope.
The vision of man-in-space long promulgated by space agencies was always somewhat unrealistic, but it served the purposes of space programs fueled by nationalism that needed — and still think they need — state heroes for the public to identify with. We knew by at least the late ’60s or early ’70s that the heavy lifting out there was most-likely going to be done by machines. But the development of that logically necessary telerobotic technology has, until very recently, been neglected. I hear this same suggestion from space advocates and establishment insiders all the time; the public won’t ‘get’ what we’re doing if there isn’t flesh and blood people out there for them to identify with. There has to be this hint of drama or danger or no one pays attention. Space as reality TV. And isn’t that also the economic model of Mars One today? Fund a mission to Mars on its advertising and TV broadcast rights… And yet, at a time when there are more active astronauts than ever in history, school kids are more likely to be able to name all the robot rovers on Mars than even one current astronaut.
The essential broken promise of the Space Age wasn’t a promise of personal space adventure. It was a promise of participation and access. NASA was supposed to build a highway. THAT was the mission it sidelined, because it painted itself into a corner when it framed that proposition in the context of EVA, knowing full well EVA would never be routine or practical. We can’t all be astronauts. We don’t all have the ‘right stuff’. Our civilization isn’t built by heroes. It’s built by regular folks. Out-of-shape, clumsy, often disabled or chronically ill in some way, poorly educated, hyper-proletarianized, regular folks. And so it makes no more sense to portray EVA as routine than it is to suggest we rely on Olympic athletes to build houses.
But, in spite of space agencies more than because of them, the heroic era of space is coming to an end — and good riddance. The advance of technology could be delayed and ignored, but not stopped. The telerobots are here and they’re going to catalyze an epiphany in the space establishment akin to that which has already occurred in fields like oceanography. And right on their heels is AI. Our future in space doesn’t look like a Chesley Bonstell painting anymore. It doesn’t look like anything either NASA or SciFi have been showing us for the past 50 years. It looks like this;