July 18, 2015
The big science news this week, of course, was the New Horizons Pluto mission. I'm grateful that I've survived long enough to see flights to every planet in the solar system. But the fact that they were all automated, and the other eight worlds and their assorted moons all turned out, as far as we can tell, to be empty of life, would have been severely disappointing had we not seen it coming. Millennials understood the reality from the beginning. But for those of us who grew up in an era when science fiction depicted invading Martians, Venusians living in steaming jungles, and space ships landing on Jupiter. (Check Buck Rogers.) We were still wrestling with the possibility of Martian canals. The USA established NASA, and the Soviets put a satellite in orbit. In the sixties, 2001: A Space Odyssey made encapsulated everything we could expect by the end of the century. At that time, 2001 seemed pretty distant.
In 1969, we landed on the Moon, and the future we'd all believed in seemed to be opening up. Nothing could stop us now, baby.
I'm not sure yet why we care so much about determining whether we're alone in the universe. When I do speaking engagements with groups that are not formally part of the SF community, college classes and library events and veterans' organizations and so on, people inevitably ask whether I think there are aliens. I suppose there are some out there somewhere. There are just too many worlds with warm water and stable suns, billions of them, to accept the notion that whatever happened on Earth hasn't been happening elsewhere. But if I even suggest the possibility that we might be alone, that the odds of a biosystem taking root might be so remote that this world might actually be unique, people get annoyed.
I'd feel the same way if I were sitting in the audience. And I'm not sure why. Stephen Hawking has remarked that we'd be much better off, much safer, if there is no one other than us. And we all recognize the common sense in that proposition. But it doesn't seem to matter. Somewhere deep in our souls, we do not want to be alone.
I don't want to downplay the Pluto mission. That has been an incredible accomplishment by NASA, which continues to struggle with curtailed funds. And I don't know how you persuade a congressman that a mission to a place so far away has any potential benefit. But it leaves me wondering where we'd be if we'd been able to bypass the wars of the last half-century and devote our resources to more positive projects.
We did discover a couple of odd features about Pluto: mountains rising to 11,000 feet; a craterless area of about 23,000 square miles; and troughs filled with dark material. Intriguing. But not nearly as much fun as, say, discovering a much smaller plain with a statue at its center; or a million-year-old space station in orbit. But that's the stuff of science fiction, I guess. And I suppose it's just as well.
I was in grade school in 1947 when Kenneth Arnold reported seeing a group of flying saucers while piloting his plane near Mt. Rainer. It was apparently the first time the term was used, and it got all the kids in my neighborhood pretty excited. We had a large vacant lot at the north end of the street, and I can recall hoping that maybe one of the saucers would set down there and say hello.
It was an innocent time. And also, an age when anything seemed possible.