This story’s been out there for a while, and I haven’t talked about it mostly because I’ve been waiting to see if we get anything more solid, but here it goes: NASA is working on an actual warp drive.
Of course, there’s something that particular article doesn’t mention: Arriving in-system from warp drive might blow up the whole neighborhood around you. Sort of a downside, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I am resolving not to be negative about this, though. This is a big deal. A HUGE deal, if it works. This opens up the stars to us. This lets us get off this rock (of which I’ve been an advocate for quite some time). This could save the Earth, the whole human race, or entire way of life. BIG news.
But let’s not get all misty and over-the-top idealistic, either. The Federation of Planets didn’t come into being thanks to warp drive alone, and we’re nowhere near the kind of post-scarcity utopia Star Trek describes. Space travel will be as ugly and messed-up as anything else humanity has done, but hopefully with enough wonder and humanity to make up for it.
The important thing to always remember is that new technology is always filtered through the lens of culture, and culture dictates how the new technology is developed. It’s harrowing to me, for instance, that it currently looks as if we could design a star-system destroying, interstellar missile. All it will take for us to do it, too, is an alien species we find scary enough. Hell, a colony of ourselves we find scary enough would probably do it, and don’t think that we won’t.
Still and although, the capacity to explore the stars, as preliminary and theoretical as it now is, could mark a huge change for the human race as a species. It will be a giant shift in the political and economic power structure of the world’s nations (assuming we find anything good out there, but that’s a reasonably safe assumption). I don’t know what form this change will take, but there’s one thing I do hope:
I hope I live to see it happen.
You know how everybody has a cheesy movie that they just love? A movie that, if it happens to be on FX, you just can’t help but watch it, no matter how often you’ve seen it? For me, that movie is Armageddon.
Armageddon is heavy-handed melodrama coupled with the pacing of an action movie. From an objective standpoint, the entire thing is ridiculous. Let’s run down the list of foolish things in this movie, starting from the top:
- It would be easier to train astronauts to be drillers than drillers to be astronauts.
- Why the heck does the Russian Space Station float around with enough fuel to re-fuel two experimental shuttle designs so they can fly around the moon?
- Space Shuttles don’t have spare seats for Russian Cosmonauts.
- The US Government doesn’t fly around in black helicopters even a quarter as often as they do in this movie. Like, seriously, every single place any of the characters go there are 2-4 black helicopters rushing to meet them.
- The flight path of the shuttles would cause them to crash directly into the asteroid and die, not land on it.
- The weak gravity of the asteroid only ever comes up when dramatically appropriate. It also, oddly, does not follow the characters inside their (bizarrely spacious) shuttle.
- If NASA and USAF are working on an experimental shuttle program and have built a prototype, they have one and exactly one such prototype. You don’t build a spare of an extraordinarily complex prototype. That’s why it’s called a ‘prototype’.
- Pretty good odds that nuke wouldn’t actually split the asteroid like they wanted. Especially since they were digging in the wrong place anyway.
- NASA doesn’t put machine guns on rovers. If they did put machine guns on rovers, they wouldn’t load them on a mission like this. If they did load them on a mission like this, they wouldn’t be able to ‘shoot’ their way out of the wrecked shuttle without (probably) blowing themselves up or getting stuck.
- Why wouldn’t the drillers, when throwing out everything unnecessary on the rover, throw out the machine gun?
- NASA would be painfully aware that deep sea drillers are not the same thing as engineers and should not be allowed to mess with their designs.
- NASA can follow schematics and build drills. Even special, high-tech, proprietary deep sea drills.
- NASA doesn’t have the money to do any of this stuff.
- Even if the shuttles did land on the asteroid, they wouldn’t be able to take off again without some kind of VTOL capability, which the shuttles in the movie didn’t have. They just kinda ‘flew away’.
- If you had a mission patch sewn or fastened to the exterior of your spacesuit, you probably couldn’t rip it off to give to somebody. Even if you could, it would probably be a bad idea to do so.
- If the shuttles landed on the backside of the asteroid (as it appears), how is the shuttle able to communicate with Earth? What are they bouncing their signal off of to get around the mass of the asteroid? How powerful is their transmitter that they can power the signal through something the size of Texas?
- If a woman files a restraining order against her ex-husband and keeps his child out of his life, how is the fact that he’s going to save the world make you love him again? Even if you partially forgive him, does he really get a hug? If you threw him out of your life unjustly, just how big of a bitch are you to come back only after he’s landed on a freaking asteroid and saved the entire human race?
- Space Dementia? Really?
- Cosmonauts hitting equipment with wrenches does not make it work.
- If you just drop your wrench in the engine room of a space shuttle just before it goes through re-entry, something terrible is going to happen as that free-floating wrench gets accelerated some direction into something sensitive and causes a lot of damage.
There are more, but I’ll stop now.
Why None of That Matters
We don’t care about all those little persnickety details when watching Armageddon. Why? Well, the movie gives us all the other things we want and love. We have a romance. We have a father/daughter relationship. We have best buddies facing death together. We have everyday shlubs saving the planet by dint of their tenure at the School of Hard Knocks.
Armageddon gives us a bunch of loveable goofballs who man up, go into space despite their fears, save the Earth, and come home heroes. My generation grew up hearing about how this happened once before – it was called World War 2 – and we’ve been jonesing for our own chance ever since. Who doesn’t want to save the world? Who doesn’t fantasize about scenarios where they and their friends are humanity’s last, best hope for survival and somehow, despite their humble beginnings, they pull it off? You know who doesn’t want these things? People who don’t like Armageddon, that’s who.
And then, of course, there’s Harry Stamper. Harry Stamper is the quintessential American Alpha Male. He’s tough. He’s wise. He’s gruff. He’ll do anything for his family. He’s a self-made man. He’s protective of his daughter and hard on her fiancée. He’s the kind of guy American men all secretly wish was their dad and/or wish is the kind of dad they will become. The guy who rolls up his sleeves, gives his daughter a tearless goodbye, and wades into certain death with a grimace and a pithy one-liner. The character is concentrated, rarefied manhood; in ancient times, they would have bottled his sweat and sold it as a strength elixir. I choke up every time Colonel Willy Sharp snaps his incredibly tight military salute to Stamper’s daughter and asks permission to shake the hand of the bravest man he’s ever known. Why? Because I’m an American Man, that’s why. That’s how I want to be remembered. I want the respect of Captain America, dammit! So do you! Admit it!
So, yeah, I love this movie for all it’s faults. It pulls all the right strings and pushes all the right buttons. I also really, truly appreciate how hard the movie tries to kill Ben Affleck. After that gag-worthy animal cracker love scene, he really had it coming, and the movie respects that. So, thank you, movie.
Science Fiction, by its nature, tends to travel some dark roads. None darker, I fear, than a single, disturbing question: Why Do We Matter?
Asimov put the issue in pretty stark terms during an interview with Bill Moyers on A World of Ideas in 1988. The exchange went like this:
Bill Moyers: “What do you see happening to the idea of dignity to human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?”
Isaac Asimov: “It’s going to destroy it all. I use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then both have what I call freedom of the bathroom, go to the bathroom any time you want, and stay as long as you want to for whatever you need. And this to my way is ideal. And everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the Constitution. But if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up, you have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, aren’t you through yet, and so on. And in the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies.”
As should be growing more and more evident the more you pay attention to the world, we have less and less ‘freedom of bathroom’ as time goes on. If you aren’t disturbed by this, you should be. If you hope there’s a way out of this without something terrible happening, you should be a fan of science fiction.
Let us be bluntly, terribly frank: if you or I or any other person on this planet were to die *right now* or, indeed, if any ten or twenty thousand of us were to die this very moment, the world would continue to roll along. In some cases there may be political implications, sure, or this or that company on the NYSE may trade up or down as a result. But, in the end, it won’t matter one bit. There are billions of us; a couple thousand barely makes a dent. Hell, a million won’t stop much. Ten million. Demographics may alter, but will the world be changed? Probably not. At least not in any substantive sense. If you think McDonalds will vanish because the population of Mississippi croaks overnight, think again. If you think Assad will cease to be ruler of Syria just because he kills 10,000 of his own people, you’re probably wrong (if he leaves/is deposed, it will be different reasons altogether).
Population pressure is a supremely terrifying reality, and it is growing. This isn’t the first time it’s done this, and thus far humanity has been ingenious enough to figure out a way out of it. When cities overgrew their capacity to provide food and water to their inhabitants, humanity developed aqueducts and sewer systems. When the prospect of employment or decent lives grew ever more improbable or impossible in this or that locale, humanity found other places to colonize. When food became scarce, humanity found ways to utilize food more wisely. But how much further can we push this?
The only sustainable way to escape this pressure cooker we call Earth without the deaths of untold hundreds of millions is to find somewhere else to go. Otherwise, the more of us there are, the less we matter. This isn’t a moral judgement , this isn’t apocalyptic doomsaying, this is math.
So, for God’s sake, fund NASA. Replace the Space Shuttle with something new and better. Get our butts to Mars. Build a colony on the Moon. Think it’s a waste of money? Well, I’m going to give you two choices: spend money to build new frontiers for humanity, or spend money to destroy our fellow humans when they come after our bathrooms. Your choice. I know what I’d prefer; I only wish more people preferred that.