“A book, too, can be a star, explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”
—Madeleine L’Engle, in her Newbery acceptance speech, 1963
A Wrinkle in Time was published 50 years ago today. The novel was the first work of science fiction I ever read, and it changed me forever. For me, it was also just the first stop in what become a long list of new places I could go in movies and books: Narnia, Middle Earth, Tatooine. Millions of us have spent time in these places–and we are the better for it. I’ve seen how these imaginary worlds and the fictional struggles of the people in them can lighten the darkness in our minds and expand the universes they contain.
There’s just one problem with these places: they’re total BS. I say that with the greatest love and respect. I just mean that they’re not real. For generations now, our whole society has been so steeped in sci-fi, that it’s almost easy to forget that in reality we’ve never found life outside the Earth (yet). No Vulcan has ever raised her hand in spread-fingered salute. No Sith has ever sliced anyone open with a swift stroke of his light saber. It’s all made up.
At the same time, I’m continually surprised how few people in the real world, even among speculative fiction fans, seem to pay much attention to (maybe they don’t really know about?) the actual voyages of discovery happening right now.
Just one example. If you’re a regular here, bear with me. If this is new to you, check this out. Here are a few recent pictures of the planet Saturn and several of its moons. These were not taken through a telescope–they were captured on location by a bus-sized, nuclear-powered, robotic spacecraft called Cassini. These pictures come from the raw data feed that Cassini sent across nearly a billion miles of space, that NASA immediately made public, and which was then processed by a skilled imagery expert named Gordan Ugarkovic.
Here are strange new worlds, bizarre and beautiful—and as real as the view out your own window right now. In fact, as you read this Cassini is still at Saturn, still exploring. Here’s another shot of Titan that was taken just a few days ago.
And Cassini is just one of more than a dozen such missions now underway. I had the chance to watch in person from close range while one of them launched into space. Even though the future of the astronaut program is hazy, we’re living in a golden age of space exploration. It’s just that it’s the robots who are going where no one has gone before.
Doing this not only brings these amazing new worlds to light while expanding and exciting our minds. It not only opens the possibility of finding fresh life. It helps us better understand our own planet, while pushing the limits of technology that creates jobs and improves our daily lives in many ways. It helps raise up the next generation of engineers and scientists who will keep us competitive. All in a way that costs much less than human missions (and remember that the entire NASA budget, human and robotic together, takes up less than one percent of the U.S. federal budget).
But now, even this small part of our exploration seems to be threatened. All to save less money than it cost to conduct the recent U.S. wars in the Middle East for 15 hours.
I believe the legions of us who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to watch models of spaceships shoot made-up monsters should be among the strongest supporters of the very real men and women who are flying missions to very strange, but very real, expanding frontiers. If sci-fi geeks can save TV series from obscurity, can they help save the future of exploration?
One place to start: the Planetary Society.