Judging from the previews, Christopher Nolan’s upcoming space epic is everything a lover of serious science fiction could hope for in a Hollywood movie, maybe more. It looks like it’s beautifully filmed, artfully acted, and told with at least a nod to actual, real-world science. The trailers gave me chills.
There’s just one problem: it looks like the film gets one of its central assumptions horribly—maybe tragically—wrong.
Of course it’s impossible to know a film without having seen it, even in the case of “Interstellar” with all its teasers, trailers, TV spots, 3D animated website, extensive press coverage, and mobile game. But there’s a reason that science fiction and film geeks are breathing heavy with anticipation of the November release. The trailers set out the situation well enough, and it looks intriguing.
In the near future, the Earth’s health continues to slide. An angry climate and disease unleash dust storms upon farms, while facemask-wearing citizens fight fires with brooms and set off across country, Tom Joad style, in search of a better life.
There are no technological fixes. In fact, our engineer hero, played by Matthew McConaughey, is told that “we don’t need any more engineers” since they’re the ones who got us into this mess in the first place, what with their machines and modern lifestyle and all. Still, one “Interstellar” teaser video features historic space exploration footage, with a voiceover that laments:
We’ve always defined ourselves by our ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments, moments when we dared to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that.
That particular sequence implies that space travel ended with the final space shuttle landing.
But wait! Fear not, Michael Caine is here to offer a solution for a planet in peril. It seems that a SpaceX-on-steroids private space program has secretly developed a deep space cruiser. Or maybe it’s a clandestine government operation. In any case, Sir Michael plays a professor who activates a sliding door in a conference room to reveal a giant rocket waiting on a launch pad.
He tells McConaughey, “We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.”
The professor has discovered a worm hole or invented a black-hole-powered drive that will propel the ship light years away. He recruits McConaughey’s character to pilot an expedition in search of a habitable planet that can replace the Earth.
You see, he assures a reluctant McConaughey, “nothing in our solar system can save us.”
The crew knows that the relativistic time effects brought on by near-light-speed travel will mean that their families will age a lifetime during what seems to the astronauts to be a trip of only a few years. But in order to save the human race, they set out. Adventures ensue, both during the journey and once they survive the landing on Earth 2.0 (possibly called Bellerophon, named for the Greek hero who audaciously flew to Mount Olympus, the realm of the gods).
It looks like a great story, told with plenty of action, much more hard science than we usually get, and best of all, genuine human emotion.
The only problem? The premise here is wrong, wrong, wrong. Maybe even dangerously so.
Eyes on the Solar System
Nolan’s Professor is right about one thing: no place in our own solar system can save us. Half a century of exploration, mostly by robotic spacecraft, has shown us that the planets around our sun are strange, vast, varied, and strikingly beautiful. They are complete worlds with volcanoes, weather, even oceans (underground). You can see all this for yourself. A good place to start is NASA’s Solar System Exploration site, which offers a living encyclopedia of all the planets, all the missions that have explored them, and the people behind them.
Another is the Eyes on the Solar System site, which lets you explore the entire solar system in real time and in 3D.
But it won’t take long during your travels to notice something. All these nearby worlds are fascinating…but they’re also utterly hostile, and (as far as we know so far) thoroughly sterile. Even on a relatively Earth-like place like Mars, the air is thinner than at the top of Mt. Everest, drier than in Death Valley, and colder than in Antarctica. By far. The conditions on all the planets and moons are harsh beyond human experience.
There are intriguing possibilities for life in places like the underground oceans of the ice moons Europa and Enceladus. There has also long been talk of terraforming, purposely altering the climate of these places until they are more comfortable for people. But any such project would probably require technology that doesn’t yet exist, not to mention many, many generations to complete. And given the potential for alien life, would it be ethical?
Asteroid mining and other expansion into the solar system are exciting possibilities as well, and they may well yield important benefits. But the fact is we are simply not going to get up and move to Mars anytime soon.
Eyes on Exoplanets
So, what about other solar systems? Are there likely to be other Earth-like planets around other suns? Remarkably, yes. Just in the last few years we’ve confirmed the existence of not just a few, but hundreds of exoplanets. We can extrapolate from the ones we’ve already detected that there are sure to be billions more in our galaxy. Big ones, little ones, and some that are just right in terms of their size and their distance from their host stars.
Once again, NASA has a way to easily follow along with this research: Eyes on Exoplanets. It tracks newly found planets; if you take a look just at our own small corner of the Milky Way, you can see that there are hundreds, represented here by the bright dots on the left side of the galactic disk. And these are just the Earth-sized ones.
But let’s take a closer look and see one, teeeeny little problem standing in the way of colonizing the bounties of the galaxy.
Here, we’ve zoomed into the neighborhood immediately surrounding our own sun. Clicking on one of the nearby exoplanets yields its distance, in this case 76 light years. Seventy-six light years. One light year is the distance light can travel in a year. It’s hard to even imagine how far that is. Seventy-six. Of course, there are closer systems, and still closer ones may yet be discovered.
But all of them are very, very far away. In “Interstellar,” as in generations of scifi shows before it, this staggering distance is conquered by the use of some kind of semi-magical propulsion. Warp drives. Hyperspace drives. Infinite improbability drives. Conveniently placed wormholes or some such.
After so many years of familiar stories about them, it almost seems strange to remember that none of these things actually exist. Some scientists would argue they can’t exist. Others hold out hope. To his credit, for this movie Nolan worked with renowned physicist Kip Thorne, who apparently offered some realistic advice about how wormhole travel might work. But all of this remains highly theoretical. If some kind of faster-than-light speed travel is possible, we are NOT close to building a ship that can do it.
It’s also important to point out that just because we have found Earth-sized planets in orbit within the “habitable zone” (not too close, not too far from the sun) does not necessarily mean those worlds are good picnic spots. In our own solar system, Venus is almost exactly the same size as Earth, and is found within or close to our own habitable zone. Venus, if you haven’t been there, is a hellish desert hot enough to melt lead, stretched out beneath opaque skies made in no small part of sulfuric acid.
Even if the day comes when we have both a destination and a ship that can get there, then what? If a future McConaughey and crew find a second Earth, what about the rest of us? How would we transport billions of people there? Perhaps a very, very…very…select few could go.
Leaving Earth for a second home? Maybe in the far distant future. Maybe.
Eyes on the Earth
So is the cynic in “Interstellar” right? Maybe engineering and science can’t help, and space exploration is a waste of time while people are suffering here at home?
There is one more site you should visit. Eyes on the Earth. Like the other “Eyes” sites, it lets you explore a 3D simulation of spacecraft using real NASA data. The difference is that these missions all have our home planet as their target. You can track a variety of satellites and see their latest reports about the Earth’s health: temperature, sea level, winds, atmospheric gases, and more. The results are visually stunning and intellectually fascinating. And this doesn’t even include the many other spacecraft tracking weather and providing communication and navigation.
Far from frivolous, space exploration is one of the most important tools we have to better understand and care for the environment. Fighting drought, coordinating during emergencies, piecing together how the planet’s systems work in harmony, all these tasks are made greatly easier by a good view from above.
In fact, the environmental movement and the space age are inseparable. Some have argued it began in earnest during the Apollo 8 mission when, for the first time, millions saw the blue, fertile Earth rising over the horizon of the barren and blasted moon.
From all the combined dispatches sent home by the fleet of robotic explorers at Mercury, Mars, and beyond rises a singular truth: spectacular, ringed Saturn is NOT the jewel of the solar system. Earth is. It’s unique, solitary, and precious.
I can’t wait to see “Interstellar.” But so far it seems like the film is looking in the wrong direction. Remember Eyes on the Solar System, with its wild menagerie of beautiful…but desolate…worlds. Then remember Eyes on the Earth, with its multi-faceted jewel of a planet, wrapped in the orbital embrace of watchful sentinels.
There certainly are things in our solar system that can help save us, including resources and knowledge. But to think we’re going to escape our problems by climbing into rocket ships to flee our home anytime soon seems crazy to me. The movie is just a fantasy, but it’s a real opportunity to remember something critical:
We are not meant to leave the Earth. We are meant to save it. We have to. Space will help us do it. That is the message and the legacy of the space program.
It is sobering. It is hopeful.
Full disclosure: I work with some of the teams responsible for the websites mentioned above, but this piece represents only my own opinions.