“A recent NASA study estimated that there should be at least four habitable planets (and probably more) within about 32 light-years of Earth—a cosmic stone’s throw away.”
This type of headline annoys me. We usually equate a “stone’s throw” to a short distance, and while 32 light-years are tiny compared to the breadth of the visible universe, it is a distance that no human could possibly navigate, at least within the understanding of science we have today.
I am also seeing many of these “aliens are nearby,” “strange objects,” “weird lights in the sky” kind of stories lately because I guess they get clicks (guilty). This one was linked on the Drudge Report, which gets 18M views per day, and it’s from the Wall Street Journal. I’m old enough to remember when the WSJ was a legitimate news-gathering organization. Things have changed since my youth.
Here’s the deal. There are no aliens. If they do exist, we will more than likely never see them. Considering the distances in (just) our own galaxy, any society able to travel to see us wouldn’t bother. We would be galactic lichen to them, at best. But, who knows, maybe they are like cats and would do stupid things. Visiting (or colonizing) aliens probably wouldn’t share our morals. Cutting open a bunch of us to see what all the fuss is about wouldn’t really be a problem for them, just like the tiny baitfish we use to catch bigger fish. Or, maybe they worship The Great Zgrodsith or something and wouldn’t hurt a microbe. In any case, no aliens are coming to visit if they exist at all.
Science fiction is undoubtedly better than the real thing. Authentic space travel will never, ever live up to its fictional depictions. The one small thing in science fiction that reveals just how far behind the technical curve actual space flight has to be the ease with which people use spaceships. “Captain! The splffluzzmeter reading is off the chart. We need to get to the escape pods!” and 15 seconds later, dozens of personal, pre-programmed, fully navigable lifeboats rocket off away from the dying mother ship.
If NASA or SpaceX were running the show, the lifeboats would have a 4-day turn-up program with multi-stage safety checks, and the launches would probably be scrubbed because of space fog. Now, I’m not on the backs of our space programs. They do what they do under challenging conditions and with lots of stress and unknowns. But this is a fun example of how distant space fiction and space reality are apart. We pour 100s of billions of dollars into space travel and research, both publicly and privately, in an attempt to master the technical steps to plan, launch, recover, and relaunch space vehicles. However, in 40 years of advancements, NASA can barely drive an RC buggy around Mars and is prepping a simple drone flight there for next week. SpaceX keeps testing its vertical landing technique, sometimes with fiery results. These advancements take too long, and the sub-technologies that drive mundane things aren’t happening at all.
We just will never get there, to the science fiction level of space flight competency and technology, that is. There aren’t enough industries to do it, and there is not enough money in any case. There are too many like-kind ‘competitors’ and investors eating each other. Chasing profits will block and derail technological advancements, causing the same kind of bloat and greed we have seen for the last 60 years with defense spending. Eisenhower wasn’t kidding: the military-industrial complex is fat on the public trough with very little to show for itself.
A short scene in the film The Wandering Earth depicts an excellent example of how we will never colonize our own solar system, much less embark on interstellar travel. The technologies necessary to run just one small thing like a hibernation bed are so far out of our current range they will forever be unattainable. People get into the hibernation beds, and within 5 seconds, the glass hatch silently and smoothly latches, and the human inside is asleep for months or years. Even films like Passengers that depict a rougher hibernation experience are set on a vast automated space ship with trees growing in the public spaces. Right.
Boston Dynamics has taken 17 years to develop the technologies that power their dog-robot, Spot. The thing can’t really do anything valuable, and most people are afraid of it. Our commercial society, science education, and technical industries are not set up to develop the kinds of advancements required for deep space travel or colonization.
If the primary, secondary, and tertiary water storage/generation systems on some future Mars colony fail, everyone will likely die. Who is working on the complex fault detection system and failure mitigation processes for a water bottle? Nobody. There’s no money in it. Multiply this by millions of topics, and you can probably understand how we will never get to the point of leaving earth in a meaningful way. Sure, a select few will go up and explore at the cost of billions per trip. That’s a hobby, not a sustainable space program.
Elon Musk might really like space and space travel and all that stuff, but if he didn’t think it would be profitable, he wouldn’t be doing SpaceX. Space travel is for the rich and privileged and not for the worker. It will never, ever be for the regular-person-on-the-street. Public sentiment will shift, government support will wane, then be rekindled in future generations, and the cycle will repeat. People are already ambivalent about more important topics than space travel. We will never have an orbiting city like in Elysium or a mobile AI like T.A.R.S. from Interstellar.
Science fiction is where we always have and will continue to fulfill our desires for exploring space. But that’s OK. Books and films are great to whisk our imaginations away from a polluted, over-populated Earth. Just don’t start believing that novel you are reading.