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Gary Westfahl: Columbia, and the Dreams of Science Fiction  

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February 2003

Posted 4 February:
Responses to Gary Westfahl's essay on the Columbia disaster from:

Plus an editorial response

Note: Return e-mail addresses will be posted only if you include it in your closing, or your subject matter specifically requests some sort of response; otherwise it will be omitted. Letters may be edited for length.

Dear Locus Online,
     It takes a special kind of gall to claim, as they themselves emphatically would not, that the terrible deaths of seven astronauts is good reason to put an end to the Age of Space. Beside this, Gary Westfahl's assertion that a literature thronged with astronauts falling into the Sun, drifting off into endless nothingness, opening their helmets to vacuum, and, yes, burning upon re-entry, somehow convinced us all that space flight was easy and safe shrinks to insignificance.
     If challenged to sum up the history of the Twentieth Century in three words, I would be forced to reply: "Hitler. Hiroshima. Gargarin." Similarly, in our own era the continuation of that expansion into space is the only enterprise I can imagine exciting the admiration of future ages and civilizations. There have been three uniquely important moments in the history of life on our planet so far: the appearance of life, the emergence of life from the ocean onto land, and the emergence of life from the planet into the larger universe. How future peoples will envy us for being here now! Yet we're expected to shrink from the challenge and sink down into an era of wars and mediocrity simply because it's difficult? Because it's not safe?
     I am heartbroken at the loss of these bright, talented, and — to use a word not much in currency these days — courageous men and women. But, if I can resurrect another ancient and obsolete term, their families can take some faint consolation in the fact that in their lives' accomplishments and in their deaths as well they achieved glory. They scratched a line of fire across the sky. How many of us can say half so much?

Michael Swanwick
3 February

Dear Locus Online,
     With regards to Gary Westfahl's commentary, "Columbia, and the Dreams of Science Fiction," I feel compelled to observe:
     * Mr. Westfahl calls man's exploration into space "by far the most technologically difficult and inherently dangerous task that the human race has ever attempted." Very true.
     * However, Mr. Westfahl goes on to say that "America has still launched over 150 space missions and has watched three of them end in catastrophic failure. A 2% failure rate just isn't acceptable..."
     If a 2% failure rate for mankind's most difficult challenge isn't acceptable, then what kind of standard does he require for more mundane tasks, such as driving to the store or walking his dog? 0.2%? 0.02%? Considering that it is impossible to remove all risk from everyday life, I find myself thinking that it's a wonder that Mr. Westfahl leaves his house at all.

Jon Hansen
3 February

Dear Locus Online,
     I see that Mr. Westfahl has written twelve books about science fiction. A real expert on our field. But yet I wonder.
     First, I don't know many people actually involved with the real world who thought there were no dangers in space exploration any more than I knew anyone who thought being a test pilot was a safe career. Astronauts are test pilots, and about 1 in 25 missions statistically has gone bad. This was Columbia's 28th flight. Nor do I think science fiction writers have minimized the dangers. Certainly many of us have emphasized them. Having spent some time in the aerospace business at the pointy end, I certainly never thought it was without danger. At Edwards when one augured in the chaplain would call on the widow, they name a new street at the base, and fly the next day. The chance of finishing a tour of duty as a test pilot in those days was about 75% or put the other way there was a one in four chance you wouldn't leave the Mojave Desert. There was never a shortage of volunteers, but no one minimized the risks.
     We do not have any means for repair of ships in orbit because NASA has steadfastly refused to develop decent space suits that don't require pre-breathing for use. Because we have no "put them on and get out and see what's wrong" suits, we have never developed any procedures for doing that. Pete Conrad was able to fix Skylab even so, but he did so improvising — like Mr. Westfahl's much despised space cowboys. But of course Westfahl, being a critic, apparently was able to miss the point of the Space Cowboys movie.
     If we had built — they didn't need developing because NASA Ames had already developed them, although NASA Houston killed the program — real space suits, we would also have provided means for using them, including some shuttle tile material and some super glue, tether lines, and instructions in repair procedures; but because we have never had decent suits, NASA preferred not to know about damage on takeoff. Me, I'd like to know: at least there's a chance to say goodbye. And there's always a chance that human ingenuity will come up with a miracle, as was done with Apollo 13. Not a high chance, but some of us would prefer to go out trying. Given the size of the chunk that hit Columbia on takeoff there's a high probability that inspection would have shown there was no chance of surviving re-entry. That would leave rescue by Atlantis, a race against time. Or a decision to go in, knowing there wasn't much chance. Or a search for something else. But at least they'd know.
     As to why explore, some people like Westfahl have to ask. Some, like the crew of Columbia, don't need to ask that question. Like Scott at the South Pole, the Columbia crew knew the risks and they chose to take them: as would many readers of science fiction, and many Americans, and all the astronauts and test pilots I have met. The star road takes a fearful toll: but it's one paid cheerfully.
     Mr. Westfahl hasn't been asked to go up. He's not at risk. And I am not at all surprised that an academic critic of science fiction hasn't the foggiest notion of what we are all about.

Jerry E. Pournelle, Ph.D.
One time Space Scientist, North American Rockwell
One time academic.
And present science fiction writer.
3 February

Dear Locus Online,
     I feel compelled to respond to Mr. Westfahl's insulting diatribe. My response is on my blog, at

Derek James
3 February

Dear Locus Online,
     I’m very disappointed that Gary Westfahl’s commentary should be your first item related to the Columbia disaster. Others can better enumerate the reasons for manned space flight, but I must object to the silly and frankly tasteless inference that seven astronauts died because of science fiction.
     As to the notion that the genre consistently downplayed the risks, I grew up reading space-oriented science fiction, including Heinlein, Clarke and Clement. None of them left me with the impression that for the foreseeable future the human exploration of space would be anything less than difficult, dangerous and occasionally deadly.
     I can't help but wonder if Mr. Westfahl is merely frustrated that society has not followed the lead of much of current science fiction in turning its back on space.

Geoffrey Styles
3 February

Dear Locus Online,
     Gary Westfahl, in his commentary, takes issue with science fiction and the science fiction community for having caused "...delusions about the ease and manageability of space flight..."
     The engineers who designed and built the space shuttle were very aware of the complexity of the task set before them. The failing is in the public relations arm of NASA and the press for not educating the public of what should be very obvious — during take-off and landing you have little or no margin of error. If your car door pops open at highway speeds, you have a problem which is easily solved by pulling over. If something pops open at 12,000 miles an hour — while in the atmosphere — you have a disaster. The solution is to fix the door or maybe redesign the car — not throw away the concept of driving and start walking because obviously driving is too dangerous.
     Mr. Westfahl implies that once a problem has been identified after take-off, it is insoluble. The Mir space station is an example of that not being the case. The cosmonauts suffered fires, hull punctures, failing oxygen generators and any number of other system failures, but they did not die and Mir did not break up. In a sense they did live up to the sci-fi spacefarer stereotype from Space Cowboys and Destination Moon. If it had been possible to identify the problem with Columbia before it started back to Earth, it may have been possible to fix the problem in orbit — by its current crew, or a later team assuming the shuttle could have docked with the ISS or a Russian vehicle sent to rendezvous with Columbia for the return home.
     Mr. Westfahl implies that sending people into space at this point in time is a silliness perpetrated by science fiction. That we are wasting ourselves in this endeavor because science fiction has told us to. That at some point in the future we may have to go into space, but not now. I am sorry to inform Mr. Westfahl that the technology needed to go into space and return safely will not come from lightweight space probes or spring fully formed from some other field. It will only come from trial and, unfortunately, error, lead by brave men and women who know the risks involved and are willing to take them now or in the future.
     Finally, Mr. Westfahl states that there is no immediate need to conquer space. We will not conquer space anymore than we've conquered the Antarctic or the deep ocean. We will learn to live in an extremely harsh environment and we will do this, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. And in facing and overcoming these challenges — in person, not by remote control proxy — we will grow.

Peter Crozier
Seattle WA
3 February

Dear Sir/Madam,
     It's people like Mr. Westfahl who will, if they get their way, ensure that space travel never does become safer, become routine.
     He's right that it is a lot more dangerous and complex and difficult than most people probably think; and that it's a huge leap past atmospheric flight.
     But we will develop the technology to get to space reliably, and easily. And we will do it not "because science fiction told us to", but because it's part of our nature to go over the horizon, to explore, and to expand, and to conquer the obstacles that nature places in our way, and if we don't get it right the first time, or the second time, or the third time, sooner or later we figure it out. That's what we do, at our best.
     To do anything less, as Mr. Westfahl apparently would like us to settle for, is to betray everything that's good about our species.

James DiBenedetto
Arlington VA
3 February

Dear Locus Online,
     I honestly don't believe Gary Westfahl means any offense with his article/essay about the space shuttle disaster, but there's a hint of something distasteful in it regardless. The distasteful aspect is that somehow Science Fiction has brought us to the point where such disasters are bound to occur because of our boundless expectations — that Science Fiction has such authority that it in a sense created this general situation. And there's a faint echo of triumph in this assertion. Science Fiction actually impacted on the real world. It had a hand in it. Westfahl's a good writer, and I like his work generally, but I do find that assertion distasteful. And relayed too swiftly after catastrophe.
     In terms of the real world, outside of the SF ghetto, one could find all kinds of reasons why we're stuck on space travel and the progress of space travel that don't have a damn thing to do with SF. Manifest Destiny, for one thing. And arrogance about technology in general for another.

Jeff VanderMeer
3 February

Dear Locus Online,
     Gary Westfahl asks a question in his recent essay that I feel compelled to answer in my own admittedly primitive way.
     What do we need in space that is worth the risk of money, time, resources, and human lives? Why do we have to do this right now?
     For the same reason that we individually need to do whatever energizes our souls right now: because waiting for the circumstances to align and the technology to improve leads only to an infinity of tomorrows and an empty today.
     If you wait for the perfect circumstances to start doing anything, you'll never get it done. This is the same for business and art and science and space travel. Someone has to take the risk. Someone has to be the first. Someone has to go ahead even though we aren't ready.
     Why? Because the exploration of space is a metaphor, a stretching of our imagination with no compelling substitute. It is an adventure of the mind that appeals to a population unimpressed (perhaps ignorantly, perhaps not) with other scientific endeavors. For some unfortunate reason, the mapping of the human genome and the quest for cancer's cure don't energize the imagination in the quite the same way. Maybe we're a self-selected culture of explorers and risk-takers, and a project only truly matters to us when there's danger involved. Maybe it's just scary to think of all that emptiness looming above us.
     Whatever the reason, we need purposeful risk. We need heat and pressure to make a diamond.
     Human beings are at their best in the worst of circumstances, when changing and unexpected conditions force them to improvise with their maximum creativity. We should not shrink from risk and uncertainty but embrace them--that's when we realize the full potential of our species.
     Do we deliberately take foolish risks just for a moment of clear purpose? Of course not. But do we measure out our lives in J. Alfred Prufrock's coffee spoons, wondering if we dare disturb the universe?
     These years will probably be considered by space historians as a Dark Age between our awakening to the stars and a renaissance in which we can truly begin the task of exploring them. They'll remember our stuttering efforts, our infrequent missions, our boondoggle space station as important tokens of our continued aspirations.
     The time is never right until great effort makes it right. The disasters of September 11 and the Columbia attest once again that we are never ready to face our greatest challenges until, suddenly, we have to be.

Will Ludwigsen
3 February

Dear Locus Online,
     In regard to Gary Westfahl's commentary on the Columbia disaster: apparently it is not just the general public whose understanding of manned spaceflight has been warped by science fiction. If the purpose of the manned space program was to "conquer" space, as Mr. Westfahl suggests, I would have to agree that it was time for a reality-check. Thankfully, NASA and its astronaut corps have more realistic expectations. The mission of the Columbia which ended so tragically on Saturday was directed toward increasing humankind's understanding of the space environment near Earth.
     The crew of the Columbia were certainly not failed conquerors, but brave explorers who accepted enormous risks in order to increase our knowledge of the universe. They should be honored as such.

John Touhey
Cranford NJ
3 February

Dear Locus Online,
     I share Gary Westfahl's anguish at the loss of Columbia, but his conclusions seem to me exactly wrong, and drawn for the wrong reasons.
     He writes: "In sum, there's a strong case to make that humanity should eventually conquer space, but not much of a case that we should be struggling to do so right now."
     One can only point out that there was no real need for people to die for the sake of circumnavigating the globe, or discovering the Northwest Passage, or mapping India right then. But people did all of these things willingly, for reasons of commerce and national pride and pure human curiosity and ambition. If we wait until the colonization of space is necessary, it might not be possible; consider that if human civilization ever finds itself on the brink of catastrophic collapse, all of the resources that might be funneled toward space exploration will in all likelihood end up trying to forestall the catastrophe. Money for space travel is a function of a comfortably advanced society with capital both financial and human to burn, and I use that term advisedly. Seventeen people have died in forty-four years of American attempts to fly into space: is that too many? How many have died trying to climb Mount Everest, an utterly trivial accomplishment in historical terms?
     And when is this "eventually"? How will the technological problems of flying into space be solved without flying into space? Any engineer will tell you that failure teaches more than success. It is a tragedy when such failures cost human lives, as they did yesterday, but the loss of Columbia is in the end no worse than the explosion of a steamboat in 1838...except for the romance we have invested in the astronaut.
     Which brings me to another point of Westfahl's:

"The real reason why so many people feel this compulsion to carry on with space travel is simple enough.

We must conquer space because science fiction has told us to."
     And what fiction forced Magellan to undertake his voyage? What fiction forced Lewis and Clark to seek a water passage across North America? For that matter, what fiction forced homo sapiens to leave the Rift Valley and colonize the frozen and hostile lands to the north? Science fiction isn't nearly that important. We who have devoted our lives to it would like to think it is, but the fact is that the vast majority of people in the world — and, I'm willing to bet, a clear majority of people who work for NASA — have never read enough science fiction to be seduced by it. The explorer has been a romantic figure as long as there have been explorers, and SF is no more to blame for Columbia than it is to be praised for gene therapy.
     If we are to abandon the dream of space, let's at least do it for reasons other than egocentric guilt.

Alex Irvine
2 February

[ Editor's comment:

Though I generally prefer to play as invisible-as-possible a role in the production of this website, and though I was warned by one deeply-offended letter-writer not to attempt any "sophistry of trying to tell us what you 'really meant' " by posting Gary Westfahl's essay, I will make two comments:

First, this website is independently edited by me, and its content should not be construed as reflecting the decisions or values of Locus Magazine editor Jennifer A. Hall or its publisher Charles N. Brown. Alert readers should never assume that material on this site, except for the pages explicitly indicated as excerpted from each new issue of Locus Magazine, is "published in Locus"; rather, it is published by Locus Online.

Second, I have in fact been employed by a NASA contractor, once part of Rockwell International and a few years ago acquired and absorbed by Boeing, for over 20 years. I've written software that monitors sensor data from the Space Shuttle Main Engines, which (though I'm not sure, since I left direct involvement with that program over 10 years ago) may have still been running aboard Columbia's main engines when it launched last month. I spent long weeks after Challenger's explosion in 1986 analyzing potential failure modes. So I have a deep understanding of the engineering complexities and risks involved in launching manned vehicles into space. Yet, I have been a reader of science fiction for even longer, and my even deeper commitment is to its fundamental literary nature: which directs us to, in the words of Theodore Sturgeon, Ask the next question. Nothing is sacred, nothing should be taken for granted; reconsider everything, constantly. Even such fundamental SF philosophies as the manifest destiny of mankind in outer space (not that genre writers have ever been uniformly devoted to that premise). While everyone else, predictably, glorifies victims of this tragic accident as heroes, it shouldn't be offensive to readers of science fiction to reconsider the basic premises of their mission. And that, I felt, is what Gary Westfahl's essay did.

Mark R. Kelly ]

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