To explore the boundaries of science fiction and the real world of science, technology and engineering, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Los Angeles-Las Vegas Section recently hosted an event in California called “Sci-Fi vs Sci-Tech.” Aerospace engineer Aldo Spadoni attended the event as a panelist and moderator.
Humanity has embarked on a Second Space Age, fueled by new technology developments and both private and government space exploration initiatives. What has inspired people to push the boundaries of human imagination and accomplishment? Science fiction films and television shows like “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” have always been a major source of fascination and inspiration; they’ve also influenced many to pursue sci-tech careers.
“Sci-Fi vs Sci-Tech” was organized by Ken Lui, AIAA LA-LV Section events chairman, with support from Robert Friend, LA-LV Section chairman. The event featured a panel of experts including Rod Pyle, space author and historian; Rick Sternbach, space and science fiction artist; Harriet Brettle, CalTech planetary sciences graduate student; Madhu Thangavelu, USC professor; Dr. Rostislav Spektor, project leader and research scientist; and Allan Grosvenor, senior aerodynamics engineer.
The meeting began with a look back at the Apollo 11 Moon landing and Viking 1 Mars landing, in celebration of the 49th and 42nd anniversaries of those events, respectively. On hand were former Apollo and Viking program engineers Robert L. Norcross Jr. and Gary Moir; they provided first-hand recollections of the many challenges involved while working on these amazing programs.
Back to the Future
The event was well attended, with great audience interaction and wide-ranging discussions. Pyle started with a look at past visions of the future, providing examples from the 1930s and 1940s including humanoid robots, flying cars and cities in the sky.
“I thought it might be instructive to look at how we envisioned the future in decades past, and from this, we might learn something about how to look ahead. While these early visions had some elements of accuracy, our future turned out to be much more about miniaturization, digitization, big city congestion and a turn to rampant consumerism. But we do have GPS and texting,” he said with a wink.
Humans Versus Robots
The panelists fielded a number of questions related to the human role in space exploration. The space environment remains extremely hostile to humans, so why continue to pursue human space exploration at great expense and risk?
At least for the immediate future, humans have proven to be far more adept and flexible than robots at onsite data gathering and assessment. Beyond exploration, venturing into space is also about assuring human survival by establishing permanent colonies. Thangavelu provided some insights into how we might safely live and thrive on the Moon.
Most science fiction films typically portray future humans that appear and behave much the same as they do now. In the future, however, spacefaring humans might be drastically altered to better function in the space environment. Imagine human minds downloaded into miniaturized robots, which Pyle likened to “robotic cockroaches with human brains.”
The Challenges Ahead
The panelists generally agreed that an expanded human presence in the solar system will require the ability to travel quickly, safely and efficiently. Spektor provided an overview of promising advances in electric/plasma rocket propulsion technology. Other options discussed included nuclear thermal and pulse rockets, and laser-driven solar sails that could potentially push tiny micro-spacecraft on interstellar missions.
Science fiction films are not always optimistic, and there has been a general trend toward dystopian visions of the future. Pyle noted that “we can and should do better, looking to the future and clearing a path for what we might achieve if we can spot some aspirational, pro-social goals.”
The Frontiers of Imagination
Science fiction can still portray a positive future with characters overcoming adversity, inspiring interest in space exploration and the pursuit of technical careers.
“As an artist who has worked in both science fiction as well as real sci-tech, I am amazed and excited about the ways that the two areas inform and inspire each other,” Sternbach said.
“Scientific observations and innovations in real technology drive science fiction to imagine what might be possible. At the same time, dreams of new air and space vehicles, destinations, materials and processes help scientists and engineers bring those dreams into reality,” Sternbach added.
Attendees were treated to a surprise visit by none other than Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who shared his ideas for efficient space transportation infrastructure in the vicinity of the Earth and moon.