Space has an image problem. I don’t talk a lot on the site about me “real” job, which as some of you know involves working with satellites, because this site exists to indulge my imagined job where I’m an author. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t enjoy my real job, or am seeking to escape from it. This is simply a different sphere, and there isn’t a lot of overlap between the two. This topic, though, is very important to me, and I think that it should be important to all of us. In a way, it also relates to writing, but we’ll get into that later on.
When I say that space has an image problem, I mean that the common conceptions of space are distorted. The typical person not only doesn’t understand space, they don’t understand what we do in space. That matters, because ordinary people interact with space technology on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. I don’t just mean people like me, who work in the space industry. If you own a cell phone, or use a credit card, you are almost certainly interacting with space technology when you use those devices. That fact alone is simply incredible, that ordinary people, in our present day, interact with technologies enabled by space on a daily basis as easily as they do terrestrially based assets. The fact that so few people even realize that, and fewer still understand how it works, is concerning.
Space and its related technologies are only going to become more prevalent and more pervasive in our lives. Yet our very idioms convey the idea that space is something for other people to understand, not us. We say “it’s not like it’s rocket science,” or “I’m not a rocket scientist” to convey how complex something is. Well, I actually am a rocket scientist (although I work very little with rockets, technically), and I say that this is partially our fault, those of us who do work in the space industry. I think there’s a part of us that likes being the alchemists of our day, working our mysterious magic and conjuring up new capabilities for enormous sums, doing things that the “common folk” don’t understand. It’s not entirely deliberate – space really is complicated, and it really is a very different environment from anything we intuitively understand, living on Earth – but we haven’t exactly taken steps to mitigate that.
This might seem all rather incidental. After all, you can use your GPS without knowing that it is talking to a constellation of satellites with twelve hour periods that each play host to an atomic clock that measures time with an accuracy of billionths of seconds and are calibrated to the master atomic clock on Earth in order to account for relativistic effects, and that four satellites are required in order to get a fix on your location, and that the location is actually calculated based on the delay in the transmission of the timing signal caused by the limitations on the speed of light. You might not even want to know that, and space is hardly the only technology that most people don’t bother to understand. Microwaves, for instance: they work by emitting electromagnetic radiation at a specific frequency that happens to resonate with water molecules, increasing their kinetic energy and by conduction increasing the overall temperature of your food.
While I probably am biased, considering how intimately I do work with space technology on a daily basis, I sincerely believe that everyone having a more robust understanding of space, and how it works, is extremely important to our future as a people. The prevalence of space technology is only going to increase. At least when I was in school, the basic space education involved some facts and figures about the solar system, and that was sort of all there was. It didn’t seem like enough to me, so I started trying to teach myself astrophysics in seventh grade. What is relevant to us, right now, as people of Earth, is the orbital environment. That sphere of influence will expand, but orbits are fundamental to everything that happens in space. Gravity, despite being the weakest of the fundamental forces, is all-pervasive, and drives the planning of every mission ever conducted in space. We should be teaching people to understand the basics of orbital dynamics, because that’s what is affecting them on a daily basis.
That’s me starting to launch into education mode, however. Which is probably why this is such an important topic to me: I love talking about space, and I love trying to teach people about space. Plus, I would like to reduce the number of people who, no matter how many times I try to explain what I do, am convinced that I’m an astronaut and commute to a space station every week. This lack of understanding, though, is far more dangerous than it might appear on the surface. Because most people don’t really understand space, or how it affects them, or just how integrated space technology is into every facet of our modern lives, they are not inclined to take it seriously.
When President Trump floated the idea of a Space Force, it was treated as a silly, unnecessary concept. Yet a separate, military service devoted to maintaining the space environment for US interests started being discussed as early in the space age as the 1970s. In fact, the movement very nearly succeeded, but was tabled after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 as the emphasis turned towards a different kind of conflict. Now, we finally have a Space Force, with people who intimately understand space responsible for making things happen in space, and too many people are acting like it’s a joke, or like it’s a bad idea simply because of who signed it into existence. There’s even a show coming out soon that seemed intended to depict it as a silly enterprise.
Just because we don’t have mammoth starships that can cross the vast, inhospitable reaches between planets and stars yet, and just because we don’t have people living on other celestial bodies yet, doesn’t mean that we aren’t using space, or that space is not a conflicted domain. The US has demonstrated again and again both how much more effective space makes us, and how much we rely upon it. The very economy is tied into space, making use of the GPS timing signal. So are many key components of our infrastructure. More and more, the interests of all of us will be tied to resources and capabilities that are fundamentally enabled by space. SpaceX is attempting to provide global internet coverage via the largest satellite constellation ever launched. Rare metals used in advanced electronics are not nearly so rare on many asteroids. Solar power is far, far more efficient without an atmosphere between the panel and the sun. If the integration of space into our everyday lives is science fiction, then we are living in an Asimov novel right now.
This continuing perception that space is too complicated for anyone but “someone else” to understand, and this lack of understanding about how space technologies impact all of us every day is going to seriously undercut what we’re able to do with space. It will discourage people from getting involved in the space industry, and it will make it harder for new things to be accomplished in space. I say, to all of you, that you can understand space. Nothing is beyond your comprehension, nothing is so complicated that you have to leave it to someone else to understand. This is rocket science, and we can all be rocket scientists.
Now, I promised that I would relate this to writing, and I’m not going to take the cop-out of claiming that an understanding of space will improve your science fiction. Although here we talked about understanding space, something similar could be written about any number of topics. Writing convincing characters and stories means challenging assumptions, doing things differently. That’s what makes for a compelling story, and that means not limiting yourself when there’s a whole universe out there to be explored.