REVIEW: “The Luxury Problem: Space Exploration in the ‘Emergency Century'” by Kim Stanley Robinson and Jim Bell

Review of Kim Stanley Robinson and Jim Bell, “The Luxury Problem: Space Exploration in the ‘Emergency Century'”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 265-273 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This fascinating piece is a conversation between Jim Bell, “project collaborator, planetary scientist, ASU professor, and president of The Planetary Society” (p. 265), and SF author Kim Stanley Robinson. The goal in the interview is to

get [Robinson’s] take on how the last few decades of Mars exploration have unfolded, and what that might mean for the realization of the kind of human exploration endeavor that will hopefully unfold in the next few decades (p. 265).

At first, Robinson’s answers seem relatively pessimistic; while we have made incremental advances in knowledge and technology, “not very much of fundamental importance to the humans-to-Mars project has changed” (p. 266). While human interest in Mars and travel to Mars remains strong, “too much fantasy projection onto Mars and it obscures the project as it really exists” (p. 268).

But layered underneath that seeming pessimism is a fundamental optimism. Even when funding is low and opportunities even fewer, our interest in and our desire to travel beyond the confines of our own planet, to places like Mars and beyond, has not waned. It is that — human desire and persistence — more than money or technological advances that will determine whether we eventually make it, argues Robinson. We must still sort out the fantasy from the reality, true, — and in Robinson’s view the reality is that “we don’t have an intrinsic interest in places where lots of people can’t live” (p. 272), so that Mars, rather than being an eventual replacement for Earth will more likely be a second Antarctica — but the reality will then become something that is in fact feasible.

It’s a fascinating conversation, and Robinson pulls no punches in answering Bell’s questions. In the final question, Bell asks Robinson to reflect on why he has spent so many decades writing science fiction, and trips to Mars in particular. It’s an interesting answer that he gives:

I think now that space science is an Earth science, and getting things right on Earth is the main task for civilization (p. 273).

So there you have it, people. The best way for us to sort out how to get to Mars is to sort out the problems here in Earth first.