WEEK 8 :: The Unconquerable Final Frontier by Eric Bollens

Since the birth of humanity, people have looked to the sky in astonishment and wonder. Throughout history, societies have defined space as many different things, as a playground for deities, as a holy kingdom, as a resting place for the deceased, as a vast vacuum, as a great unknown, and ultimately as the final frontier. From John Milton’s description of “space” in Paradise Lost (1667) to H.G. Well’s first use of the word “outer space” First Men on the Moon (1901) to William Shatner’s proclamation of “Space, the final frontier…where no man has gone before” in Star Trek: The Original Series, humanity has long had an optimistic view of what space offers, but this view may not meet with reality.

Space travel presents many challenges, and typically these challenges seem forgotten in art, in the media, and by society in general. President Kennedy decreed in 1961 that the United States would land a man on the moon before the end of the decade, but in art and literature, the optimism reached far further. Four years earlier, Walt Disney had told viewers of Disneyland that Mars colonization lay on the horizon:

“Even though scientists think Martian conditions are severe, they believe that if man journeyed to Mars he could survive here with moderate protection… life [on Mars] could be almost normal inside pressurized houses and pressurized cities… Today, as we face the problems of over-population and depletion of natural resources the possibility of Mars becoming a new frontier is of increasing importance in our plans for the future.”

A few years before, in 1950, Ray Bradbury had brought the idea of outer space colonization into mainstream thought with the Martian Chronicles. Other works like Asimov’s Foundation books and Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek TV series also trivialize the idea of space travel. The reality, though, isn’t as kind as quick jaunts to Mars and warp drives. Decades before any of this, Albert Einstein had already constructed a barrier to interstellar travel with his theory of special relativity in 1905 by defining the maximum attainable velocity at the speed of light. Other barriers such as gravity, cosmic rays, and inhospitable environments have further complicated any realistic attempt to make space travel a reality. Yes, the United States did put a man on the moon in 1969, just like Kennedy had vowed and Well’s had prophesied, but since then humanity has not taken any massive steps into the final frontier.

In a way, all the optimistic works of art are C.P. Snow’s second culture, the artistic culture. They make space travel seem accessible, rather than presenting the idea of space in a realistic light. The idea of space travel has influenced these artists, but merely for artistic works, not for the synthesis we’d expect from the third culture. In the Forever War, Joe Haldeman explores how space expeditions might actually work in a universe governed by relativity. Battles could be fought well after the war had ended. Frank Herbert’s Dune does have limited faster-than-light travel, but it puts humanity in a cold, desolate, inhospitable universe instead of an unrealistic universe of cool looking creatures and space ships and grandiose alien cultures. These are a slightly more accurate reflection of what space travel and life might be.

Grand drawing of Dyson spheres and Mars colonies may intrigue the casual viewer, but they are not realistic. Will we ever conquer the “final frontier” as the optimistic artistic culture claims or will we forever be fated to struggle as prophesied by the scientific culture? I believe the latter. I believe that it is an unconquerable final frontier.

2 Responses to “WEEK 8 :: The Unconquerable Final Frontier by Eric Bollens”

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