I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars? Until recently, though, I have kept my feelings to myself. Space exploration has always had its detractors. To complain about its demise is to expose oneself to attack from those who have no sympathy that an affluent, middle-aged white American has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled.
Still, I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done.
In early 2011, I participated in a conference called Future Tense, where I lamented the decline of the manned space program, then pivoted to energy, indicating that the real issue isn’t about rockets. It’s our far broader inability as a society to execute on the big stuff. I had, through some kind of blind luck, struck a nerve. The audience at Future Tense was more confident than I that science fiction [SF] had relevance—even utility—in addressing the problem. I heard two theories as to why:
1. The Inspiration Theory. SF inspires people to choose science and engineering as careers. This much is undoubtedly true, and somewhat obvious.
2. The Hieroglyph Theory. Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.
His idea is the Hieroglyph Project, in which science fiction writers create stories where BTGD (Big Things Get Done).
I think he is looking for stories like Gilliand's Rosinante series, in which the asteroid Ceres is mined, at a rate of cubic kilometres per year and the tiny fraction of radioactive uranium found inside is used as a form of rocket fuel allowing incredible acceleration around the solar system.
The Smithsonian compares Stevenson's ideas to those of Asimov's and provides a timeline for a book to be published:
Take Isaac Asimov’s novels and short stories about robots coexisting with humans, most notably his 1950 anthology I, Robot. He wrestled with such weighty issues as whether artificial beings have legal rights and the unforeseen dilemmas that could result from programming robots with moral directives. Upon Asimov’s death in 1992, the flagship journal of computer engineers credited him with demonstrating “the enormous potential of information technology” and highlighting the difficulties of maintaining “reliable control over semi-autonomous machines.”
The Hieroglyph project’s first concrete achievement will be a sci-fi anthology from William Morrow in 2014, full of new stories about scientists tackling big projects, from building supertowers to colonizing the moon. “We have one rule: no hackers, no hyperspace and no holocaust,” Stephenson says. He and his collaborators want to avoid pessimistic thinking and magical technologies like the “hyperspace” engines common in movies like Star Wars. And, he adds, they’re “trying to get away from the hackerly mentality of playing around with existing systems, versus trying to create new things.”