Monday, May 7, 2007

"The Final Frontier"

Under the headline, "Russian cosmonauts don't like returning to Earth," Olesya Dmitracova filed a story for Reuters that may be giving us a first taste of that cliché from the introduction to the original Star Trek. The International Space Station may be the first significant setting for "frontier culture" since the days of the western migration in the United States and the European adventures in colonial exploitation (without trying to argue over whether these two examples are cut from the same cloth). My initial reaction to the headline was that it would be a social study about those who "roll their own lifestyles" out on the frontier find it difficult to adjust to confronting the "civilized society" they left. (This was the narrative focus of the Tom Horn film, which was really about how those who "tamed" the frontier then had to cope with "civilized society" moving in to benefit from their efforts.) Reading Ms. Dmitracova's article, however, revealed that the problem was not social but physical:

"The hardest thing is coming back to Earth," he said. The problem is not so much the mundanity of earthly existence -- bills to pay, food to buy, chores to complete.

"The muscle fabric degrades very much. It's hard to walk. You have to learn how to walk again, like a small child."

Astronauts train daily aboard the orbiting space station to prevent the atrophy of their legs and feet which are under-used in weightlessness. It takes several weeks under medical supervision to recover from a long stay in space.

One wonders what the implications of this may be for those of us who try to imagine the future through Star Trek lenses. The most popular school of thought seems to be that everything will be big enough to sustain the creation of Earth-like gravity; but, of course, most people who write science fiction do not think very much about the physical resources that would be required to sustain their visions. The opposing school of thought is that space travel with change our physiology, meaning that atrophy should be regarded as adaptation to a new environment. (This is the it's-not-a-bug-it's-a-feature school of thought!) This approach has interesting implications, one of which is that we may exist only on future space stations, viewing stars and their planets as resources to be exploited by robotic technologies, rather than new habitable "worlds."

My preference for dialectical thinking leads me to ask if there is a synthetic resolution of these opposing visions, but I do not think I have done enough homework to be up to that task yet. On the other hand this may be a task more suited for the literary imagination than for the scientific research laboratory. My guess is that there is at least one science fiction writer out there (either seasoned or burgeoning) who recognizes this opposition and can seek out a synthesis through the imagination of dramatistic reasoning. If so, I would be eager to read that author's work!

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