Sci-Fi Tales Propel Space Tech
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SCI-FI TALES PROPEL SPACE TECH
By Kendra Mayfield
December 7, 2002
Jules Verne anticipated man's first trip to the moon in his 1865 novel, From
the Earth to the Moon. Arthur C. Clarke foresaw space stations and sentient
computers in his classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ray Bradbury wrote about
extraterrestrial civilization in The Martian Chronicles decades before
NASA's Mars Rover surveyed the planet.
These accounts, written before space travel was possible, have inspired
generations of space scientists and explorers.
Now, the European Space Agency hopes to recognize young writers and inspire
future astrophysicists and astronauts by sponsoring a science-fiction
The Clarke-Bradbury International Science Fiction Competition for 2003 is
open to writers ages 15 to 30. Contestants can submit short (2,500 words
maximum) stories about space travel, exploration or settlement. The deadline
for entries is Feb. 28.
"By aiming the competition at younger people, we hoped to stimulate an
interest in space activities," said David Raitt, organizer of the
competition. "These are the people of the future and those who will benefit
most from current long-term space programs."
"Science fiction helps fire the imagination in what is perceived as a dry
topic," said Kurt Lancaster, a sci-fi author and assistant professor of
media studies and communication at Colorado's Fort Lewis College. "The
competition helps to bring the sense of wonder back to science."
An international jury of scientists, engineers and authors will select five
prize-winning stories. The grand-prize winner will be invited to the 2003
International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany.
Last year, the ESA conducted a detailed survey of early sci-fi writing,
artwork and film to determine whether any of the concepts and technologies
envisioned could be used as inspiration for current and future spacecraft
The agency collected more than 250 concepts from scientists, engineers,
science-fiction writers and laypeople. An illustrated brochure
(http://esapub.esrin.esa.it/br/br176/BR176.pdfF) showcases these ideas, some
of which European space researchers could eventually develop in the real
This year's contest expands upon last year's study by exploring new concepts
in modern science fiction.
"There have been huge advances in space and other technologies and materials
in recent years," Raitt said. "And things are possible now that were simply
not possible at the time science-fiction works were being written in the
1920s to the '50s. Older, overlooked ideas might be now possible with
today's technologies or technologies that will be available tomorrow."
Sci-fi literature, artwork and films are often based on pure imagination and
are sometimes inaccurate. No Hilton hotel exists on the moon as Clarke
described in 2001. And depictions of an alien-inhabited Mars in H.G. Wells'
The War of the Worlds and Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles have been
reassessed since space probes explored the desolate Red Planet.
"Science fiction is not predicting anything, of course," Raitt said. "It
depicts things in a fictional way -- and these are not necessarily things
that might happen. It still gives (writers) the opportunity to promote their
ideas, which may not otherwise be possible through more formal scientific
However, some predictions, systems and technologies from early sci-fi
literature have become reality.
Writers predicted satellites and space flight well before they were actually
possible, for example. Cyrano de Bergerac and Jules Verne envisioned
traveling to the moon as early as the 17th and 18th centuries.
Late 19th-century sci-fi writers inspired space rocket pioneers, such as
Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth, who were considered early prophets of
space travel. Goddard constructed and successfully tested the first rocket
using liquid fuel.
"Without science fiction we would never have entered the space age,"
Lancaster said. "Young readers in the late 19th century were so inspired by
Jules Verne and H.G. Wells that they became rocket scientists so they could
invent the technology that would help them to travel to other worlds."
Some other sci-fi concepts that have been realized include
ultra-high-velocity projectile launchers, clustered rocket boosters,
planetary landers, pressure suits, orbital space stations, solar and light
sails, and satellite communication.
While early sci-fi writers conjured descriptions of space travel based on
limited scientific knowledge, modern writers often use existing technology
"In the old days, science-fiction writers were really using their
imagination, whereas much science-fiction writing today is very much based
on what is the actual reality of today's space programs, which have been in
existence for 40 years or so," Raitt said. "So modern writers have the
benefit of existing and proven technologies, which they can just adapt."
Russian theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first envisioned a tower reaching up
to orbital altitude in 1895. The space elevator concept reappeared in Arthur
C. Clarke's 1979 novel, The Fountains of Paradise.
NASA recently conducted a study
space elevators, concluding that cheap transportation to geostationary orbit
could become a reality in the next 50 years or so. NASA's Institute for
Advanced Concepts (http://www.niac.usra.edu/) has granted funds to HighLift
Systems (http://www.highliftsystems.com/) to investigate the feasibility of
designing and building a space elevator.
"In the next dozen or so years we could see a thin ribbon stretching 100
kilometers into space -- drastically slashing the cost of launching
spacecraft," Raitt said.
While the ESA's contest wasn't designed specifically to generate blueprints
for new space technologies, Raitt doesn't rule the idea out.
"The aim was to have fun and promote ESA," Raitt said. "However, naturally,
if there are some innovative concepts described in the stories or novel uses
and applications of technologies, then we would certainly consider carrying
out initial feasibility studies into topics of interest."
Even if the competition doesn't translate science fiction into science fact,
it will undoubtedly encourage a new generation of young writers.
"In the end, science fiction is the mythology of our age," Lancaster said.
"It points to the future and our place in the cosmos. It speaks to
contemporary social, cultural and political issues. It inspires wonder,
imagination and creativity. It inspires the future and helps to lift our
species out of self-serving interests to new possibilities."
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