does good science fiction make good science?
by Dr Paul Willis
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Last year marked one of the most significant events that never happened in the history of space exploration. On October 16th, 1997 the Gemini 12 left Earth for Alpha Centauri with the first family of space colonists on board. At least, that was what was supposed to have happened according to a 1960's television series, but very little went to plan. After the pilot episode was made the Gemini program of space launches by NASA was cancelled, so Irwin Allen (the series producer) changed the name of the space ship to the Jupiter 2. And some unspecified time after launch, while travelling at or near light speed, the most sophisticated space ship ever constructed encountered a meteorite storm and became Lost In Space.
Now here we are, having just seen off 1997, a year in which a probe landed on Mars, the aging MIR space station almost killed its occupants and plans are being made for a large, multinational space station. But no families in space, no travelling at light speed, and we have barely begun to explore neighbouring planets. Alpha Centauri may as well be among the stars.
So what happened? Why has reality fallen so far short of our dreams of 30 years ago? Is it our ambition or our achievement that has failed us? Such questions may be premature because these fantasies were conceived in the realm of science fiction and never had a chance of becoming reality in accordance with the fictional timetable. But this tale does call into question the role of science in science fiction.