Science fiction and space exploration
author Paul Boșcu, May 2017

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Dreams of space – of not-Earth – have inspired humanity over the ages. Dream-inspired humans made space travel a reality. Without our dreams, there would be no space programs anywhere. Artistic, religious, philosophical, and ethical perspectives are not frills or mere add-ons to space activities. They are absolutely essential parts of all aspects of all space endeavors. At the same time, without the science and technology that enables humans to loose the bonds of Earth, humans would still only be dreaming of space while never going to the Moon and beyond.

The idea that there are worlds and beings not of this Earth that interact with humans and Earth is very widespread across the globe and has persisted for a very long time. Modern space fiction is just one current way by which very old stories are being told and retold dressed up with contemporary ideas and technologies. These old stories influence the way we think about current space exploration.

Probably the iconic figure for flight in Western cultures is Icarus, the Greek who, with his father, Daedalus, fashioned wings so that he and his father could fly like the birds, something they were totally unable to do with their wingless, flightless natural bodies. So, as is always the case, humans first imagine doing something impossible – flying – and then develop the technologies that enable their dreams to come true.

One of the best-known Japanese folk tales is about Kaguya Hime. A bamboo cutter discovered a baby girl inside a bamboo shoot. He took the baby home, where he and his wife reared the baby as their own. When she grew up, she revealed that she was not from Earth and was transported back to the Moon from which she came. Her story, and her return to the Moon, is repeatedly told in Japan. In the summer of 2007, JAXA (the Japanese space agency) launched a lunar orbiter. JAXA asked the Japanese public what the name of the orbiter should be, and Kaguya Hime was the overwhelming choice.

Another popular folktale from China, Korea, and Japan is told every summer on the seventh night of the seventh month. It celebrates what appears to be the annual meeting of the stars Vega and Altair that are otherwise separated by the Milky Way. According to the folk story, Vega is a seamstress and Altair is an ox-herder. They love each other but are separated from one another and only allowed to meet briefly once a year, and then must part once again.

One of the most important developments in science fiction was the emergence of cyberpunk literature spearheaded by William Gibson’s Neuromancer. It was inspired by contemporary and emerging advances in electronic communication technologies, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, combined with deep anxiety about the environmental and social consequences of these and other developments. Cyberpunk treats science and technology critically and ironically.

Space fiction, almost by definition, involves voyages of discovery. However, well before the modern era, certain cultures had stories about voyages of discovery, while other cultures had no such stories at all. In the former, heroes leave home, travel through strange times and places, overcome many adversities and have many exceptional experiences before returning home again, enlightened by the process.

The basic archetypical stories for Western cultures are the Iliad and the Odyssey, first composed between 800 and 600 BCE. The Odyssey, recounting 20 years of travel by Odysseus (Ulysses, in Latin), is a prime example.

In the Abrahamic Bible, the first book, Genesis, is immediately followed by Exodus: departure happens soon after Creation. The story of Moses leading the Jewish people to the Promised Land – and the belief in the existence of a Promised Land that is rightfully theirs – is an unfinished narrative of travel and travail in Western cultures.

In Christian belief, the Wise Men traveled far to find the Messiah.The Muslim faithful must travel to Mecca. There appears to be an almost irresistible urge in certain cultures for humans Boldly To Go – or at least for some people, usually men, to go.

Stories and examples of heroic travel to unknown places do not exist in some cultures. They instead are told in effect to stay home, to get along with their neighbors, and to mind their own business. The urge boldly to go is found in some humans and cultures, but by no means in all. In those cultures where exploring is deeply rooted in myths, “going boldly” is almost irresistible, while in others with no such, stories, it seems almost impossible to ignite.

Astronautics—the technology of exploring space—is unique among all the sciences because it originated in art and literature. Long before engineers and scientists took the possibility of spaceflight seriously, virtually all of its aspects were explored by artists and writers. And long before the scientists themselves were taken seriously, the arts kept the torch of interest burning.

Around A.D. 150, the Greek philosopher Lucian of Samosata wrote what might be the first two Western works of space fiction, Icaromenippus and The True History. In the first, Menippus (specifically wanting to avoid the failure of Icarus) took one wing from an eagle and another from a vulture and fashioned them so he could fly from Mount Olympus to the Moon. In Lucian’s second story, a ship exploring the Atlantic was carried by a waterspout to the Moon.

Lucian’s stories are more than mere fanciful tales. In them, Lucian ridiculed humanity, its tired old philosophies and pagan beliefs, and the emptiness of the intellectual life of the time – all themes that we find repeatedly in space fiction.

Though written as theological works, St. Augustine’s De Civitate Dei in the fifth century, and Joachim of Fiore’s Liber Concordiae Novi ac Veteris Testamenti and Expositio in Apocalipsim in the early thirteenth century, each exhibited futures-oriented utopian thinking. The great Muslim scholar, Ibn Khaldun, writing in the fourteenth century, is considered one of the fathers of sociology and of futures studies.

Khaldun presented a sophisticated philosophy of history and society in his Muqaddimah – not a work of fantasy or fiction, but rather exhibiting, perhaps for the first time, a way of thinking about humans and their past and future that greatly influenced the emergence of modern attitudes towards social change, and hence, modern space fiction.

While there had been numerous early fantasies about trips to the Moon, no one really considered the possibility of spaceflight until two important events occurred. First, scientists had to discover that there were places in the universe other than Earth. Second, they had to create technology that made it possible to get there. These two events took place about 250 years apart.

The first event took place in 1610 when the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei turned his telescope toward the sky and discovered that the planets weren’t just a special class of wandering stars. They were real worlds. Venus showed phases just like the Moon, and Mars had dusky markings. Jupiter possessed four tiny moons of its own, like a miniature solar system.

The second great event—creating the technology—occurred in 1783. Two Frenchmen, brothers Étienne and Joseph Montgolfier, invented the hot-air balloon. For the first time, human beings were able to ascend above Earth farther than they could jump. This invention launched avalanches of speculative literature about the possibility of traveling beyond Earth and what might be found on the other worlds. Science and technology had conquered the sky. It had to be only a matter of time before they conquered space as well.

The discoveries made by astronomers were quickly followed by a wave of space travel stories. Since these new worlds could not be reached in reality, they were explored through fiction. Most of the authors had little or no interest in the realistic depiction of science. But their books were nevertheless an accurate measure of the everincreasing interest in the possibility of exploring the planets.

Many authors wrote of trips to the Moon in the decades following Galileo’s discovery. French author Charles Sorel published a book called Comical History of Francion. He wrote about “great Engins” that might carry people to the Moon. He also wrote that people might get to the Moon by means of “all manner of structures, and ladders.”

The scientist Johannes Kepler wrote the novel Somnium. In this book, the hero is carried to the Moon by demons along a bridge of darkness that occurs during an eclipse of the Moon. Obviously this method of getting to the Moon was highly unscientific. But Kepler’s descriptions of the conditions there were very accurate in the light of what was known about the Moon at that time.

Francis Godwin published The Man in the Moone. In this book, the hero is carried to the Moon by a flock of geese that regularly migrate between Earth and the Moon.

Cyrano de Bergerac made fun of fanciful voyages in his Comic History. De Bergerac tried to come up with as many utterly ridiculous methods of space travel as he could think of. For example, he had his hero tie bottles of dew to his belt. When the Sun rose, it attracted the dew and carried the hero off into space. (Everyone knew that dew rose from the ground in the mornings.)

Science fiction is seldom fiction about science. Rather, it is stories that arise when some people become aware of the fact and possibility of continuous social change. Thus, science fiction per se (and hence space fiction) is a product of the scientific, technological, and industrial revolution that was made possible in Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, and then bloomed during the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. In the mid nineteenth century, space fiction proper emerged first in mainland Europe, then in the UK, then simultaneously in the United States, Japan, China, India.

Most science fiction is more about technology than it is about science. It is about how humans might behave and how society might change if/as new technologies come along. Often the “science” in science fiction is quite unscientific, though the behavior said to result from new technologies is sometimes more plausible. But much science fiction is bad social science as well as bad natural science – and not very good fiction either. Science fiction and space fiction thus exhibit a tension between two modes of knowing – one scientific, the other fictional.

Some science fiction is closer to science than to fiction, and thus often boring though factual. Most science fiction is closer to fiction than to science, thus exciting but misleading. The best science fiction finds a balance between both.

Needless to say, writers quickly abandoned their geese and demons and turned to balloons to carry their heroes to the Moon and all over the solar system. But if science was marching ahead, so were the increasingly knowledgeable readers of these books. A widespread fascination with science occurred at the end of the eighteenth century. Most readers were becoming too knowledgeable about the subject to accept balloons as a realistic method of getting to the Moon. Authors were forced to come up with more realistic, believable methods of space travel.

One of the first to do so was American author George Tucker. The spaceship in his 1827 novel, A Voyage to the Moon, used a mysterious substance that canceled Earth’s gravity. Tucker gave great thought to the actual conditions that might exist beyond Earth’s atmosphere and how his vehicle would have to deal with them. He succeeded in writing the first description of a spaceship that takes into account the actual conditions of outer space. For instance, the spaceship is carefully tested to make sure that it is perfectly airtight. Compressed air for breathing is carried in tanks.

Tucker was one of Edgar Allan Poe’s instructors at the University of Virginia. His novel may have inspired Poe to write his own Moon travel story: The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall. Although Poe’s character used a balloon for space travel, Poe still paid more careful attention to science than any other author before him. His descriptions of high-altitude flight and of Earth as seen from space could have been written by modern astronauts.

Without a doubt, the most important single figure in the origins of science fiction and space fiction is the French author, Jules Verne. Verne’s book, De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to Moon), and many others of his books were translated into every major language of the world. During his lifetime Verne was perhaps the most widely read author in the world, and his books are still popular. Almost all early pioneers in space reality and space fiction said that they were inspired by Verne.

Jules Verne wrote his classic novel From the Earth to the Moon. In the story, a group of arms manufacturers find themselves with nothing to do after the close of the U.S. Civil War. As an outlet for their energies and creative genius, they propose building an enormous cannon. They plan to use it to launch a projectile to the Moon. The characters eventually realize that launching a projectile carrying passengers would be much more interesting than launching an unmanned projectile. In reality, this would never really work. Verne realized this and filled his book with so much science, math, and engineering that his nineteenth-century readers accepted his story without question.

With the publication of Verne’s novel, the possibility of space travel was for the first time put on a firm mathematical and technological basis. Verne’s method of sending his astronauts into space wouldn’t work in reality. But what was important was he suggested a method that employed nothing but known materials and contemporary technologies. His astronauts didn’t need to rely upon hot-air balloons or antigravity metals. He demonstrated to his readers one extremely important fact: the conquest of space was a matter of applied mathematics and engineering.

Realizing that his readers would not accept rockets as a believable means of launching a spacecraft to the Moon, Jules Verne instead used a giant cannon. Verne located his cannon in Florida, only a few miles from the modern-day Kennedy Space Center. This is no coincidence. Both Verne and NASA wanted a launch site close to the equator.

Although Verne’s story used a giant cannon to launch the heroes into space instead of rockets, Verne was aware of the potential rockets had. But he was also aware of the state of the art of rocketry in the mid-1800s. His readers never would have believed that the unreliable, inefficient, and not-very-powerful rockets available at that time would ever be capable of speeding a spaceship to the Moon. Still, Verne did have his astronauts carry rockets on board. The rockets were for their eventual landing on the Moon and for steering the projectile.

Verne was one of the first to realize that rockets would work in a vacuum and would be the ideal source of propulsion in space. Verne’s novel was a great success and was translated and published all over the world. It had readers and admirers in almost every nation. Some of these readers were not just admirers, they were inspired to actually do what Verne had only written about.

The literature of science fiction and space fiction dealing with new technologies and technological change has generally been of one of two kinds. Jules Verne and many others were basically optimists, believing in inevitable progress through technological change. This optimistic view of the future permeated much early science fiction and space fiction. But from the beginning, other science fiction writers had more of a love-hate relation with technology and often wrote of that relationship critically and sardonically. The importance of space fiction in creating space reality – and vice versa – cannot be overstated.

The extraordinary pioneer of Russian spaceflight and space fiction, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, said his enthusiasm for space came from reading Jules Verne. In addition to his vital role in envisioning and enabling actual spaceflight, Tsiolkovsky himself wrote classics of Russian science fiction including one that the world’s first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, said was his favorite: Vne Zemli (Beyond the Earth). An enormous amount of space fiction produced in the Soviet Union was intended to inspire that nation towards new futures.

Science fiction emerged in India when the effects of the industrial revolution were being felt in urban India in the nineteenth century just as keenly as they were in Europe and the U.S. The earliest notable Bengali space fiction was Jagadananda Roy’s Shukra Bhraman (“Travels to Jupiter”), written in 1857. This story is of particular interest as it described a journey to another planet, while the existence of the creatures seen there was explained using evolutionary concepts. It should be noted that this story was published well before H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds (1898) in which Wells described an invasion from Mars.

Chinese creation stories typically have themes involving space, the cosmos, and chaos, such as Pan Gu, who separated the heavens from Earth, and Nu Wa, who patched up the falling heavens. Similar themes are found in the earliest Chinese literature, such as Chang E Goes to the Moon by Lu An (197-122 BCE), which is about Chang E, who was able to fly to and live on the Moon.

Prior to the concept of modernity being imported into China there had been no fiction about the future. In traditional China, history did not have directionality. The introduction first of ideas about “progress” and “development” and then of Marxism changed that. The young intellectuals of the late nineteenth century in China sought to bring their “backward” country into a modern nation state. To do that – they learned from Japan and the West – science and technology was necessary. So to stimulate people’s interest in science and technology, Lu Xun introduced science fiction to China with his 1903 translation of Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon.

H. G. Wells is to English science and space fiction what Jules Verne was to European – and the world’s – science fiction. Among Wells’ best-known stories are The Time Machine (1895), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The First Men in the Moon (1901).

In the United States, science’s and space fiction’s heyday is found in the “pulp” magazine, Amazing Stories, that began publication in 1926, and Astounding Stories. Many other pulp magazines devoted to science and space fiction existed from the 1930s to 1950s, and almost all the great and not so great names of science fiction history published in them, defining the genre from that point onward.

In Verne’s and Wells’s time, many people of western Europe and the United States had ideas of rockets, boosters, and capsules that were only that—ideas. But even then, there were a handful of men around the world eagerly working on rockets that were meant for more practical purposes than to appear within the pages of science-fiction novels.

Leading the way in the push toward space was a Russian named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Born in 1857, Tsiolkovsky was attracted to science from a young age; he was influenced early on by the work of Jules Verne. By the time he became a schoolteacher at the age of 21, he was devoting all his spare time to the study of rockets.

Robert Goddard designed, built, and fired off a large number of rockets in the New Mexico desert. Some were spectacular failures; others were merely dismal ones. But there were successes, too, and by the time of his death in August 1945, Goddard was fortunate to see that rocketry had moved from a fun idea to a genuine science. Science fiction (inspired by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells) had become science fact in the hands of men like Tsiolkovsky and Goddard.

H. G. Wells and Orson Wells were not related, but their work nevertheless collided in 1939. Orson Wells, a young master of the media, decided to put on a major radio show of War of the Worlds. Orson Wells was only 23 when he put his show on the radio. Working with the celebrated actor John Houseman, Wells performed a dramatic rendition of War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938. Although meant as a Hollywood stunt, it caused panic throughout the Northeast region of the United States, where the show aired.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans panicked. As they listened to the frightening descriptions of Martians landing in spacecrafts, Americans thought it was really happening. Many fled. New York City experienced serious panic for the next day, and it was a good 48 hours before life returned entirely to normal. Americans had had their first major brush with outer space, and it had taken place over the airwaves of their living-room radios.

Movies, and later, television, have almost always featured some kind of “space opera,” from Le Voyage dan la Lune, (“A Trip to the Moon,” 1902) through Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the 1930s and 1940s, to Star Trek and Star Wars after the Second World War, and many others onward. Even though most of these films were “B” grade movies at best, they and the pulp science fiction books of the era created themes that defined and have persisted in almost all space fiction everywhere in the world.

Stanley Kubrick’s co-production with Arthur C. Clarke of 2001: A Space Odyssey brought space fiction in films to a high level, while Roger Vadim’s adaptation of the French comic strip character Barbarella was a high camp film in the ironic mode. There is no more striking contrast in space films than between 2001s cold, barren, functional spaceship (with the onboard intelligent computer, HAL, and the human Dave locked in a gripping battle of wits to the death) and the naïve, nubile, and naked Jane Fonda slithering across her fur-lined spaceship.

For Americans, good space fiction on television began with the extremely popular TV series Star Trek in 1966, which dealt with current social, political, and ethical issues in the guise of exploring the universe.

After the blockbuster movie Star Wars in 1977 (and its successors), space fiction on television for some time was dominated by triumphal voyages of international, intercultural, and interdisciplinary members of a united Earth federation boldly exploring the cosmos, doing good (or at least not doing evil) while trying to obey “the prime directive” of not interfering in the lives of other cultures.

Humans have made pictures of what we see in the night sky for tens of thousands of years. We have also made pictures of what we imagine to be above us but cannot actually see. Fundamental beliefs about humans and not-humans, and about Earth and not-Earth, are illustrated in both such pictures.

The objects above us in the sky seem to move constantly, but often in some kind of a repeating pattern. Knowing what formation the stars take just before the seasons change is important information for any successful agricultural community. This might have been one of the earliest practical uses of astronomical information. Clearly the apparent rising and setting of the Sun and Moon affected humans and Earth. So also might the stars generally, it was often reasoned. Hence, in some cultures there developed a method of predicting the future based on the movement of the stars, now known as astrology.

Space illustrations, as a self-conscious genre, began at the same time as written space fiction, and many early illustrations were created to accompany and make visual the ideas in written texts. Depictions of space environments, some intending to be factually while others were fantastically presented, flourished throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reaching their heights on the covers and sometimes pages of the pulp fiction magazines.

It was probably the depictions in the large-sized popular picture magazines in the United States, such as Life, Collier's, and Coronet in the 1950s and early 1960s, that really brought space illustrations to the eye of the public and ignited popular support for space exploration as it became technologically possible for the first time.

Astrophotographs – photographs of the sky, or, more recently of space through telescopes – are often treated as works of art. Indeed, as presented to the general public, astrophotographs, such as those taken via the Hubble Space Telescope, must be viewed primarily as works of art since they are framed and color-enhanced for maximum aesthetic effect.

Although science fiction movies and TV shows shape people’s ideas of how space exploration should look and work, reality, like with so much on the big (or small) screen, is often a completely different story. From humanoids with funny noses to whooshing spaceships, many science fiction films and shows make basic errors in biology and physics. Whether these errors exist for the sake of plot convenience or aesthetics, they’re errors nonetheless. One of the most famous error is the ideea that space ships could travel faster than the speed of light.

The phrase “Move to light speed and beyond!” sounds great when you’re in a hurry, but the reality is that anything with mass is constrained to the speed of light. Einstein’s theory of special relativity is largely to blame. Einstein showed it’s theoretically possible to travel at speeds that approach the speed of light, but it’s scientifically impossible to go any faster.

Various movies and television shows have relied on things like warp speed and hyperdrive to refer to faster-than-light space travel. Because distances in the galaxy are vast, it’d still take more than four years to reach the nearest star system when traveling at the speed of light — a fact that makes for not so-entertaining entertainment! Unless scientists of the future come up with a way to change the laws of physics, it’s unlikely that the future of space cruisers and starships warping between stars in a matter of hours or days will ever become reality.

Can a stable wormhole be used as a quick way to travel between two distant locations? Well, in the 1997 movie Event Horizon, a spaceship with the ability to create wormholes flew into one and resurfaced years later with a supernatural visitor. A stable wormhole also featured prominently in the TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as an instant portal between two far-away parts of the galaxy. If it’s on the big screen or the boob tube, it must be true, right? Wrong, scientifically speaking.

Wormholes are hypothetical ways of circumventing the normal laws of space and time; they’re an unproven phenomenon that can’t be summoned on demand. Also, although general relativity does provide for the possibility of wormholes connecting universes, scientists think they’d consist of a tunnel like boundary. In the movies and on television, wormholes can lead anywhere at any time.

What scientists know about wormholes suggest that they’re incredibly tiny and exist only for a very brief amount of time — less than a second — suggesting that sending anything as large as a spaceship through one for an extended period of time is sheer folly (but, we admit, great entertainment).

Most popular portrayals of space depict it as a very noisy place. Between the whooshing of starships and the sounds of laser guns shooting audibly (directly into space, mind you), space appears about as quiet as a New York City street during rush hour. Explosions are fiery, loud events, and one spaceship crashing into another results in audible, audience-pleasing sounds. The fundamental problem with space noise is that sound waves don’t transmit in a vacuum.

A vacuum is defined as matter-free space, or space with a gaseous pressure significantly lower than its atmospheric pressure. The parts of outer space that lie between planets and stars (in other words, most of it) are considered a vacuum. Sound waves are mechanical vibrations that require a molecular substance, such as water or air, to travel through. Vacuums are devoid of those molecules, so there’s no way sound can transmit through them.

The classic 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey got this one right. During the scenes in which an astronaut travels outside his ship in a spacesuit, all you can hear is his breathing. Unfortunately for scientific accuracy, audiences find silence boring. They much prefer special effects, so expect on-screen spaceships to continue whooshing by.

Many movies, from the Star Wars saga on, show ships flying through a tightly packed region of giant rocks the size of small moons, narrowly avoiding collisions. Some depictions of asteroid belts have rocks moving in all directions; others have the rocks packed very closely together. Sure, this makes for exciting cinema, but it doesn’t represent reality. In our solar system, the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter does in fact contain millions of objects. However, they’re spread over such a large amount of space that hitting one without aiming precisely for it would be very difficult.

Similarly, the rings of material surrounding Saturn are spectacular when seen from a distance. Up close, you can see that they’re composed mostly of tiny particles of ice and dust. The rings themselves are thousands of kilometers wide with an average thickness of only 10 meters! In fact, when seen edge-on, the rings are so thin that they seem to disappear completely.

If films like Rocketship X-M are correct, people would be able to land on, say, Mars, get out, take a stroll, and (if they’re lucky enough) interact with some very humanlike Martians. The sad fact is that oxygen-breathing beings — like us — can’t breathe the atmosphere on Mars or any other planet. Humans evolved on a planet with a specific mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, and other atmospheric gases. There’s no reason to think that such a mixture would be replicated elsewhere just through random chance.

it’s very unlikely that Earthlings could breathe the air on a different planet without some sort of mask or filter (think of the clunky spacesuits worn by Armstrong and Aldrin during the Apollo 11 Moon landing). Real space exploration just isn’t quite as fashionable (or easy!) as Star Trek, Stargate SG-1, and other science fiction sagas make it out to be.

The vacuum of space clearly isn’t a place where you’d want to travel unprotected, but movies generally exaggerate the effects of exposure to it. For example, in the 2000 movie Mission to Mars, an astronaut removes the helmet of his spacesuit, while in space, and promptly freezes and dies instantly. Other movies, such as the 1981 film Outland, show a person exploding when exposed to the vacuum of space.

True, exposure to vacuum is never a good idea, but you aren’t going to die instantly if you find yourself in such a scenario. Both theory and actual tests show that you can probably survive exposure to vacuum for between 60 and 90 seconds without lasting effects. (You’d only remain conscious for about 10 seconds, though, so you should make sure to get to safety as soon as possible.) You won’t explode because your skin is strong enough to keep your body intact and your blood from boiling. And although you’d eventually freeze, it’d take hours for your body to lose all of its heat. The actual cause of death would be a lack of oxygen.

2001: A Space Odyssey actually got this one right. In the film, a main character must travel through space from a ship to an airlock for a few seconds without his helmet. He survives without too much incident. So did a NASA astronaut-in-training from the 1960s. His spacesuit sprung a leak, and he lost consciousness after 14 seconds. When the chamber was repressurized, he regained consciousness and was just fine.

On the deck of the starship Enterprise or in the bays of the Millennium Falcon, people walk as freely as they do on Earth. If the actors were really on a ship in outer space, though, they most certainly would float. Think about astronauts on the International Space Station — they float around because the station is in free-fall as it orbits the Earth. All parts of the space station and everything in it, including the inhabitants, are falling at the same speed. Thus, they’re effectively in a zero gravity environment. Whenever space travel extends to interplanetary or interstellar space, travelers really will be floating in zero gravity.

Because long-term exposure to microgravity environments can have negative consequences for the strength of an astronaut’s bones, inhabitants of the International Space Station must exercise daily.

One way to simulate gravity in space is by spinning a space station or spaceship. The motion results in a centripetal force that pushes the contents of the spacecraft toward the outside, simulating gravity. Such a spinning space station was correctly depicted in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, most spacecraft you encounter on screen don’t spin. Some sort of artificial gravity device would therefore be necessary to allow the ships’ inhabitants to walk around inside.

The media-driven perception of alien life is completely derived from the human experience, which makes little sense because alien life is, well, alien. Human biases are likely reflected in the appearance of aliens as humanoid, with two arms, two legs, and a physical structure basically similar to that of Earthlings. In addition, dressing up a sci-fi show’s alien-of-the-week actors in humanoid costumes, perhaps with funny noses or green skin, is much easier than inventing truly unique beings. The reality is that life on other planets wouldn’t look human. There’s just no reason for it to.

Some shows have attempted to create beings that are completely different, from silicon-based, rocklike creatures to sentient energy clouds. These efforts acknowledge the reality that if humans ever do find life elsewhere, it likely won’t be at all recognizable!

According to just about any science fiction movie or TV show that features intelligent alien life, extraterrestrials speak a language. Sometimes it’s English; sometimes it’s a similar language. The first problem with this situation in real life is figuring out how to understand an alien language. Without Star Trek’s universal translator, a Star Wars protocol droid such a feat would be difficult. Secondly, almost all of these languages are verbal, which is a direct extrapolation of mankind’s perception of what defines language.

Studies of communication have shown that species such as Humpback whales and honey bees actually have complex languages that can communicate vast amounts of information very efficiently. The honeybees’ communication in particular is completely nonverbal. If an alien civilization ever does try to contact Earth, or if astronauts ever come into direct contact with one, its style of communication might be completely different from anything humans have ever known.

Movies such as Starman and Close Encounters of the Third Kind bring extraterrestrial invaders to Earth, and numerous television shows have suggested that UFOs are common features in Earth’s skies. However, there’s no scientific evidence that UFOs have visited our planet.

Television shows such as The X-Files are fond of portraying aliens masquerading as humans. The idea is that these nonhuman humans can take over the body of humans. Not so, say scientists. If such aliens ever made it to Earth, the odds of their being able to survive our climate, atmosphere, and food are slim.