“I would like to say how much I thoroughly enjoyed the FITR event on Saturday. Many congratulations to Mat, Jerry, Alistair, Suszann, and Mary, and to everyone else responsible for making it such a great success! It was a joy and a privilege to listen to, and be in the company of, so many significant people in the ‘space’ field. Yet another BIS golden memory.” – Steve Salmon, BIS member and FITR attendee
It was third time lucky for the BIS Space Event, From Imagination To Reality, recently held at the Society’s HQ. “Lucky” as two previous attempts had not reached fruition; but the event that finally went ahead on 15th September 2012 was worth the effort as it was received with a great deal of enthusiasm by all attendees.
The idea itself was simple: take the Society’s famous motto – From Imagination To Reality – and build around it. It was how the Society started – people with “imagination” developing ideas which, even if they didn’t become a physical reality, were often the starting point for many ground breaking projects and concepts.
“Imagination” has always been in Man’s mind from the very earliest times in the form of myth and legend; even in what could be termed early “science fiction” stories, many of which were penned by writers who didn’t even realise that this was what they were writing. Now such stories are clearly recognised as contributing to the early history of the genre.
Since its beginnings, the BIS has not been short of visionaries with powerful and influential imaginations. One of the Society’s earliest founding members was, after all, one Arthur C. Clarke. Consequently the programme for FITR included elements of how past ideas and “imaginings” are viewed in the present day, and how they could – possibly – be forecasts for a future “reality.”
Internationally renowned artist David Hardy has been involved in painting possible futures in space for most of his life, so was an ideal choice to start the day’s proceedings. He took the subject of how our nearest neighbour in space, the Moon, has been perceived, especially in early film. The first acknowledged science fiction film was in 1902 with Georges Méliès’ Voyage dans la Lune (Voyage to the Moon); although it could hardly be called “serious SF,” this was at least one interpretation! Later movies would actually involve space scientists and engineers, such as Hermann Oberth who advised Fritz Lang on Frau im Mond (Girl in the Moon).
The BIS can safely say that its exploratory designs, conceived of by members such as Val Clever, R.A Smith and Arthur C. Clarke, were the forerunner of what became America’s Project Apollo. Yes, the BIS Lunar Lander didn’t quite look like the eventual Grumman Apollo Lunar Module – it was large, sleeker and more advanced in many ways – but the principle of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous and a two stage Lunar Lander was precisely what allowed Neil Armstrong to take that “One Small Step.” The editor of Spaceflight, Dr David Baker, who worked with NASA during the time of Apollo, put the UK vs US designs into perspective.
Does early exposure to science fiction influence future scientists and engineers? In the case of Alan Bond – founder of Reaction Engines, and the inventor of the HOTOL and Sabre engines – it would certainly apply. During his talk, Alan recalled how he had been influenced by that British doyen of the spaceways, one Colonel Dan Dare and his weekly exploits in the Eagle. Alan was particularly impressed with the attention to detail contained in a comic strip, and firmly maintains it was these early imaginings than turned him into a space engineer and consequently many of those ideas into reality.
If there is one place in the solar system where imagination has run riot over the years (with novels, artwork, films and television) it is Mars. With the imaginings of H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury, the Red Planet seemed until recently the most likely place, other that the Earth itself, where life might once have existed. As a result the planet has been the target of many space probes. Given that the most recent emissary is the most complex one ever sent, it seemed only fair to devote this section of the day to what the Curiosity rover has so far uncovered. We were therefore delighted to welcome Dr Susanne Schwenzer, from the Open University, as one of our guest speakers. Susanne is one of the team of scientists currently examining the results of Curiosity’s travels over the Martian surface.
In one area of space exploration reality has clearly overtaken imagination, for few fictional stories have dealt with the subject of space tourism. Mat Irvine, co-organiser of FITR, has a particular fascination for the subject; not only did he attend the first “space launch” of a private craft – SpaceShipOne – in 2004, but also has plans to film what is in effect the only SF story to deal primarily with space tourism – Arthur Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust. This section of the day consequently dealt with Mat’s attempts to turn Moondust into reality.
If any one subject has dominated the imagination of science fiction authors and film-makers over the years it is interstellar travel. Co-organiser Jerry Stone took a comprehensive look at how space travel has been depicted in the imagination, and how it might actually happen in reality, including the Society’s own interstellar projects: Daedalus and Icarus.
The day ended with what might just be the most important question we are ever likely to ask here on Earth: “Are We Alone in the Universe?” And if we aren’t, what will the aliens look like? Who better to tackle this subject than Professor Jack Cohen, biologist and advisor to the movies? His view on what aliens would, and possibly should, look like proved both entertaining and controversial. Jack is firmly of the opinion that “intelligence” would certainly exist in any extraterrestrial life-form, in the sense that dogs, dolphins, and even meerkats, can be said to have intelligence. But would aliens have what Jack called “extelligence” in the sense that we humans can discuss such things as “what would aliens look like?” That may indeed be the most difficult question to answer.