A couple of things got me thinking this week. One was seeing the footage from last September (but widespread on the internet this week) of a meteor strike on the Moon. The 40-meter-wide crater left by the explosion isn’t huge by Moon standards, but it was the brightest meteor strike ever observed there, and plenty powerful enough, since the Moon doesn’t have any atmosphere to protect it from space rocks. The other thing that happened was that my car’s headlights somehow came on and flattened the battery.
What could the two possibly have in common?
An unforeseen incident, big or small, could have major implications in space exploration. Thinking like an SF author, I naturally wondered what it would have been like to be near that meteor strike in a space suit, a rover, or even a moon colony. The blast radius wasn’t that large, but with so much energy the shock wave must have been considerable, and a lot of the soil on the Moon isn’t exactly the most stable. In fact, one of my favourite Arthur C. Clarke novels was A Fall of Moondust about a tourist cruiser that ends up buried under dust when a moonquake causes an underground cavern to collapse. A true SF disaster novel. In a more modern example, the movie Gravity springs from a space shuttle’s disastrous encounter with orbital debris.
The universe beyond the confines of our comfortable planet is unforgiving. There’s no air and usually no hope of rescue. The odds of being near a meteor strike are pretty low, but what about a minor equipment failure—the space equivalent of my car’s remote car starter turning and leaving the lights on? In these still early days of space exploitation, equipment systems have huge amounts of redundancy—backups with backups—and even that’s no guarantee (just ask the team behind China’s Jade Rabbit moon rover, stalled since the end of January). But as industry and even tourism beyond Earth’s atmosphere become more commonplace, isn’t it likely that space gear will become much like any other commercial commodity? Lower-priced offerings with fewer safety features. Maybe even designer suits that focus more on fashion than function. And if your space cycle conks out while checking over your mining claim on Ceres, it won’t be so easy to just call AAA for a boost (the Asteroid Astronauts Association, of course).
I’m a recreational scuba diver and I’ve never had a serious malfunction in my life support gear, but if I did, there are established practices that give me a pretty good chance of getting back to the surface alive. After all, that life-giving air is usually thirty meters away or less. On the surface of Mars—not so much. At some point we’ll see the space equivalent of the one-man inflatable emergency life raft (don’t leave home without it), but a huge number of potential scenarios would still leave you with no hope of survival.
Maybe it will end up being like the highways of the world, with an untold number of deaths every day just taken for granted as the price we pay for a mobile society. That’s certainly fodder for SF writers to mull over. I’d prefer we follow the catchphrase from the old TV show Hill St. Blues: “Let’s be careful out there.”