IN 2015, an observatory high in the Atacama Desert of Chile detected three planets orbiting an M star, an ultra-cool dwarf, in the constellation Aquarius about 40 light years, or 232 trillion miles, from Earth. Until then, the dim star was designated 2MASS J23062928-0502285. Not such a charming name. The discoverers of its satellites, a team of astronomers who operate the Chilean observatory remotely from Liege in Belgium, took the opportunity to warm up that appellation. The Belgians called the new system TRAPPIST-1, after the robotic telescope that had done the work, TRAPPIST, the Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope.
This acronym cheats a little with the gratuitous “I,” a nod to the Trappist order of monks, who have several famous abbeys in Belgium. Inmates of the abbeys produce wonderful beers, dark, full of residual sugars and living yeast, beers that improve with age, like wine. The astronomers celebrated their find with monk-brewed bottles of Westvleteren 12, the best beer in the world.
Last September, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, with help from several land-based telescopes, verified two of the planets spotted by the Belgians and went on to detect five more, for a total of seven, the biggest batch of Earth-sized planets ever detected around a single star.
When my editor at California proposed that, in light of this jackpot, I revisit an old book of mine, The Starship and the Canoe , I agreed on the spot. Would I like to apply the dialectic of my book, written 40 years ago, to the seven new exoplanets? Yes, I would. Three of seven are in the “Goldilocks Zone,” not too hot for life, not too cold, just right. An ideal temperature for asking again a question posed by my book: To what should we be adapting? To this blue-green sphere down here, with its single sun, good for only 5 billion more years, or to the glittery firmament above?
The Starship and the Canoe is an account of two vessels, two contrary views of our future, and two men, a father and son, hell-bent on voyaging in opposite directions. The father was, and is, Freeman Dyson, the stellar astrophysicist, particle physicist, and mathematician, a prodigy drawn since infancy to the stars, author of his first papers on planetary mechanics at the age of 5, before he really got the hang of spelling. Most of his subsequent career he has spent at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, with sojourns in places like Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
Their plan was to bomb themselves to Mars by 1965 and Saturn by 1970. It was totally insane, of course, except apparently not.
Dyson’s most unusual sabbatical came in 1958, when he moved to La Jolla to become a luminary—first magnitude—on a team of 50 scientists and engineers working on Project Orion, a scheme to explore the solar system by “nuclear-pulse propulsion.” Atomic bombs would drop from the Orion spacecraft like eggs from a duck. The bombs would detonate beneath a massive “pusher plate” at the bottom of the vessel, and enormous shock absorbers would smooth out the jolts. The team studied Coca-Cola vending machines for ideas on how to dispense their nuclear explosives. They were not keen on handing their spaceship over to any crew of astronauts. They wanted to go themselves. Their plan was to bomb themselves to Mars by 1965 and Saturn by 1970.
It was totally insane, of course, except apparently not. The Air Force and ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, funded Orion, and for a time the project held its own against the chemical rocketry of Wernher von Braun. No conceptual flaw killed Orion. What vaporized the project, finally, was the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which forbade nuclear explosions in the atmosphere.
The goal of the Orion effort was the design of a modest little ship for touring this solar system, but in one lecture, early on, Freeman Dyson strayed way outside the box. The physicist stunned his colleagues by pushing the Orion idea as far as it could go. What would it take, he asked himself, to send Chicago to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system? What it would take, he calculated, was 30 billion pounds of deuterium loaded into 25 million thermonuclear bombs and racked in a spidery ark, a colossal “heat-sink” starship, with a base 12 miles in diameter, that would accelerate for a century and then glide on to Alpha Centauri, reaching that system, in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way, in a little more than 150 years. The cost, as Dyson figured it, was reasonable. We could perpetuate humanity in the stars for about one Gross National Product.
George Dyson, Freeman’s only son, as a preschooler was enthusiastic about trips like this, but lost interest in his teens.
The Dysons, father and son, had trouble understanding each other. George grew his hair out longer than his father liked. When he was 12 he built his first kayak in his room. Denied use of the garage, he was forced to extend construction into his closet, like an old salt building a clipper ship in a bottle.
George was drawn less to galaxies than to the woods. He was an explorer of New Jersey swamps, a collector of snakes and turtles. Helen Dukas, Einstein’s personal secretary, babysat him. His father’s mentor, the Nobel laureate Hans Bethe, would drop in. Professor Bethe won his Nobel for figuring out the chemistry that fuels the brightness of the stars, and then headed up the Theoretical Division of the Manhattan Project, where he helped guide that experiment to its dazzling conclusion, and then went on to stoke the small, brief sun of the H-bomb. “Bright eyes,” he remembered of George as a small boy underfoot. That was the only feature he could recall for me. Enormous theoretical firepower gravitates to the Institute for Advanced Study, but it was mostly wasted on George. He was a smart boy, but what gave him most satisfaction was working with his hands. His pastime from an early age was building model boats.
George’s parents divorced when he was 6. After the breakup, he spent most of the year with his father in Princeton and often summered with his mother. The Dysons, father and son, had trouble understanding each other. George grew his hair out longer than his father liked. When he was 12 he built his first kayak in his room. Denied use of the garage, he was forced to extend construction into his closet, like an old salt building a clipper ship in a bottle. It was hell getting the kayak out again—a sore point with George for years afterward.
When George was 14, a package arrived for him from California and was intercepted at the post office. He had spent the summer with his mother, the mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, who was teaching at Berkeley, and he had discovered the Haight-Ashbury. The package contained marijuana. George was arrested in class and led away in handcuffs. “That really raised my status around there,” he says, but admits that it also dropped his spirits. His father thought he should stay in jail a while, so as to learn his lesson, and this led to what would become a six-year estrangement.
At 16, George enrolled at the UC San Diego. He didn’t like it, so after a few weeks he transferred to the Berkeley campus, where he didn’t like it, either. Skipping class, he found himself strolling the Berkeley Marina past a sailboat with a “For Sale” sign. He bought it, spending almost all his allotment for school expenses. He moved into his boat, cooked in the galley on a Primus stove, and slept on one of his four narrow berths. When he studied, which was infrequently, he liked to sail to Angel Island and anchor in Richardson Bay while he read.
Two summers earlier in the Sierra Nevada, he had worked as a pot-washer for my sister Barbara, who was cook on a Sierra Club trip. (“Twenty-five dollars a week,” he recalled recently. “My first big break in life.”) On arriving at Cal, he looked Barbara up, and now and then, when he needed company or his ship’s larder ran low, he visited our Berkeley house. He and my little brother, John, who are the same age, became very close, de facto brothers. My brother Bob, an anti-industrialist, was president of an imaginary company he had founded, the Strange Development Corporation, all its products conceptual. Seeing promise in George, he appointed him vice president. My father, then the executive director of the Sierra Club—an actual organization—overheard George’s mission statement and would quote it in speeches for the rest of his life: “To find freedom, without taking it from someone else.” My mother, then editor for the Department of Anthropology, came across George once in the kitchen reading the ingredients on a bag of dog food. He had been policing the shelves for additives. “This is the only thing in the house that’s fit to eat,” he muttered.
George lasted just one term at Berkeley. Selling his boat, he moved up to British Columbia and took up residence in a Douglas fir outside Vancouver, building a tree house 95 feet above the planetary surface. The house incorporated 14 branches as structural members and was lashed to the tree, not nailed, for the treetop swayed in the wind and the attachment had to be flexible. The single small room, shingled inside and out with red-cedar shakes he split from a drift log, was narrower than George is tall. His bed, Procrustean, had octagonal windows at head and foot. There was a small wood-burning stove. Working on boats in the labyrinthine straits and sounds of the Northwest coast, George went barefoot often and tanned so dark that he was sometimes taken for an Indian. He dedicated himself to resurrecting one of the finest of indigenous North American skin boats, the Aleut kayak—the baidarka, the Russian sea-otter hunters called it. His first big effort was a 30-foot baidarka with cockpits for three. As fieldwork for my book on the Dysons, I paddled that vessel with George from Glacier Bay in Alaska down to Canada. Then in 1975, he took the idea “kayak” as far as it could go. He built an analogue to his father’s starship, a 48-foot canoe with six holes for paddlers, Mount Fairweather, the biggest kayak in the world.
TRAPPIST-1 is an auspicious acronym, given my assignment here. Planetesimals, represented by the second P, happen to be Freeman Dyson’s favorite heavenly bodies, the most promising extraterrestrial spots for human habitation, in his view. And the whole of the acronym has a nice echo of George. Trappist monks live in isolation, eschew idle talk, eat a vegetarian diet, and make their own bread and beer. These are the Rule of Saint Benedict. A nearly identical code, homegrown, guided the laconic young man with whom I tried to start up conversation on our kayak trips. In the tight little monastic cell of his tree house, rocked to sleep by the flex of his treetop in the wind, George was Trappist in all but the vows.
There was something for me, too, out there in Aquarius, a kind of delayed synchronicity. The telltale light of 2MASS J23062928-0502285, the dwarf star—the very photons which, by blinking as the seven planets transited the dwarf’s face, revealed the existence of the group—was emitted 40 years ago, even as I, half a lifetime and 232,000,000,000,000 miles away, tapped out, on a quaint machine called a typewriter, the final sentences of The Starship and the Canoe.
The NASA webpages on the new solar system open with an artist’s conception of the surface of the sixth planet, TRAPPIST-1f. The painting is beautifully done. It belongs in the genre of cover art for science-fiction novels, except that there is no spacecraft, or alien, or scantily dressed space maiden in the picture. A channel of open water—or open liquid of some other molecule—leads out between icebergs across a wine-dark sea to the horizon, where the dwarf sun sets. The sky is spitting snow or sleet. (If future colonists are lucky, this will be H 2 O snow, not frozen flakes of CO 2 , such as fall on the southern hemisphere of Mars.) The scene looks very Antarctic, except that the ultra-cool dwarf, in its nearness, looms four times larger than our sun and burns much paler and cooler.
Next comes a 360-degree view from an imaginary spot on the surface of TRAPPIST-1d. You scroll horizontally past black, striated boulders—basalt, from the look of them—embedded in flats and berms of pale sand. Having come full circle on the planetary surface, you can scroll vertically down into the sand at your feet or up into the hazy red sky.
This is all NASA moonshine. If we know anything with absolute certainty, it is that none of these TRAPPIST worlds will look anything like the depictions. Every planet and moon in our own system, once we have come to know it intimately, has proven to be a complete surprise, entirely its own world, unlike any other. Why should it be any different out in Aquarius?
The discovery is a huge piece of luck,” Freeman told me of TRAPPIST-1.
The physicist, now 93, continues to follow closely all the news from the stars, as he has done for the past ninety years.
“Luck that there happens to be a very small star so close to us with the planets lined up precisely in the plane where we can see them transiting. But it is not only luck. The people who planned the observations knew what they were looking for. The smaller the star, the bigger the fraction of light that each planet will obstruct, and the more precisely the planets are seen and measured. I was excited by the discovery as a triumph of intelligent observation.”
The seven planets make a cozy system, orbiting at such close quarters that the surface details of some would be visible to the naked eye from others. (Cozy but dizzying, as a year in this incestuous whirl of sister planets lasts between just 1 and 20 Earth days.) One might guess that Freeman would be charmed by this system as place to colonize. I doubted it.
“First I have to clear away a few popular misconceptions about space as a habitat,” he told a London audience in a 1972 lecture. “It is generally considered that the planets are important. Except for Earth, they are not. Mars is waterless, and the others are for various reasons inhospitable to man.”
Much more promising, Dyson said, were the comets, small worlds a few miles in diameter, rich in water and other chemicals essential to life. Thousands of millions of comets, loosely attached to the sun, await us out there, by his estimate, with a combined surface area a thousand or ten thousand times greater than Earth’s. Closer in, in the big gap between Mars and Jupiter, is the belt of the asteroids, the rubble of collisions between two or three planets no longer there, except as fragments. There is water in the asteroids. They should make prime real estate, in Freeman’s opinion. Ceres is 593 miles in diameter. Pallas is 319 miles wide. Eros, in outline roughly the same shape and twice the size of Manhattan, tumbles through space like a dead cigar or a severed whatever. Icarus, a boulder a mile in diameter, flies awfully close to the sun, but otherwise might make a congenial outpost for some physicist’s reclusive son or some other type of hermit.
“There is no strong reason to expect life to be confined to any Goldilocks Zone. Life as we know it is wonderfully adaptable, and Nature’s imagination is richer than ours.”
“I am not impressed by the hype about the Goldilocks Zone,” Freeman said, when I asked. “The purpose of astronomy is to look at everything in the universe and find all kinds of unexpected mysteries. Of course an Earthlike planet is especially interesting because the Earth has such a rich history and geography. But there is no strong reason to expect life to be confined to any Goldilocks Zone. Life as we know it is wonderfully adaptable, and Nature’s imagination is richer than ours.”
What does impress Freeman is the volume of information that space telescopes like the Spitzer and the Kepler are sending back to us. Both these infrared telescopes are now busy monitoring thousands of stars in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. It is the Spitzer telescope that verified the last four TRAPPIST planets.
“This find is only one item in a huge treasure of discoveries made by missions like Kepler,” Freeman said. “Kepler observed with high precision the variations of light from individual stars. The public only hears about variation caused by transiting planets. There is at least as much variation caused by internal processes in the stars. For most professional astronomers, stars are more interesting than planets. There will be many more missions like Kepler in the future. To me, the great news is that we are at the beginning of a new era in the exploring of the universe, with a far more detailed understanding of both stars and planets. The seven-planet system is like the panda in the San Diego Zoo, rightly admired as beautiful and as a public attraction. But the zoo as a whole is more important than the panda.”
In summer of 1975, in my VW camper, I drove Freeman and his daughter Emily from the Nanaimo Ferry 150 miles northward through the forest of Vancouver Island to Kelsey Bay, where we took another ferry to Beaver Cove for a reunion with George. Freeman did not mind my coming along. He and his son had been five years apart, and he thought that having a third party on hand, as intermediary, made sense.
“The big moment,” he said, as the ferry reversed engines and the water churned against the pilings of the slip. I spotted George walking down toward the waterfront: knit cap, stiff oilskin jacket, familiar gait. I pointed him out to his family, who had yet to know him as a grown man. George, for his part, didn’t recognize us until I had driven off the ferry and pulled up alongside. Beaming, he and his father shook hands vigorously and kept at it for a long time.
Over the next days, we visited George’s acquaintances in the maze of glaciated islands at the foot of Queen Charlotte Sound. First we crossed to Swanson Island, which for the moment had just one inhabitant, George’s friend Will Malloff. The other half of the population, Will’s wife Georganna, a sculptress, was temporarily off island. Malloff is inventor, among other things, of the Alaska mill, which is in widespread use across North America by people returning to the land. He had come to Swanson Island four years before with $50 and a chainsaw. Since then he had built, or salvaged from elsewhere, a whole settlement: house, greenhouse, sheds, chicken coop, duck pen, pheasant aviary, and separate workshops for himself and Georganna, whose sculptures stood everywhere in the clearing and deeper in the forest.
Malloff and the other inhabitants of this temperate rainforest fascinated Freeman. They demonstrated, he believed, the hardiness and resourcefulness that will be required of pioneers in the comets or stars. To the amusement of his son and everyone else, he tried to recruit George’s people as space colonists. His special target was Malloff. One day we watched from shore as Malloff waded out in his gumboots, bent over his Mercury outboard, and commenced repairing its blown head gasket. Reaching for the vise-grip pliers in his back pocket, he had a thought.
“I won’t let him send me into space unless I can take my vise-grips!” he swore, gesturing with the pliers.
“I can’t send you,” said Freeman. “You have to want to go yourself.”
Watching George and Freeman together on the island, I was struck anew by their close resemblance. George is a taller version of Freeman. Both men are lean, with large noses previously broken. Both laugh a characteristic Dyson laugh in which the shoulders shake but no sound comes out. Both have piercing eyes they hold wide open. (George’s mother noticed, early on, this thing with the eyes. In her diary entry for February 10, 1954, when her son was not quite 1 year old, Verena Huber-Dyson wrote, “George sometimes seems to have Freeman’s unicorn look in his eyes. That glimpse of Thurber’s unicorn reaching out for the lily simply haunts me.”)
Where I had thought my book on the Dysons would be a simple story of opposites, it was proving much more complicated and interesting, a story also of convergences. Both Dysons believed in small, creative societies (which Freeman had found in his Orion team, and George in places like Swanson Island). Both wanted to get far away. Both craved a fresh start.
If in George’s teen years, the trajectories of the two Dysons were headed straightaway toward diametrically opposed vanishing points, then by Swanson Island their arcs were beginning to come back around. The curvature of space-time, or whatever is bending this process, would appear to be sharper than Einstein calculated; it has now brought the Dyson worldviews closer than I would ever have imagined back then. George today still has a kayak workshop, but it is mostly idle. He is now a historian of science and the author of books on the evolution of technology: Darwin Among the Machines, and Turing’s Cathedral, and Project Orion. The barefoot days are over. At his TED talks he wears shoes.
In March of 2009, George and his older sister, Esther Dyson, an entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist, had traveled with Freeman to a former Soviet missile base in Kazakhstan for the launch of a Russian rocket, a Soyuz mission to the International Space Station.
“Esther invested in a company in Russia called Yandex,” George explained. “She’s actually one of the founders. It’s the only thing Esther ever did that made a big pile of money. Most of her investments, she’s made a million here or there, but in Russia she helped found this search engine, it became the Google of Russia, and then it went public and she got a pile of rubles. She couldn’t take it out of Russia, or she didn’t want to take it out. Esther, she’s never driven a car, she doesn’t own a house. So she thought, ‘What can I do with a whole pile of Russian money?’ She decided to buy a seat on one of those Russian rockets.
“It’s an irony. When we were kids, Freeman was building a spaceship, and I really wanted to go. I was 5 years old, and I thought they were building it there in San Diego. I imagined that the big, round building at General Atomic was the launch pad for the spaceship, and we were going to get in it and go. Then all these years later, it’s actually Esther. The story of my life! Everything I ever did was always outshadowed by Esther. So we end up going to Kazakhstan. Esther was the backup on the rocket flight. Every time they fly one of these tourists, they have a backup, in case you break your leg the week before the flight. She took all the training. Survival course, and so on. Even the standby seat costs $3 million.”
The missile base, it seemed to George, was caught in a time warp, stuck in the Sputnik era. “They haven’t changed anything,” he said. “It worked in 1960, and that’s the way they still do it. The telephones are all dial phones. The whole launch site is run on coal-fired generators. The place looks like it was built by Soviet slave labor. Which it was.”
Charles Simonyi, the billionaire for whom Esther was understudy, and who had paid $35 million for his seat, did not break a leg, unfortunately. “He brought his beautiful young Swedish wife and all her family,” said George. “They were wearing mink coats out in the Kazakh desert. And Esther shows up with her motley family. They put us all up in the Sputnik Hotel. Everything was very choreographed. It was like a wedding. Russian Orthodox priests. One side of the family were aristocrats, and the other side were hillbillies.”
The rocket went up, with the three Dysons, the hillbillies, watching from the ground. George and Freeman had a whispered conversation. They agreed that this was crazy.
“The real irony is that here I am with Freeman, 50 years after Project Orion, watching the American pay $35 million to go into very low Earth orbit on a Russian rocket. It’s just so depressing. None of those space dreams came true. Or, they totally didn’t come true in terms of manned space flight. They absolutely did come true in terms of the robot machines, which are sending back all these incredible pictures.”
In 1975, Freeman brought reading material to Swanson Island. Among the books in his bag was an annotated version of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictionalized, black-humor account of the firebombing of Dresden, which the novelist witnessed from the ground as a German POW. This was the first Vonnegut book I had seen given this sort of academic gloss.
I had no doubt back then, nor do I now, why Freeman was giving the firebombing of Dresden this close read between the lines. In July 1943, at the age of 19, he had reported for duty as mathematician at the headquarters of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. Just days thereafter, on July 27, British bombers succeeded, for the first time in history, in igniting a firestorm, burning 42,000 Germans to death in Hamburg. On every big raid after that first one, the Allies tried for another firestorm, but the bombers succeeded only twice more in Europe—Hamburg again and then Dresden. “We still do not understand why,” he recalled. “It probably happened when there was some instability in the atmosphere before the attack so that meteorological energy amplified the energy of the fires. The firestorms had a big effect on civilian casualties.” Targeting civilians is a war crime. Freeman felt complicit.
Interviewing him in 1975, with the embers of Dresden 30 years cold, I asked whether firestorms figured in his drive for the stars. He nodded. “Our strongest feelings are subconscious. I grew up in a time of despair—the late ’30s. It was far worse than it is now.” In a postwar essay, Freeman wrote that, “In my personal view of the human situation, the exploration of space appears as the most hopeful feature of a dark landscape.”
Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s bleakest book, too haunted for me. My own favorite is his second, The Sirens of Titan. At the heart of that one is a parable that better illuminates the question at hand: colonization, or not, of outer space.
All events in this novel unfold from a strange accident suffered by one of its characters, Winston Niles Rumfoord, a New England aristocrat wealthy enough to build his own spacecraft. (An Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos sort of figure, or the other way around, as Vonnegut conceived him years before the births of either of those entrepreneurs.) Two days out of Mars, Rumfoord steers into an uncharted space hazard, a chrono-synclastic infundibulum. (Chrono is Greek for time. Synclastic means curving all to the same side, like the skin of an orange. Infundibulum is Latin for funnel.) Swept up by this funnel, like Dorothy by the tornado, Rumfoord and his great hound, Kazak, become wave phenomena, twin spirals stretching from origins in the sun to termini in the star Betelgeuse. Their spirals intersect at regular intervals with Earth or Mars or Mercury, at which times Rumfoord and Kazak materialize briefly on those planets. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is the only spot in the universe where they remain solid and corporeal year round.
Chrono-synclastic infundibula, it turns out, are commonplace in the universe. They are everywhere, wild threads in the worn fabric of space-time. The infundibula are Vonnegut’s metaphor for the huge surges of radiation, the bone loss in astronauts, and all the unimagined hazards waiting out there in the dark matter and the light. The moral of the infundibula, their message to humanity, he writes, is simple:
What makes you think you’re going anywhere?
What does make us think we’re going anywhere? Colonization of the stars is wonderful as romance, but is up against two intractable realities: the cosmological and the biological. The cosmic problem is distance. The TRAPPIST-1 system, at 40 light years and 232 trillion miles away, is indeed relatively close, yet still unimaginably far. It is nearly 40 times more distant than Alpha Centauri, which Freeman’s heat-sink starship would have taken 150 years to reach.
So far as we know, to date, there is no community of life out there with which we might continue our co-evolution. Our manifest destiny, it seems obvious to me, is down here on Earth.
The biological problem is the ephemerality of species. Homo sapiens is just 200,000 years old, yet already we are on our way to becoming something else. How much time do we have left, as us, to complete some of these interminable crossings? What sort of creature will shamble out when the hatch opens on the other side? (In The Sirens of Titan, Winston Niles Rumfoord addresses this difficulty: “What an optimistic animal man is!” he cries. “Imagine expecting the species to last for ten million more years—as though people were as well-designed as turtles!”) Evidence mounts that we have passed our peak and a devolutionary downslide has begun. Consider the GOP. Just 150 years ago it was the party of Lincoln.
The word “adaptation” came into wide use after Darwin, and its most common application is still biological, a reference to the adjustments that an organism makes to conditions in its ecosystem if it is to survive. A species is not just its DNA. A species is an interaction between its genes, its culture, and the other organisms and climate of a particular place. Every instant of our evolutionary adaptation, to date, has been in the community of life on this third planet from the middling G star we orbit. So far as we know, to date, there is no community of life out there with which we might continue our co-evolution. Our manifest destiny, it seems obvious to me, is down here on Earth.
In visiting the TRAPPIST planets illustrated on the NASA website, I grew increasingly uneasy with the artists’ conceptions. I began noticing doubtful details. For example: In the waves at the foot of the icebergs on TRAPPIST-1f new ice is forming. The ice panes are polygons of sharp angles floating slightly separated, like the pieces of a finished jigsaw puzzle after the dog has bumped the table. It could be that the seas on TRAPPIST-1f are methane, like the lakes on Titan. It could be that methane ice really does behave this way near an M star. But it is also possible that the artist was unfamiliar with how ice forms in our own cold seas—first as slush and then pancake ice, worn circular, with raised rims all around, from collisions with other pancakes in the waves. For any conceptual artist rendering a new dinosaur, there are fossilized bones to work from, and sometime the tracks of that reptile, and educated guesses to be made from reconstruction of its ecosystem. For the illustrators of TRAPPIST-1, there is only periodic dimming of light from an ultra-cool dwarf. In that signal there is enough information to suggest planetary density and allow speculation that the seven planets are rocky. Beyond that, the illustrations are figments.
These made-up planets are fun. They spur imagination in viewers. They make, or pretend to make, elusive astronomical realities palpable. As PR for NASA, they jack up public interest, keep appropriations flowing in, and fund new missions. But they are false. They suggest that we know more about these worlds than we do. How many viewers, I wonder, even those who have noted the “artist conception” advisory, come away believing that the look of these planets is based on actual evidence.
My killjoy instincts in this are annoying even to me. Their source, I think, is in the first manned mission to circumnavigate another world.
On Christmas Eve of 1968, Bill Anders, an astronaut orbiting the lunar surface in Apollo 8, snapped a picture through the module window: Earthrise above the dead white curvature of the moon. It is commonplace for environmentalists to mark this as the most important photograph ever taken, and legions of commentators from other disciplines have marked Earthrise as the epiphany of epiphanies. The Apollo 8 astronauts certainly saw it that way. “We came all this way to explore the moon,” said Bill Anders, “and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
There it was, our place, a small blue marble, a “cloudy,” kids call it. An oasis in the blackness of space.
A NASA illustrator has borrowed this motif for the agency’s website, painting the TRAPPIST-1 planets as varicolored marbles in a line against the blackness of the void. TRAPPIST-1b looks like Mars with acne. TRAPPIST-1c looks like just regular Mars. TRAPPIST-1d has a longitudinal chain of turquoise lakes suspiciously similar to Grand Prismatic Springs in Yellowstone. TRAPPIST-1e and TRAPPIST-1f are both Earthlike, bluish and wreathed in cloud. TRAPPIST-1h looks like Venus.
These marbles are all mirage. The Apollo 8 photograph Earthrise is a true picture of a real world and our actual circumstances.
Thousands of exoplanets have been discovered in the past two decades, and artistic liberties have been taken with many. To the extent that this artwork plants the idea, even subconsciously, that we have alternatives, that these far places are real possibilities, that we can solve our pollution and population problems somewhere out in Aquarius or the Orion Arm, or even closer in, by mining the asteroids or colonizing comets, then it subverts the epiphany of Earthrise. The solutions to our problems will be down here.
It did not escape me that if, indeed, I made the cut for the shuttle, then Freeman was the man who had bought me my ticket. It was ironic.
In the early 1980s, NASA announced a plan to send a journalist into space on the shuttle. Reader’s Digest believed it had the inside track in placing a writer onboard. The magazine liked The Starship and the Canoe, believing that the book’s duality—the view both earthward and spaceward—was what it wanted, and it proposed that I go. Unmarried then, with no kids, I agreed on the spot. In writing up my résumé, I exaggerated my physical fitness, which was already good, and I glossed over problems I have with machinery and instrument panels.
It did not escape me that if, indeed, I made the cut for the shuttle, then Freeman was the man who had bought me my ticket. It was ironic. In constructing The Starship and the Canoe, I had been careful not to let my own biases infect the whole book. I had confined my opinion to a chapter titled “My Opinion.” In that one I threw in with George and his canoe. I came out against Freeman and his starship. (“Freeman has faith in the hospitality of space, and I have faith, almost equally groundless, in its inhospitality.”) What a hypocrite. The first time someone offers to send me into orbit, I jump.
There was a setback. NASA decided, for incomprehensible reasons, to send a teacher first. Christa McAuliffe, who taught high school in New Hampshire, won out over 11,000 candidates. By the day of the Challenger mission that launched her, January 28, 1986, I had a 5-week-old son. The baby had diminished somewhat my enthusiasm for risking my life on assignments, yet I was envious still of McAuliffe. She had jumped her place in line.
Like tens of millions of Americans, I watched the televised liftoff and then, 73 seconds later, the explosion, pieces of the ship rocketing off in all directions, with one giant smoky contrail curving back upon itself. Like everyone, I had a moment of confusion and denial. Was this fireball just the first booster disintegrating? Then came the keening moan from the crowd at Cape Canaveral and the shock and grief. Within that emotion, for me, was a small, shameful countercurrent of relief, as in a passenger whose missed train has cost him his berth on the Titanic.
What made me think I was going anywhere?
Kenneth Brower’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and other magazines. He is also the author of several books, including The Wildness Within: Remembering David Brower (2012, Heyday Books).