Today on the Fan Stage at Celebration VI, I had the pleasure of co-hosting a panel entitled “Star Wars and NASA: Science Fiction and Science Fact,” with Holly Griffith, a friend of mine who works as an International Space Station flight controller for NASA Mission Control in Houston, TX. Holly and I were joined by Travis and Michelle Fitzgerald, two fellow flight controllers on the ISS, and Dennis Bonilla, an open government consultant who works with NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. As befits such a great lineup of smart and talented space geeks (I’m excluding myself, of course!), our panel filled the 840-seat Fan Stage!
During the panel, we discussed topics like the possibility of intelligent life on other planets, the evolution of real-world spaceflight from its current state to something more closely resembling Star Wars, and the influences that real space technology developments have had on fictional space travel. Because I know next to nothing about these subjects, I mostly posed the questions and let my esteemed guests run with their answers. It was important to me that we went beyond the simple connections between real-world spaceflight and the Star Wars universe – yes, the smallest moon of Saturn, Mimas, looks a lot like the Death Star, but there are more interesting things to talk about at a panel like this.
I have always been interested in the changes that the spaceflight industry will undergo as traveling the stars becomes as commonplace as traveling the skies. I wanted to hear from the panel: what did they think would happen once space travel became easy and inexpensive, as it seems to be in the Star Wars universe? I got some great responses and it made me long for the day when I could grab a freighter to a nice jungle resort planet or a bustling metropolis half a galaxy away!
I’m also a student of history, and as such, I was thinking in recent days about how to incorporate one of my favorite aspects of Star Wars into my NASA panel: the idea that it’s a big galaxy, that not everyone is like you, that you are one among gazillions, and that you have to define your own significance. As human beings, pretty much everything we personally know and understand resides on Earth, but as we discussed on the panel today, it’s quite possible that we aren’t alone. One of the panelists (I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t remember whom it was) described the effect of Star Wars on Earth-centric thinking as groundbreaking, saying that the movies normalized a popular conception of Earth as just one planet among many. Just as Galileo Galilei’s discovery that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not vice versa, took humanity down a peg or two in terms of planetary pride, Star Wars was arguably one of the biggest driving forces in a newfound acceptance of the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy.
My NASA panelists had consistently great answers to these kinds of big-picture questions, and it doesn’t get more big-picture than the question “How would human civilization change with the discovery that we are merely part of a vast ocean of other sentient life?” I loved hearing them speculate about how closely our space travel would resemble the skylanes in Star Wars, what it would take to improve our spaceship technology to minimize travel time, and what would happen to NASA itself when spaceflight became mainstream. Holly, Travis, Michelle, and Dennis are engineers and technical people by profession, but they also have active imaginations, which they told me during the panel had been nurtured and fueled by their love of Star Wars. I learned a lot from them and I hope the audience did too.
Eric Geller is a college student with a political science major who manages social media and writes The Clone Wars reviews for TheForce.Net. You can follow him on Twitter and read his TCW reviews here.