Dear Dawn: How a NASA robot messed up our science fiction

The creators of the hit series “The Expanse” pay tribute to the spacecraft that proved them gloriously wrong.

By James S. A. Corey
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:37 BST
NASA's Dawn spacecraft arrives at the dwarf planet Ceres in an illustration.

NASA's Dawn spacecraft arrives at the dwarf planet Ceres in an illustration.

Photograph by Illustration by NASA, JPL-Caltech
This essay is an entry in our "Dear Spacecraft" series, where we ask writers, scientists, and astronomy enthusiasts to share why they feel personally connected to robotic space explorers.

Dear Dawn:

Did we do something to piss you off? Because to tell you the truth, your attacks on our books seemed kind of personal.

In 2011, we came out with a science-fiction novel called Leviathan Wakes that featured a big plotline on the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. In particular, we imagined a hard, nickel-iron Ceres with a population of millions thirsty for water harvested from the rings of Saturn. We did pretty well with the story; it got a Hugo nomination, and the publisher bought some follow-ups.

Four years later, we were launching a television show based on the book, starring the embattled crew of an ice hauler trying to keep Ceres Station hydrated. That was 2015—the same time you became the first spacecraft to orbit a dwarf planet. And as we gathered in the writer's room and on set, what did you tell us? Ceres has water. Lots of it. Not only that, you found large deposits of sodium carbonate on Ceres’s surface, which doesn't sound that impressive until you realize it’s evidence of ice volcanoes. Seriously. Ice volcanoes.

We were barely out the gate, and not only were we already dated, we were outshone.

You're not the first to have this effect on a writer and their work, not by a long shot.

In A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs gave the red planet canals, based on the ideas of astronomer Percival Lowell. Burroughs and Lowell both lost that bet. Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon assumed there was an “aether” permeating the universe that light and heat propagated through. A few decades later, Einstein put that idea to rest. William Gibson's 1980s vision of cyberspace, Neuromancer, doesn't look a thing like Google.

Writing science fiction is a race between the author's imagination and the progress of science and history. Fiction is always on the losing end; the question is only how fast. You? You were our reckoning with reality.

And the weird thing is, we're rooting for you, all of us who build story worlds inevitably made retro by you and your partners in exploration. We were inspired by the Apollo missions and the twin Voyager spacecraft. We read books growing up like William Pogue's How Do You Go To The Bathroom in Space? and Asimov's Guide to Earth and Space. We speculated about the images of Saturn that Cassini sent back. While working on our show, we gathered around the computer monitors and got giddy when New Horizons showed us a more beautiful Pluto than any of us could have guessed.

And yes, we wondered about the bright spot on Ceres that you revealed. We were excited. We still are.

The heart of science fiction has always been a sense of wonder, Dawn, and you and yours have done a bang-up with that. Forty years ago, the two of us were kids who’d never met, both of us reading about astronauts and space probes, the discoveries that had been made already, and the speculation about what we could find next.

From an altitude as low as about 21 miles, Dawn snapped many images of Cerealia Facula, the brightest spot on the surface of Ceres, inside Occator crater. The salty residue is thought to be mostly sodium carbonate and ammonium chloride.

Photograph by NASA, JPL-Caltech/ UCLA/ MPS/ DLR/ IDA/ PSI

The idea that Saturn’s moon Phoebe formed in our solar system’s primordial fringes, or perhaps in another star system, sparked our imaginations. The unique magnetic field that shields Jupiter’s moon Ganymede shaped our stories. The atmosphere on Titan, Saturn’s hazy satellite, figured into our plots because the same great intellectual project of exploring the universe and understanding our place within it that birthed you, Dawn, told us about it. The books we write and the shows we make have roots in moments of discovery.

We have no doubt that there was some kid looking at the images you sent back with that same excitement and joy we had when we were growing up. Despite your vendetta against us, Dawn, we can't be mad about that.

And the kind of thing we do? It helps you, too. We know that. We've hung out with the folks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA and Virgin Galactic enough to know that the dreams we invent help to inspire the ones you fulfill. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom may have had totally inaccurate canals on it, but Carl Sagan read A Princess of Mars as a kid, and the siren song of finding life on another world never left him. Maybe, if we're lucky, the next generation’s Sagans will read some of the stories we write and be curious about the real science behind them.

What we do is entertain people. Your mission is to explore and better understand the universe we live in. But we all share a common goal: inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers, and artists. In the long run, your project will always win out over ours, because yours is based in reality. The things you find are often more amazing and glorious than what we could ever make up.

Thankfully, imagination still gives us wiggle room. We’ve found a rationale for why our fictional Ceres is so dry, so we're patched up—for now. But sooner or later, one of your siblings will inevitably go out and find something that we can't wave away. Or someone will develop a drive for spacecraft that doesn't work the way we imagined. Or the peopling of the moon and Mars will unfold in some unexpected fashion that makes our science-fiction future look as quaint as a cyberpunk warrior scrambling to find a phone booth with an open modem. It's the way things go.

The work we do will stand the test of time, or it will fail and be forgotten. The work you’ve done will last, and as future probes continue the difficult, glorious intellectual and technical effort, the universe will come into focus. The next wave of writers and poets and filmmakers can set their stories on the Ceres you found. We'll only be a little jealous that they get to have ice volcanoes.

Until that day,

JSAC (Daniel and Ty)

James S. A. Corey is the pseudonym used by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, authors of "The Expanse" novels and executive producers on the television series.
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