One giant leap after another

Frank Schätzing is considered something of an expert when it comes to fusing science and fiction. In this interview, he talks about his contribution to the moon mission, the power of collective triumphs  and pockets of enlightenment.

Patrick Morda (interview) & Corbis, Ervin Elsner / Action Press, The Scope & PTS / Alex Adler (photos)

Audi Magazine: Mr. Schätzing, let’s clear something up straightaway. Who owns the moon?

Frank Schätzing: A piece of it belongs to me. Or at least, it does in American businessman Dennis Hope’s mind. He invokes a passage in the United States Constitution, which basically says that anyone can take ownership of land as long as they publicize their appropriation and no one comes forward with a prior claim within the next six months. So he registered the moon as his property and then waited. When no native moon dwellers appeared, he started selling plots. My in-laws bought me one as a gift in 2009.

That doesn’t sound like it would pass muster under international law …

It’s a bit of fun. Under international law, no one can claim ownership of any celestial bodies — including the moon. They’re protected under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1984 Moon Treaty. Only, to this day, the major space-faring nations haven’t ratified those treaties.

Those treaties were drafted at a time when the moon had captured the public’s imagination. The first moon landing was a global media event. Nowadays the sense of euphoria associated with space travel has dissipated. What has changed?

Basically, it comes down to broken promises. Conquering space was regarded as the project that would define us as a species in the best possible way. It was associated with advances in technology and in general. A new generation of Magellans and Marco Polos were at work. Science fiction spurred the endeavor with visions of a united human race which, having solved all of Earth’s problems, goes on to establish colonies throughout the cosmos. Then we realized it was just a race between the super powers. That’s when the broader public lost faith in the greater purpose of space travel.

The Swarn

His novel, The Swarm, made 58-year-old Frank Schätzing famous. A native of Cologne, the writer who is also a successful model and TV personality creates intensely detailed and well-researched fiction. His short film Vom Projekt Mensch zum Menschheitsprojekt (in German only) created in tandem with the mission to the moon is a tour of human history with a look ahead to a possible future. The film can be viewed online at www.mission-to-the-moon.com.

Despite that, we all still feel the pull of things beyond our planet and the fascination of the moon and cosmos. Is there a contradiction there?

No. That polarity is what makes things exciting. And its roots stretch back to the beginning of our evolution as human beings. When we still lived in caves, the moon lit up the night and helped us get our bearings in the dark. There are countless moon gods and goddesses, myriad myths revolve around our closest heavenly body and the Romantic movement celebrated it. Even just in the last century, few doubted the existence of Selenites — inhabitants of the moon. The idea of the moon has always been far more interesting than the satellite itself. Part of the problem we have with returning there today is knowing that it’s just an inhospitable desert of rocks.

For all our disillusionments, don’t we urgently need a new moonlanding today to remind us of our global identity?

Absolutely. That’s what makes us tick. Our sense of community is bolstered by shared experiences. We all crave meaning in our lives — something we can identify with—and only the rare few believe they can achieve anything significant on their own. That’s why we love vicarious successes. When Germany wins the FIFA World Cup, we feel like we’ve all won. And when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the whole world walked with him. It was that feeling which united us all at the time. Those collective triumphs are now more important than ever.

Do we today lack the courage and pioneering spirit of the past? Are we short of visionaries?

Quite the contrary. We are living in an inspired age. There are now more visionaries on a single street in Silicon Valley than there were in the whole of America a hundred years ago. Technology is advancing at exponential rates and producing ever more spectacular results. That’s not just going to suddenly stop.

So what’s the problem, then?

Arguably, it’s the fact that humanity as a whole hasn’t evolved further. Instead we’re still fighting demons from the past that we thought we had long since exorcised — religious fundamentalism, nationalism — but they’ve all come back to haunt us. As a kid, I thought the world was an enlightened place with a few backward pockets. Now, I think that by and large global society is backward but there are a few enlightened pockets. This makes it harder for visionaries to get projects such as space travel off the ground.

"A new generation of Magellans and Marco Polos were at work."

That’s exactly the message Audi is trying to get across right now.

Yes, and I like the way they are going about it. They’re getting involved without trying to steal the limelight. It’s an appealing and credible approach.

Your contribution to the cooperation between Audi and the Part-Time Scientists is a short film entitled Vom Projekt Mensch zum Menschheitsprojekt. What is it about?

It’s about that same message. Starting with the genesis of our species — the human project — and stretching to current and future developments in the great endeavor of space travel. We are the only creatures on our planet with the potential to imagine the future and try to shape it accordingly. Within a few million years, we’ve gone from being tree dwellers to astronauts and Internet users. How? By following through on our long-term dreams.

Many of those dreams met with strong opposition at the time.

That’s true. But over time, they have led us onward and upward. I set out to show that it’s in our DNA to constantly push back boundaries and conquer new terrain. Creativity gives us an evolutionary edge in the race for survival. We need progress to catalyze our intellectual development. If we fall idle, we’ll die out.

What makes space travel a defining endeavor for our species?

There are a number of reasons. For one, as I’ve already mentioned, there’s its power to unite us behind a higher purpose and give us a shared identity. What’s more, every insight into the world around us helps us to better understand our place in it and adapt. That starts with the street you live in and doesn’t stop at the greatest imaginable neighborhood — the universe. Earth is an island. A better understanding of what surrounds this island is vital for our survival. Estimates put global population figures at roughly ten billion by 2050. While Earth has only a finite amount of land and resources, our solar system alone offers an abundance. But let’s not forget that space is full of threats to our planet — a meteorite could wipe us out completely. If we set out and explore the endless sea of darkness around us, we’ll have a better chance of mastering such dangers. Everything points to the likelihood that there are other islands out there capable of sustaining life. They may be incredibly far way, but space travel is still in its earliest infancy. Even if the benefits appear to lie over a distant horizon, we have no alternative but to keep on advancing space exploration.

But is humanity anywhere near ready to leave our planet and establish new colonies?

Which humanity? The human race as a unified entity doesn’t exist. Everyone is at each others’ throats. If we wait until we have a perfectly harmonious global society, nothing will ever become of space travel. What’s more likely is that it can help us to transform society. The International Space Station got the ball rolling. There at least, several nations managed to pull together. It’s about taking the first step. Someone has to be the first, then others will soon follow.

Then let’s rephrase that as a psychological question. Do people actually want to leave the planet?

We like to fantasize about it but, when it comes to the crunch, most people are horrified at the mere thought. The point is that, in the final instance, what we want won’t matter. If we eventually board our spaceships and go, it won’t be a matter of wanting to — but having to. And the process will change us — starting on the purely biological level. Any new world, no matter how earthlike, will initially present difficult conditions. If the planet is a bit bigger, its gravity will be greater. If the oxygen content is not quite the same, we won’t cope without respirators. Over generations, our bodies will gradually acclimatize. That’s the way it works. No life form willingly leaves its natural habitat. But when it has to, evolution kicks in and it adapts — physically and mentally.

Could the moon ever serve as a second Earth? It is closest to us after all.

It’s really just too inhospitable for another Berlin or New York. But that doesn’t make it any less suitable as a launch pad for extended missions. It would be much easier to set off from there. Which is why it’s important for us to find out how far the moon could reasonably help us expand the scope of our interstellar missions. As far as advancing technology goes, you are probably in the optimists’ camp, right? Before, I would have said yes. But it’s not something I question any more. Technological progress has developed its own momentum. It’s not important whether you see that as a good or a bad thing. Throughout the ages, humanity has undergone revolutions. That’s the way it has always been, starting from when we morphed from hunter-gatherers to settled farmers, through the industrial revolution, to the information age. Right now, we’re living through a sea change.

What upheavals are we now facing?

The most radical one yet — human cybernetics, or what you could call the merging of man and machine. As the lines between the analog and digital worlds blur, I have no doubt that by the end of this century we will have created a self-assertive artificial super intelligence. Then it’s just a question of whether it decides to help catapult us into the next stage of evolution or simply annihilate us.

"Everything points to the likelihood that there are other islands out there capable of sustaining life."

You once said, “I promote realism.” It’s an interesting statementin this context.

I said that? Well, it’s impossible to disentangle fiction and realism. In the early days of the birth of the Jewish state, David Ben Gurion made a highly quotable remark: “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” And he didn’t mean it in a religious sense at all. He was referring to the superhuman effort required to transform a marshy coastal strip and inland desert into a thriving nation. What he said, though, has universal significance. We create reality though fiction, dreams and visions. Even when achieving them seems it would take a miracle — if we can imagine something, it can basically be done. That’s how we as a species have got to where we are today. Waves of visionary activity are followed by periods of implementation — often with setbacks. But in the end, the vision gives way to a new reality, opening the door on fresh dreams. The one is unthinkable without the other. Take it from Arthur C. Clarke — “Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact.”