In the new sci-fi novel Ocean of Storms, a disruptive pulse originating on the moon takes out Earth’s infrastructure. In the face of a crisis, international conflicts are set aside. The book’s authors, Christopher Mari and Jeremy K. Brown, recently sat down with Nexus Media to share their insights on international cooperation, conspiracy theories and the future of the space race. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In Ocean of Storms, the United States and China overcome hostility to face a global crisis, a theme that parallels the recent climate agreement in Paris. What are the broader lessons for the international community?
Brown: In order for anyone to accomplish anything of significance, it can never be done alone. So for one nation to act alone, in this day and age, to accomplish such an unimaginable feat [as saving the planet] is almost impossible. We started working on the book over a decade ago, and China was already emerging as the next great superpower with which the U.S. would have to contend.
We took our cues somewhat from Arthur C. Clarke’s second book [in his Space Odyssey series], 2010, where the Russians and the U.S. mount a joint mission to return to the wreckage of the Discovery to find out what happened in the first book. We always loved 2010 — and a big shout out to the Peter Hyams movie adaptation, which doesn’t get anywhere near the respect it deserves! Of course, they imagined that the Cold War would still be going on. But there they were forced to find common ground and ultimately make a tremendous discovery with great implications for the human race.
Mari: International cooperation has been the cornerstone of not just U.S. policy, but international policy, since 1945. Our world is not perfect by any means, but if we take the long view of it, we’re doing better than we did in generations past. [During WWI and WWII], a generation apart, about a hundred million people died at a time when there were maybe two and a half billion people in the world. But we haven’t had a world war since. We haven’t had a nuclear war. We’ve spent 70 years since the end of WWII sitting around tables and negotiating with each other. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work and sometimes there are proxy wars and sometimes there are civil wars. But for the most part, international cooperation and mutual respect between nations have been the key to maintaining peace and building toward the future.
Usually it comes at the last moment, when the chips are down and we’re looking around and saying, “Wait, we’re the only guys in the room.” Us and all the other people on this planet, we’ve got to figure out how to work together. Otherwise, we’re not going to have anything left to work for.
And yet, misinformation can get in the way. With this country reeling from the impact of fake news, what lessons can we learn from the now-quaint NASA-faked-the-moon-landing conspiracy theories?
Mari: You’re always going to wind up with somebody who simply doesn’t believe evidence. When we were doing research, we were fascinated by the fact that [conspiracy theorists] believed Stanley Kubrick was involved with faking the moon landing.
Space exploration has to become a daily aspect of life. Nobody seems to believe we faked going up to the International Space Station (ISS). Nobody seems to believe we faked going up in the shuttle. Once something starts to happen frequently, I think people believe it more.
Similar to climate change, people might see aspects of it here and there, but because they’re not seeing it on a daily basis, they don’t necessarily believe it’s occurring. We don’t believe that something is happening until it becomes a crisis. You think of the Nazis or Imperial Japan and what they were doing just prior to WWII. Very few people believed what was going to happen. Same thing with the space race. Nobody believed that the Russians were going to put Sputnik up, and then it happened. Seeing these things occurring — it forces people to act.
Brown: People are never satisfied with what they see. They’re never satisfied with being told the story. They have to see it for themselves.
I enjoy a good conspiracy theory, they wove their way into this book — Area 51, Dulce Base, and all of those crazy alien stories. They’re fun to speculate on, but there comes a point when you have to say this is crazy, to actually believe we would put all this effort into [the moon landing] — and not just once, but six times we’d have had to fake the moon landings, over and over again — it gets a little extreme. And then they faked a moon mission that didn’t work with Apollo 13? It gets a little unrealistic.
I don’t know if that’s human nature, or the nature of our country post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, and post-9/11… we’re now a more mistrustful nation, we don’t always trust the government and we don’t always trust what’s being told to us. Now there are conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook, and that’s just disgusting to me.
And that leads into climate change. We want to believe what’s being shown to us, but if it’s just hopeless, it’s not enough. We need to see evidence. We need to see proof. If we believe that climate change is real, it creates panic. It creates terror. Oh my god, the world is ending. Ice caps are melting. It’s going to look like Waterworld, what’s happening? Instead, people want to shift the blame to ‘everything’s okay. We’re being lied to.’ Somehow that’s easier to swallow that than to believe the reality that our climate is in danger.
Mari: Maybe it goes all the way back to JFK’s assassination. There’s been an erosion of trust in authority in the United States in believing what the government, or scientists — or people who are knowledgeable in whatever field they’re in — are telling the public. I don’t know how one can regain that, but part of it has to be people have to be a little more careful where they’re getting their information.
I don’t believe that anybody but [Lee Harvey] Oswald shot JFK. I don’t think that there was a conspiracy. I just think that people couldn’t accept that a young, vibrant president was killed by a lunatic. It’s as simple as that. And people simply can’t accept that. I think it’s the same thing with climate change. Sometimes people just don’t want to believe that it’s possible, that something like this can happen.
The only way that you can change peoples’ minds about anything is with evidence — one person at a time, over and over and over again. You’re not going to be able to get some magic bullet and change everybody’s mind.
One way that connects both climate change and space exploration is emphasizing science from the earliest grades in school all the way on up. Literature or math or history — all of these things are important, but I think science is a tool by which we can better understand the world as a whole, and improve it and help it.
Getting back to the core themes addressed in the novel, how do you see international conflict and collaboration progressing in the real world?
Mari: Historically, there’s always been a nationalistic component to space exploration, going back to the Cold War. Today, we have more of an international cooperation — the ISS is the most obvious aspect of it. Our goal in writing this book was first to demonstrate that space exploration should be a national priority, but also that it should be an international priority.
In recent years we’ve done a lot with unmanned probes, robotic probes going to Mars and to Pluto, but little manned space exploration — which for better or for worse inspires people, because it’s people. We haven’t been to the moon since 1972, and it was basically abandoned because we had accomplished it.
The Bush Administration wanted to go back to the moon with a permanent colony. That sort of got scrapped in favor of President Obama’s idea, which was first to go to an asteroid, and then to go to Mars in the 2030s. Now it’s a new administration, and it’s up in the air. The problem with this approach is that it depends on the political winds. Not just who’s in the White House, but whether or not Congress is going to fund it. When they were doing the space program in the 1950s and 1960s, there were Republican and Democratic presidents who were actively involved with putting people on the moon. From there, the plan had been to go on to Mars. My Encyclopedia Britannica from when I was a kid in the 1970s said that we were going to have a space station in 1975, we were going to have a permanent lunar colony in 1976, and then we were going to go to Mars in 1981.
In order for us to go forward nationally and internationally, space exploration has to be a priority. This is our one planet. We don’t have a backup. For the human race to survive, we need to figure out how to live in space. We need to figure out how to live in different environments on other planets, and we need to spread out.
Brown: Space exploration in the 1950s was, to paraphrase Star Trek, truly the next great frontier. We had conquered the sea. We had conquered land, and space was simply the next step for humanity. We put ourselves in that ocean, and decided not to go any further. There were obvious reasons behind that — budgetary, national interest, otherwise — but the reality is that runs contrary to human nature. It’s in our nature to want to explore, to want to push the boundaries.
I think we all want to see what else is out there, to see what we can discover, to see what we can accomplish by taking those steps into space. But because there’s so much that needs to be addressed here on Earth and so much that goes into deep spaceflight, it definitely slows the process down. But it’s important for us as people to continue to push forward.
The space community is aggressively debating whether we should next go back to the moon or head directly to Mars. After writing this novel, which do you think should be the priority?
Mari: One of our goals in the book was simply reviving the Apollo program, which is a dead technology. It sounds weird to say, but we don’t even have the technology to go back to the moon. The moon is a good stepping stone towards Mars, because most of your fuel to get to Mars would be used in just getting out of Earth’s orbit. There have been a lot of interesting studies that have suggested that flying either from lunar orbit or the surface of the moon would actually make more sense to get to Mars. If the chips were down and they said, “We’re just going to go straight to Mars,” I would say “great.” If they said, “We’re going to the moon,” I’d say “fantastic.” We need to get out of low-Earth orbit, and we need to get back into space.
The only way we’re going to learn how to deal with the challenges out there is to tackle them head on. The only way we’re going to guarantee that the human race will continue to thrive in the centuries to come is to make sure that, yes, we take care of our planet, that we work on the problems that exist on our planet, but we also need to have outposts in other places.
Brown: It has now been 40-plus years since we set foot on any celestial body other than our own. To go and get our sea legs back, it would be a good idea. The moon would also make a great baby step for other missions. Already a quarter million miles out from Earth, it seems a good place to set up an outpost that would be a jumping-off point for further exploration. Starting there after so many years of inactivity makes sense. If you haven’t gone jogging for awhile, you’re not going to start with the New York Marathon. Get back to the moon, get a sense for how we work and live in space, and from there, the stars are the limit.
This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.