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European Space Agency looks to sci-fi books for new ideas

Yverdon, Switzerland (dpa) – Science fiction writers have always had a
flourishing imagination, and sometimes even real technical knowledge.

It is this situation which the European Space Agency (ESA) now wants to
exploit. It has asked the “Haus von Anderswo” (House from Elsewhere), a utopian
museum in Yverdon to explore science fiction literature for feasible future
technological uses.

The museum has a library of 40,000 science fiction books. Curator Patrick
Gyger, head of the ESA project called “Innovative Technologies From Science
Fiction For Applications In Outer Space”, says the research will also include
use of comic books and such films as “Star Trek”.

Among the science fiction books which have a clear-cut link to reality, Gyger
lists the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. It describes how the extremely
hostile living conditions there can be changed into conditions favourable for
humans.

Another example which Gyger lists is the book “Voyage” by Stephen Baxter in
1996 describing a fictional NASA mission to Mars whereby, in order to save on
fuel, the spacecraft makes use of the gravitational pull of the planet Venus to
give itself a boost.

A glimpse into past experience shows that the ESA project is not merely some
occupational therapy exercise for science fiction freaks.

For example, a science fiction book dating back to 1945 describes a manned
space flight long before the United States or Soviet Union could even begin to
think about such missions.

The research today also for the first time is seriously looking into the topic
of “teleporting” – the method well-known to fans of the Star Trek series
as “beaming” in which matter is transported from one place to another via beams
of energy.

Those sceptical of this should remember that the practice of cloning existed
for a long time in science fiction works well before the cloned sheep “Dolly”
became a reality.

As one knowledgeable of science fiction, Gyger is convinced that new ideas for
technology can be found in some of the more recent science fiction
literature.

“For now, we are collecting all possible proposals,” he reports. “These will
then be presented to a team of experts who are more versed in technological
matters.”

A report is to be ready for ESA by the end of this year in which all those
ideas deemed to have some promise will be grouped under such categories
as “space transportation”, “propulsion” or “earth observation” and precisely
identified.

What is deemed in the end to have some possible application will then be tested
by ESA researchers in feasibility studies.

In any event, the science fiction literature project is not a very expensive
one for ESA. Gyger said that it will cost the Paris-based space body, with its
15 member states, “a few tens of thousands of Swiss francs”.

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