What ‘Back to the Future’ Can Teach Us About Exploring Space


On the face of it, a film a bout a time-traveling DeLorean is utterly ridiculous. Yet twenty-five years on, Back to the Future is regarded as a cinematic classic. To many, our adventure into space seems equally foolish. So what works in Back to the Future that can help us change people’s minds about space?

“Doc, what the hell is a jiggawatt?!”

For a movie that’s ostensibly about altering the space-time continuum, there is very little science in Back to the Future. How many people actually know how a flux capacitor works, other than by “fluxing”? (If you do, please come collect your Nobel Prize) And you know what? It doesn’t matter. The lack of hard, plausible science doesn’t in any way cheapen the film, and arguably widens its appeal.

I’m a big fan of science, but there’s a trend in modern space exploration that stresses hard, detailed science above all else. The problem, unfortunately, is that this ostracizes a large portion of the population. Hard science doesn’t appeal to everyone, and many will only respond to simple generalities. If you really want people to care about space, you’re going to have to look beyond the technical details.

“See you in about thirty years!”
-I hope so.

At its heart, Back to the Future is a very human story. It’s about Marty, Doc, George, Lorraine, and even Biff. Despite the inarguable coolness of a time-traveling DeLorean, the science and technology of the film are decidedly secondary. The entire construct falls flat on its face if we don’t care about the people in it.

This, ultimately, is what our adventure into space needs to be all about. Yes, the Shuttle, ISS, Saturn V, etc. are all very cool examples of techno-wizardry, but not everyone can relate to a hulking mass of metal, electronics, and high-explosives. Space needs to be about us. It needs to be relatable. We need to focus on the people involved in our exploration of space, the men and women behind the missions and machines, and not just the tools that facilitate it. In what we do in space, we need to see a reflection of ourselves.

“Doc, that’s a risk you’re gonna have to take. Your life depends on it!”

What if George didn’t stand up to Biff? What if Doc Brown hadn’t mortgaged his entire family fortune to build the time machine? What if he never decided to read Marty’s letter? Well, Marty and company would have had a very different future, and we would have had a very different film. Back to the Future makes a pretty clear statement that if you’re not willing to take chances, you’re not going anywhere.

If we’re going to continue and expand our presence in space, we need to take risks. Space exploration is one of the riskiest propositions there is. Not every risk will pay off (Doc Brown and the Libyans anyone?), but that doesn’t mean we should be afraid to fail. Space exploration is a risky business, and if you’re not willing to chance it every now and then…well, maybe you’re in the wrong line of work.

“Last night, Darth Vader came down from Planet Vulcan and told me that if I didn’t take Lorraine out he’d melt my brain.”

For all the moments of dramatic tension surrounding Marty’s quest to return to 1985, save Doc’s life, and get his parents to fall for each other, the film is rife with moments of levity. Back to the Future is a film that is determined not to take itself too seriously…and it works. It’s disarming, humanizing, and gives the film heart. It draws the audience closer to the characters and the story, because it suddenly doesn’t presume to be above them. It lets people relate.

Now look at NASA TV, or any other major media portrayal of space exploration for that matter. What do you notice?

It’s deadly serious…and deadly boring.

Instead of saying “Hey, we’re just like you. We screw up. We laugh at ourselves. We joke around on occasion,” the message conveyed is that space exploration is a cold, robotic, and thoroughly inhuman enterprise. For people to really care about space, it needs to be fun and accessible. Yes, space exploration is a serious business, but it doesn’t always have to be.

But perhaps the biggest message from Back to the Future (ok, Back to the Future III), is that the future isn’t written yet. If you’re not happy with the way things are headed, go out there and try to rewrite it. If you have a vision of where we should go in space, get out there and try to realize it. Remember:

“If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

Though sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to have an extra 1.21 jiggawatts lying around.

4 thoughts on “What ‘Back to the Future’ Can Teach Us About Exploring Space

  1. Oh and the fact that 1.21 GIGAWATTS is not only a real value, but the amount of power produced by the nuclear thermal rocket motor testbed known as KIWI (ok it was 1,100 megawatts, but we’re close).
    For reference, a Megawatt of rocket motor power produces about 50 lbs of thrust, so this produced about 75,000 lbs. Little discussed fact of the VASIMR is that it produces 250KW – or about 13lbs of thrust, but you have to fly an atomic power reactor to power it. If you’re going to fly the nuclear material in the first place, just flow LH2 down it and produce thrust directly. If we re-start this research today, we can probably use one of these engines to beat New Horizons to Pluto. But we’ll have to hurry…


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