Walking back to a hotel in Mountain View, California, with a Thai take-out in my hand, I saw a strange red light in the night sky. It was much too high to be a warning light on a crane or pylon, much too bright and red to be a planet, and much too still to be an aircraft heading into San Francisco airport, 40km up the peninsula, or to the much nearer runways at Moffett Field, once operated by the United States Navy, now part of NASA’s Ames Research Centre. What sort of light just sits there in the sky? By a process of elimination, a light on a tethered balloon, a genuine UFO—yes, unlikely, but still—or, perhaps, an airship. And I realised, with a shiver of delight, that it was indeed an airship, a fat cigar hanging strangely still in the sky, all but invisible save for its running lights.
Given that most airships are little more than floating billboards, the delight people like me take from the sight of them requires a little explaining. My suspicion is that it is something about the way they are both distinctly retro and abidingly science-fictional.
There is a common misconception that science fiction is necessarily about fantastic futures, and that the real world and science fiction are mutually exclusive—that once something exists in the real world, it is no longer science fiction. This seems silly to me.
The fact that NASA has a robot rolling round Mars zapping rocks with its laser to see what they are made of does not mean that such a notion is no longer science fiction; it means that there are science-fictional things embedded in our world. They are things which belong to and evoke the spirit of a particular set of imaginings from the mid-20th century. Those defining documents of the genre vibrated with a very particular wonder, one associated with transgressing by means of technology boundaries that seemed, until then, firmly set. They built up the wonder of going further, going faster, going back in time, the wonder of vanquishing death and ignorance, of bending the world to the power of the human mind, and of confronting the strangeness of the inhuman—the alien and the robot. When such breakthroughs of the imagination are actually achieved, the wonder takes on a new character. But it is not entirely lost. Nor should it be.
Airships take the same phenomenon yet further—from a confusion of the future with the present to a confusion of the future with the past. They were a staple of science fiction going back to the days of Jules Verne. On the covers of science-fiction magazines of the 1930s, the only mode of transport more popular than the airship was the spaceship—and spaceships were often merely airships taken to a higher level, patrolling the universe in the same way that airships (like those which the navy once housed at Moffett Field) patrolled the skies, and benefiting from similarly Freudian streamlining.
But the airship is a dream of betterment that never came into practical being, which are sometimes the best sort. Never having fulfilled their dreamt potential, they engender none of the worries about unintended consequences and Faustian hubris or lack of control that you find with technologies which actually come to matter, like the genetic modification of plants. Their irrelevance bestows innocence; while still partaking in the sense of being somehow wonderful, they elicit not unease, but affection.
So to see one hovering covertly in the night sky was a thrill, rather than—as, say, noticing a robot drone might have been—a threat. All the more thrilling in retrospect when I discovered, from the director of NASA’s Ames Research Centre, what the airship was actually up to. It was attempting to interpose itself between a telescope and a star.
An inventive astronomer called Webster Cash has come up with a design for a shield that could be flown between a space telescope and a distant star and would block out the star’s light, allowing the telescope to concentrate on the far fainter light from any planets the star might have. This is a great deal harder than it sounds. Not only must the shield be positioned with near-ludicrous accuracy, it must also be designed with a complex shape precisely designed to minimise the effect of the starlight that will inevitably diffract around its edges. If it works, though, it may be the easiest way available to study the light from planets around other stars, and look for the subtle spectral signals of life that such planetary light may carry.
The current experiments, in which a star-shield hanging beneath the airship is used to try and shield a ground-based telescope from a star’s light, are at best an early step towards such a discovery. It will be decades before an orbiting telescope-and-star-shield double act, or some other technology, finally manages to bring evidence of alien life to Earth, and thus make the world that bit more science-fictional, and that bit more wonderful. But if, in the end, this early airship work does prove to have a role to play in developing that technology, my airship-related delight will return redoubled. Through the past, the future!