Many of us have seen the recent science-fiction movie Elysium, which is about a city orbiting the Earth, where the inhabitants live lives of luxury and ease, while back on Earth most of the populace live lives of poverty and misery, and are even denied medical care in the event they suffer an accident or get sick. Matt Damon stars as one of these workers, who eventually comes to lead a revolt against this state of affairs, at first to save his own life and later to save the life of the daughter of a friend of his, who is dying of leukemia. I personally thought the movie had its' strengths and weaknesses, but this isn't a movie review. The purpose of this article is to ask how realistic a portryal of a possible future this really is,
The idea of orbiting space stations has actually been around since the late 1880s, but the idea of orbiting cities was popularized in the 1970s by Gerald O'Neill, a former astronaut who became a futurist. According to him, such a concept, if made into reality, would greatly improve the life of humans on Earth, both by serving as a place to live, thereby relieving the problem of overpopulation, and by providing resources, such as solar energy, that wouldn't harm the environment in the way that current methods, such as fossil fuels, were doing. There was also a spirit of optimism in his writings, which can also be seen in some of H.G. Wells' work, such as Things to Come (another great sci-fi film). If only there could be enough technological advancement, if only man could learn to leave his baser instincts behind, there would be no limit to the progress the human race could make, and we could remake the world into a new Eden..
But human nature isn't as easy to conquer as outer space, as Dr. Morbius found out in another great sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet. Would technological progress necessarily 'trickle-down' to the masses, or would we have a situation such as that depictred in Elysium and in the Star Trek episode 'The Cloud Minders', where some of us might get to live in the clouds, but many more of us would probably have to mine the Xenite so we could do so. Some reviews have criticized Elysium as being too unrealistic; after all, if we had the means to cure sicknesses like leukemia at the push of a button, how could we deny this to people, particlarly in a wealthy society such as depicted in the film. These reviewers forget that we live in the richest and most technologically advanced country on earth; yet it's estimated that at least 50,000 people, if not many more, die each year because they lack the money to get proper medical care. This isn't to argue against scientific progress; I'm a very strong supporter of both science and space exploration. But we must keep in mind that these cannot be ends in themselves. As Mr. Spock so memorably put it: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few'.