Cowboy Bebop has become legendary for its bluesy soundtrack, unforgettable characters, and soul-shattering ending, but a lot of people forget it's a masterpiece of sci-fi too. Now, at its 20-year anniversary, it's the perfect time to look back on the series' futuristic technology and see how close we are to achieving it.
Self-Sufficient Space Stations
One of the coolest early settings in Cowboy Bebop is definitely the space casino in Episode 3, "Honky Tonk Women." Shaped like a giant roulette wheel, the station appears to take inspiration from a real-life space station design called the Stanford Torus, which was projected to weigh 10 million and hold up to 10,000 people.
It may surprise you to know that designing space stations was all the rage in the 1970s, when it looked like space colonization was just over the horizon. Some of the biggest designs came from a partner project between NASA and Stanford, which delved into everything from the practicalities of growing food (colonists would need about 156 acres for crops) to constructing the station (which would require an "electromagnetic accelerator" to fling ore from the Moon into space).
Unfortunately, the challenges of building a self-sufficient space station like the Torus will probably take us decades (if not longer) to pull off. Two of the biggest issues are recycling oxygen and making station components that will last decades, not years—both problems the ISS is dealing with now. The new Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway NASA is planning to build is a step in the right direction, though—that should be finished somewhere in the 2020s.
Even though the Bebop is a re-purposed fishing trawler, it still beats the hell out of anything we've got now in terms of starships. We are catching up, though — SpaceX is working on reusable rockets to make space much more accessible, while Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is probably as close as we've come to a personal starship that can operate in atmospheres as well as space.
The sad thing is that once we have the technology and means to build personal spaceships, few people are going to be able to own one. According to an essay excerpted on Tested, starships are going to be incredibly expensive and tightly regulated due to their potential use as weapons of mass destruction:
"Even assuming spacecraft are cheap enough for small-time operators to afford (unlikely), even a very slow small craft that putters around in Hohmann orbits will be a potential multi-kiloton kinetic energy missile… High-speed ships will be treated with the same respect that we treat nuclear reactors; they will not be handed out like sporting yachts to anybody who can afford them..."
Admittedly, this makes a lot of sense, but that doesn't make it any less disappointing.
Despite being arguably the cutest dog in the whole galaxy, Ein doesn't get a lot of respect on Cowboy Bebop. Most of the crew ignores him or treats him like a nuisance, which is a shame considering he possesses a genius-level intellect. Ein's intelligence is a result of a black market lab messing around with augmenting animals, which allows him to understand human speech, hack computers, and even solve mysteries before the rest of the crew does. He's like a cyberpunk Scooby-Doo.
In reality, research on creating super-smart animals is already underway: In two separate experiments, the intelligence of mice was boosted by inhibiting the PDE4B enzyme and producing human form of the FOXP2 gene, respectively. In the PDE4B experiments, the mice were found to "learn faster, remember events longer and solve complex problems better than normal mice."
Other experiments involving rhesus monkeys and cocaine (yes, you read that right) have yielded even more interesting results: the use of neural prosthetics on monkeys can not only restore their drug-addled brains, but result in greater intelligence when applied to normal, non-coked-up monkeys.
It's a big step, but according to George Dvorsky from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, "more substantive, impactful augmentations [are] still a way off. The kind of uplift that appears in science fiction will require technologies far more advanced than anything we have today."
In the episode "Jamming with Edward," the crew comes across a brilliant, eccentric young hacker named Edward who has allegedly taken control of a giant orbiting laser to vandalize the surface of the Earth. Space-based laser platforms are pretty standard fare for sci-fi, but they've been seriously considered since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense System proposed having a global network of lasers to wipe out nuclear missiles before they ever reached their targets.
With the recent space race heating up, superpowers like China are turning to lasers again, mostly as a form of anti-satellite warfare. According to a 2013 paper published in Chinese Optics:
"In future wars, the development of ASAT [anti-satellite] weapons is very important," they wrote. "Among those weapons, laser attack system enjoys significant advantages of fast response speed, robust counter-interference performance and a high target destruction rate, especially for a space-based ASAT system. So the space-based laser weapon system will be one of the major ASAT development projects."
We're pretty much there — we just need to pump up the juice on these satellites a little.
The Astral Gates
The biggest issue with space travel boils down to two facts: space is big and spaceships are slow. Cowboy Bebop solves this problem with Astral Gates, which allow ships to travel huge distances using "spatial alternation dynamics."
Unfortunately, spatial alternation dynamics (which involves the universe "blinking in and out of existence" every few fractions of a second, like a strobe light) doesn't exist. Nothing in physics even resembles it. What we do have are a bunch of ideas for how to travel vast, interplanetary distances very, very quickly.
NASA got tired of people asking about warp drives on their website and now redirects queries to the Tau Zero Foundation, which is exploring ways to pull off the speed needed to get make interstellar trips — including faster-than-light travel. One of the more promising subluminal propulsion ideas is the Bussard Interstellar Ramjet, which would collect hydrogen as it travels and use it as fuel. Best of all, the faster it goes, the more efficient it gets.
Most of the Tau Zero propulsion methods are still theoretical, but if Elon Musk has proven anything, it's that space is going to be the future. Hopefully, we'll all have a chance to be space cowboys within the next few decades.