How do you feel about space exploration? Does it rouse the buried explorer in you? Does it make you shiver in longing for distant galaxies when you gaze into the night sky? Or do you recoil in horror and disgust at the mere mention of such a flagrant waste of money? I think we all know the arguments. Why spend billions trying to develop the technology to enable mankind to travel to Mars and beyond? Surely the cash and the resources could be spent far more wisely, here, on Earth. And who wants to go to Mars, anyway? I know he was paid millions of dollars, but just look at what almost happened to Matt Damon. Escaped only by the skin-of-his-teeth. And he had to use his own excrement to grow his potatoes, which is kind of disgusting.
Not that any of this has deterred a certain Elon Musk, CEO of Space X, Tesla magnate, an entrepreneur worth a cool twenty million dollars. Musk has supposedly developed, or is in the process of developing (nobody is precisely sure) a re-usable rocket and propulsion system that will eventually make space-tourism a reality. But there is always a catch. You may have guessed it. No, it isn't that only the astronomically (no pun intended) wealthy will be offered a seat on what the scientists say will be a one-way journey. Or that once there, most people will suddenly one morning realise that life on the red planet is probably not going to be the 'adventure' they were expecting, after all. How much barren landscape, one percent gravity and no Sunday roast could any of us withstand?
No, the catch is that at a recent presentation, attended by the willing and the rich, where much speculative data was unveiled to probably a drowning chorus of oohs and aahs, Musk admitted that, confident though he is that his vision is on track and that everything is in place, his plans are 'aspirational'. Right, the fellow millionaires around the conference-hall will have been thinking. I have shelled out $200,000 and he's telling me his plans are aspirational. Does that mean the same as 'in the pipeline?' Or is it worse? Are they still 'on the drawing-board?' This sucks. The guy's a jerk. I want my money back. An get me my lawyer.
Elon Musk has put on his Emperor's new clothes and it doesn't appear he'll be stopping to look in the mirror any time soon. Far from it. Space X will have a transport ship on the surface of Mars by 2022. Manned landings by 2024. Six years from now. With almost uncanny prescience for a non-scientist, Musk is making claims for a population of one million on his Mars colony in forty to one hundred years time. So much for my plans to fill out my own application, even if I did have the cash.
But don't blame Mr. Musk. He probably means well. His motives may be entirely altruistic. No doubt he has mankind's interest at the forefront of his thinking. But I ask you. Would you really entrust $200,000 of your hard-earned disposable income (even if it amounted to loose change) to a man who married a blonde actress with a surfeit of teeth called Tallulah Riley? You would? Well, good luck with that.
No, the real culprit is 1950's science-fiction movies. Mars, the moon and beyond. Possibly a jaunt to Alpha Centauri, stopping off at Proxima Centauri for hot-dogs and popcorn. These movies were the stuff of dreams, of nightmares, of true imagining. For obvious reasons, they couldn't have been made today. Yuri Gagarin's Vostok hadn't even become a concept. The moon landings were an abstract thought in the minds of eccentric navel-gazers. Or star-gazers. Space travel wasn't imaginable except up on the silver screen. Low-budget was the rule. Creaky sets, even creakier actors, who were often interchangeable between movies. Dodgy dialogue and source material sometimes stolen from Shakespeare in Forbidden Planet. Peaceful emissaries from distant worlds, visiting in order to plea with us to see the error of our ways, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still. And no, not the godawful remake with the plank of wood that is Keanu Reeves. Michael Rennie no less, in his prime as Klaatu, accompanied in his mission by the terrifying robot Gort. Gort could not be stopped. Gort was indestructible. Gort could only be stopped if the phrase 'Klaatu barada nikto' was uttered. Earth v The Flying Saucers was another. The Thing From Another World (later remade but in a good way. Mainly because Keanu Reeves wasn't in it). Then there was War of the Worlds. Made millions hide behind the sofa. Scary stuff. Not as Scary as another unfortunate reboot though, this time starring that grinning loon, Tom Cruise. Truly shocking.
The common thread that binds these classics together, good and not so good, is hubris. That and an assumption that interstellar travelers to our planet would in almost every instance want to destroy us. We blame the film-makers for this, but really it's what most audiences at the time probably wanted to see. I suppose the themes and the stories they told mirrored the times. McCarthyism. Paranoia. Reds under every bed. Persecution of anything fearful and alien. Good versus evil, in fact. And good would always prevail, especially in the United States. Losing was never an option for them. Still isn't. And not only that. America saw itself in the cold war years as under threat. It had to overcome in the name of ownership, and that most definitely included space. Space had always been something America coveted in its desire for an often ruthless expansion. Just ask the native indians still languishing in misery on the reservations what they think. The only difference as the space race began was the scaled-up distances involved and the cost. That and the questionable motive. An expansionist foray to the stars - more specifically the moon, had to succeed for the Americans. Faces had to be saved, whatever the cost. Those damned Russkies couldn't be allowed to get there first. And, if we had happened to encounter aliens on the way and they proved to be non-friendly or openly hostile, well.... we have to defend ourselves, right? Doesn't the American Constitution almost demand it?
So, aliens had bug eyes in the 1950s. They had tentacles. They arrived with only one intention and that was to conquer, to subjugate, to enslave, to destroy. They were ruthless, seemingly unbeatable and ugly. Downright ugly. They had to be in order for audiences to recognise early on that they couldn't and wouldn't win. And win they rarely did. They might have journeyed light years across the galaxies to reach us. Their technology was, as one scientist once said, as far in advance of our own as to be indistinguishable from magic. And that's how they were portrayed for the matinee audiences - devils come to destroy us and everything we stood for. Ray guns, white-hot beams of death that could instantly vaporize both man and tank, creatures without any concept of conscience, dredged up from the child's nightmare. But wait, everything would turn out right in the end, because not only was this celluloid fiction, it was fiction largely made in the good old US of A. As we faced up to the alien threat on screen, we could comfort ourselves in advance. We would send them packing, back to the distant rock they had crawled out from under.
Then, once we had conquered the moon, things changed a bit. Things blurred into an occasional soft-focus. We had conquered a planet, for God's sake (but mainly for our own). We were the owners. We didn't have anything to fear. Those damned Russians had been sent back to where they came from (just like the alien invaders), tails firmly between their legs. We had won. Time to move on now that had been achieved. Time to be a bit more magnanimous, to offer the hand of friendship. But again, only in the movies. The space race might have been won, but other matters now loomed large - and they didn't come much larger than Vietnam. America needed to drag itself out of the quicksand. By the time of the last manned lunar landing in December 1972, the conflict had dragged on as a proxy war for seventeen years. It had drained the nations involved in it on both sides of its young men. Men chopped up like so much offal. It had also depleted the US coffers to a disastrous degree. The quest for space could no longer be financially justified. Not only was it draining the country of precious funds and politicians of their credibility (and robbing them of potential future votes), but the whole space exploration enterprise had sort of, well... lost. its enterprise. There was no longer any impetus. People were bored by it. There were too many enticing alternatives, other excitements. Ironically, the Apollo 13 near-disaster had kind of been the last highlight, the last time the nation and the world sat on the edge of its seat. The 1972 moon landing of Apollo 17 barely registered as an event to be celebrated and passed away into history almost before it had happened. The world may have largely forgotten, but it is worth mentioning the name of the last man to walk on the surface of the moon, if only out of respect. He died in 2017 at the age of eighty-two and his name, in case you might want to know, was Gene Cernan.
This new sense of universe as fellowship, exemplified in a new mood of openness by movies such as Cocoon, E.T., Starman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Edward Scissorhands and others was probably conceived as a by-product of ecological concerns highlighted by an ever threatened world. This time, though, the threat was coming from ourselves. The danger wasn't some imaginary agency out in the distant cosmos. It was us.
The democratic promise of technology suddenly appeared tenuous, imaginary, even. Maybe it had never existed at all, like a mirage. It seemed that, for all our ingenuity, for all the scientific advances we praised ourselves for (many of which are well-deserved), an irreversible fault-line had been created, one that could not be repaired. One that no amount of future innovation could (or can) mend. Which briefly brings us back to hubris and the modern manifestation of its worst aspect. Something called the technology trap.
The technology trap could be alternatively called the delusion complex, although the concept isn't complex at all. Really, it's quite simple. It is the belief that we are so technologically advanced that no matter what we do to the planet, we will somehow be able to bring it back from the brink. We will be able to fix it. We're the top dog, after all. We can do anything. Nothing is beyond our ability. We put men on the moon and brought them back! What is a fix for a bit of environmental damage compared to that? Easy.
What will the next morality tale, up there on the big screen have to show us? Does the feel-good factor have any relevance any more? Maybe we have unleashed a monster that is now beyond our control. That could be the reason for Elon Musk's insistence that the future of mankind lies in the colonisation of other planets. And he may be correct. Look around at the mess we've made of this, our home planet and try to imagine what our future will actually be like. Do that and the outlandish and probably unfeasible predictions of Musk and his cohorts seem at least a little more appealing. The climate is changing at a frightening and possibly irrecoverable rate, mass extinction is well underway, the oceans are a soup of pollutants and human detritus and the techno-optimists have suddenly gone very quiet. In the 1950s, we dreamed of exploring. Maybe it is time to think not of exploration now, but escape. Where's my wallet?
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