Life in space is impossible
by Dwayne A. Day
|A few thousand people attending pro-space conferences and claiming that space settlement is the solution is nothing compared to the millions of people around the world who have been exposed to the message that space is at best a distraction.|
One of the biggest and most praised movies of 2013 was Gravity. The film stormed the box office and received rave reviews and numerous Oscars, including one for best director. Although astronauts and spaceflight experts stumbled all over themselves to discuss the technical inaccuracies in the movie while praising it for its visual and excitement, what was lost in all the chattering is that Gravity is one of the most anti-space movies to come along in a long time. It may have done just as much damage to NASA’s image as the frequent reports during the October government shutdown that NASA was the “least essential” agency, based upon the determination that 97% of its employees should stay home.
Gravity makes its message blatantly clear in text at the very beginning: “Life in space is impossible.” But the rest of the film simply reinforces that message. The resounding theme, repeated again and again throughout the film, is that space is a very dangerous place and that people do not belong there. Sandra Bullock’s character, astronaut Ryan Stone, is only in space because she’s fleeing the grief she experienced on Earth, the gravity that killed her daughter in a fall, a fact that her colleague’s ghost tells her when she’s about to give up and die. By the end of the movie, every person who was in space at the beginning of the film, most of whom are never seen, has either abandoned it for the safety of Earth, or died. And low Earth orbit has become so polluted that it is clear nobody is going back. Goodbye Hubble, goodbye space station. Goodbye Mars colony.
The other major film of 2013 that took aim at the pro-space message was Elysium. It lacked the visual grandeur of Gravity but tried to make up for it in heavy-handed symbolism. Its story was more ambitious, but also messily convoluted, and possessing all the subtlety of a sledgehammer: poor, sick masses on Earth, abandoned by the rich who have fled to the sky. This is a relatively straightforward adaptation of the pro-space message touted by groups like the L5 Society and later the National Space Society (NSS), which in the 1970s started proposing space as a means of dealing with resource depletion on Earth. More recently, NSS and others in the pro-space community have embraced space as a tourist destination for rich people, out of the belief that maybe, someday, it will become affordable for the rest of us. The film’s look deliberately borrowed from 1970s-era artwork of space colonies.
The message was so similar to ones that have been around for decades that the National Space Society went so far as to issue a press release separating themselves from the film. Clearly the NSS leadership recognized that their vision had been perverted in the movie. Rather than cities in the sky where people worked in support of providing services to Earth—Gerard K. O’Neill’s original vision for space solar power—the beautiful space station is an escape from the thoroughly unpleasant Earth.
The end of Elysium does not have humans seeking refuge in the sky, but has the robots coming down to Earth, bringing their magic medicine beds that will heal humanity’s health woes. Ultimately, the sky city is irrelevant to improving life on Earth and in fact is an impediment to it, for the rich in their beautiful space colony don’t have to bother themselves with Earthly woes. Screw the poor, we have a space station.
|In Wall-E, the wonders of space are lost on the humans. It is the robot who actually explores space, traveling through the rings of Saturn and marveling at the sights. Moreover, it is the robot who enjoys spaceflight.|
A much more sophisticated analogy appears in the 2008 Pixar movie Wall-E. The heavily-polluted Earth has been abandoned by humans who have fled into space where their every need is taken care of by robot servants. They have become fat and lazy and totally disconnected from each other, often engaging in conversations over headphones with people sitting right next to them. Ultimately, it is the little trash-compacting robot Wall-E that saves them from themselves and helps to save Earth. The closing credits show the robots and humans together replanting their homeworld.
In Wall-E, the wonders of space are lost on the humans, who don’t really look out the windows of their giant spaceship but instead lounge around their swimming pool when they are not bombarded with advertising. Spaceflight is irrelevant to their fate and in fact it is a barrier to their ultimate progress. These are not explorers, or settlers, but at best occupants of the high frontier. It is the robot who actually explores space, traveling through the rings of Saturn and marveling at the sights. Moreover, it is the robot who enjoys spaceflight.
The lyrics to the Peter Gabriel song “Down To Earth,” which closes the movie, perfectly encapsulate some of the film’s many messages.
Did you think that your feet had been bound
By what gravity brings to the ground?
Did you feel you were tricked
By the future you picked?
Well, come on down
All these rules don’t apply
When you’re high in the sky
So come on down
Come on down
We’re coming down to the ground
There’s no better place to go
We’ve got snow up on the mountains
We’ve got rivers down below
We’re coming down to the ground
To hear the birds sing in the trees
And the land will be looked after
We send the seeds out in the breeze
The song almost cheerfully mocks what we consider to be human progress:
Like the fish in the ocean
We felt at home in the sea
We learned to live off the good land
We learned to climb up a tree
Then we got up on two legs
But we wanted to fly
Oh, when we messed up our homeland
And set sail for the sky
The pro-space movement has no shortage of messages about why spaceflight should be our future, and no shortage of messengers who espouse them. Not surprisingly, following on the heels of the Oil Crisis of the early 1980s, Gerard O’Neill thought spaceflight was the solution to Earth’s energy problems, and die-hard space solar power advocates still push that idea, although they have had zero impact on energy policy even with the most pro-solar president ever. Several science fiction authors embraced space as a solution to Earth’s resource needs, an idea further explored by John Lewis in his book Mining the Sky. One of the weaknesses of this argument has been the classic flaw in the 1960/70s-era claims about resource depletion: substitution. We don’t really need to go into space to find resources that are scarce on Earth, because we can develop substitutes for them without leaving the ground.
Starting in the 1990s, Bob Zubrin began advocating Mars as the solution to what he claimed was a century of social, political, and even technological stagnation in the United States ever since the western frontier closed (the technological stagnation argument only works if you ignore the airplane, computers, television, penicillin, the atomic bomb, and most other technological developments since the late 1800s). The challenge of settling Mars, Zubrin claimed, would push multiple advances that would benefit all of American society.
More recently, Bas Lansdorp of Mars One has been advocating the idea of settling Mars, but has left the justification to the individuals who are signing up. There’s not much of an ideological or philosophical message behind Mars One other than individual choice. No real talk about the frontier, which is a very American-centric concept, or mining resources to send back to Earth. Just go for your own reasons.
|But no matter what flavor the pro-space message takes, there’s one clear fact: it’s not winning the cultural debate. Individuals recognize and absorb the messages they are bombarded with differently, but the public is not seeing popular depictions of a positive future for humanity in space.|
Behind these more public efforts to expand humanity into space is the constant chatter of the libertarians who argue that we need to move into space to get away from oppressive rules on Earth and who are rather dismissive of environmental concerns (the Earth of Elysium or Wall-E would be fine with many of them, as long as they weren’t actually on it). The advocates of this philosophy tend to be white, middle-class Americans, often engineers, who apparently don’t find their current situation so oppressive as to require that they quit their job and move to a log cabin in Alaska. Instead, they advocate the slightly more difficult solution of building an entirely new society off planet. Interstellar may resonate more with them. The trailer has another line that would be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the language that has come from the pro-space crowd: “We’re not meant to save the world, we’re meant to leave it.” That line apparently has a different meaning in Interstellar, but it is the antithesis to the message in movies like Gravity, Elysium, and Wall-E whose message is that we should save the world, not leave it.
But no matter what flavor the pro-space message takes, there’s one clear fact: it’s not winning the cultural debate. There are millions of people who have seen Gravity and Wall-E and Elysium and who are continually exposed to the movies online and every time they show on TV. Individuals recognize and absorb the messages they are bombarded with differently, but the public is not seeing popular depictions of a positive future for humanity in space. Set aside the films and television shows where space is filled with dangerous aliens, Gravity and Wall-E are generally positive movies about human survival. But even they see spaceflight as a pointless distraction, not essential to survival.
We’re coming down
Comin’ down to earth
Like babies at birth
Comin’ down to earth
Redefine your priorities
These are extraordinary qualities
Redefine your priorities
These are extraordinary qualities
To find on earth
The pro-space movement has no single voice and no single message. At best it is stagnating, at worst it is losing ground. At the very least it needs to present a more promising and uplifting message to a much broader audience. It needs fewer arguments about rocket engines and less infighting and sniping and NASA-bashing. What it really needs is a positive message and a positive, likeable messenger, and a major venue, like a big budget Hollywood movie, to battle the space-is-irrelevant message that seems to be taking hold in the culture.
In Gravity, Ryan Stone—the director couldn’t have been more blatant unless he had named her soil—fled to space to escape her life, and then has to flee space to save it. While much of her struggle in orbit has been about lack of air, ironically when she returns to Earth she lands in a lake and sinks, nearly drowning, struggling to free herself of her false skin, her spacesuit. Symbolically she is reborn, clawing her way to the surface and to the shore. She crawls out of the muck, like her primordial ancestors. She pushes herself up and fails, laughing at herself. Then she tries again, kneeling, rising to her feet, and walking, her head up toward the sun. Alive.
And on Earth.