As fate would have it, the launch of Christopher Nolan’s new film, “Interstellar,” came just as Sir Richard Branson’s Spaceship Two disintegrated over the Mojave Desert. The ironic timing of the fatal accident shows how distant our race remains from escaping gravity’s bondage, given the inherent complexity of making a space-transportation system as reliable as our airliners. Yet there lingers a long-delayed dream in the success of Nolan’s film and last year’s “Gravity.” In this dark time of ours, so rife with political and environmental upheaval, outer space suddenly is interesting again.
While NASA tests the Orion spacecraft and private industry regroups after the Spaceship Two crash, the movie-going public has returned to the wonder of the great blackness that begins only a hundred miles above our heads. That might be mere escapism, a convenient way to not think about the darkness in the Middle East or on the troubled streets of Ferguson, Missouri. Yet the new space movies aren’t about killing alien invaders or defeating an evil galactic empire. They look at what humans might do to survive in space. “Interstellar” posits that with some clever physics, humanity might just find a new home after we bumble our own planet to the point of human extinction.
While dreading such a fate for our Earth, I’ve always viewed human and robotic space travel through the lens of childhood, when I propped myself up on a pillow to watch Project Gemini send pairs of astronauts into orbit. Those missions exist in a continuum with the ongoing Rosetta program of the European Union, the unmanned landing on a comet pushing forward the frontiers of human knowledge. We now possess pictures and, I hope, testable samples of an object dating to the formation of the solar system.
Perhaps, unlike the first Apollo landing or the journeys of America’s Mars rovers, the recent burst of public curiosity will last longer than a shooting star. I’ve seen such hopes dashed before. For a glimmering instant during Project Apollo in the late ’60s, humanity seemed to be on the cusp of becoming a multiplanet species. Apollo’s triumphs, however, began to bore a 1970s public numbed by war and civil unrest.
Familiar naysayers appeared after the tragedy for Virgin Galactic and a nearly simultaneous accident during a commercial rocket launch — not fatal, but shocking — last month from Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. These critics miss an important point about wealth and the allure of outer space. In op-ed columns online, grumblers decried as obscene the excesses of would-be space tourists, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Angelina Jolie, who handed over a quarter of a million dollars for a short ride beyond the atmosphere.
Granted, riding rockets is a glamorous stunt for the rich, as international travel by air was well into the 1930s. I’m hoping that Elon Musk’s Dragon and Falcon system will change the game, because the next frontier begins in orbit, not with Virgin Galactic’s 60-mile-high hops. Space planes like Branson’s or NASA’s retired Space Shuttle also may be too complex for the job of getting humans back and forth to orbit safely and regularly.
It misses the point to argue that the fortunes of celebrities, entrepreneurs and governments should go elsewhere. Jolie’s history of humanitarian work shows that great wealth can support both space travel and help those unable to travel beyond rural villages to a health clinic. If private space travel becomes a reality, we shouldn’t dismiss the role that our planet’s elite played in other technological leaps. As with air travel in the ’30s or computing in the ’60s, the rich began to use what we now consider routine. Does that make all choices by early adopters obscene?
Concurrently, public projects harness our monkey-mind curiosity in a peaceful way for our entire populace, amounting to a fraction of what we spend on war machines. Less than 1 percent of the entire federal budget went to NASA in 2013, as compared with 19 percent for the Defense Department. The application of peaceful technology and human curiosity can both preserve our troubled blue home and take humanity to other “islands in the sky.”
To get there, the question is whether for-profit companies should be the vanguard. These companies can make an end-run around taxpayer sentiments and a dysfunctional, bought-and-sold Congress. I’d argue, however, at least for exploration that government programs should lead, working often with the private sector. NASA has done this with Musk’s SpaceX, whose Dragon capsules deliver supplies to the International Space Station. As such partnerships grow, the private sector should follow, just as airmail delivery led to regularly scheduled domestic air travel in the 1930s. To achieve such a return on investment today, we need that will-o’-the-wisp, an affordable rocket rated as safe for regular human travel. The catalysts may be private ventures, NASA’s new Space-Launch System, or simply humiliation from China, a nation with an ambitious and generally successful lunar program.
Apollo helped to jump-start the nascent industry for microcomputers, and public-private partnerships in orbit and beyond it may lead us to unimagined advances in superconducting materials or nuclear fusion. Colonists and miners would have to overcome enormous difficulties, yet compare their lot to the Apollo astronauts. What they did with slide rules we can do, and much more, with software; soon enough, astronauts making repairs will print in 3-D much of what they need.
I no longer dream of living up there, as I once did. I’m happier in the open air tending a hobby farm and growing a good deal of my own food. But there are younger people who would flock to lunar and Martian colonies. We hairless apes are a curious lot, and it’s time to look up and stop fighting. There’s something waiting for us, as it does in Nolan’s film. Public curiosity about space might herald something broader, perhaps even joyous. We could use a bit of that in these angry, divided days. S
Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.