The greatest escape of them all is about to blow the future apart.
—Escape from New York (John Carpenter, 1981), original theatrical movie trailer
Space travel produced some of the defining images of the twentieth century. Sputnik, Apollo, the spacesuit, the NASA logo and the toy-like outline of the space shuttle, liftoffs with all their countdown drama, and the peaceful image of the earth like a mica fleck against coal black; the weird underwater quality of footage shot in low gravity, a motionless flag on the Moon. These images were capable of captivating a global audience, an effect enhanced by the setup of the so-called Space Race as a kind of decades-long international sports day. But then it seemed to stall. The workaday job of going to low earth orbit carried on, of course, in the uncharismatic shape of comsat maintenance and low-key experiments on the International Space Station, but the kinds of images capable of casting space travel as the definitive project of our age in the popular imagination seemed to run out of steam; the last image capable of eliciting fascination was maybe the crumbling arch of smoke hung over Cape Canaveral in the wake of the disappeared Challenger, which understandably nixed enthusiasm for the enterprise as a whole. (Not to mention the onerous investigations into the triangulation of tax dollars to expected gains to acceptable risk that followed it.)
Now, though, it seems that the action just went underground for a while, a brief retreat to regroup and reassess. The military-industrial complex that spawned these images has converted into something better described as a security-entertainment matrix, and grand strategy—“a space program”—has been swapped out for diverse tactics. The Mars rover Curiosity attracts droves of followers to its Twitter feed (as of May Day, 2013: 1,338,794), where they can pick up the latest alien landscape pics and chirpy infobites. Billionaire Denis Tito recently announced plan to send a middle-aged couple on a long lover’s jaunt into orbit around Mars, a sitcom premise pitched by an alcoholic screenwriter, eyes gleaming like his last dime. Mars One goes further, beginning open auditions for the one-way reality TV show trip to the planet it’s named after.
Showing slightly less stocking-top to the public eye, companies like Virgin Galactic focus their efforts on courting the insanely wealthy with a voyage-of-a-lifetime space tourist brochure, and Planetary Resources reveal diagrams of robotic asteroid capture mechanisms alongside spreadsheets of kilo-to-dollar launch cost ratios and rare-metal market price projections, scripted for an audience of investors keen to back its plan: a gold rush at the vertical frontier. Launch technologies themselves cheapen further, China and India get in on the space game (kindling predictable resurgence of space defense talk in the countries with a more established foothold), and perhaps strangest of all, enthusiasm for the most technological of projects finds a way to creep into the enemy camp: diehard environmentalists start to opine that if we’re going to perforate these “planetary boundaries” as we clearly are (not to mention the threat of asteroids, supervolcanos, and other inestimable contingencies), another planet might be a good hedge of our bets.
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