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May 27, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Space, Aged

Space isn’t doing so well. After decades of dominating the cultural consciousness, of feeling like our inevitable next step, we’re kind of done. We went there. It was cool. Nothing changed. Science marches on, but progression requires more than pure technology. We need the dream back.

Very rarely do I agree with YouTube comments, but there’s this one underneath ‘Kellys apollo’ which reads “this is the best YouTube video”, and, while I’ve only seen a tiny fraction of the billions of videos that call YouTube their home, it’s probably right. ‘Kellys apollo’, which transcends the need for an apostrophe, sets a wide variety of Apollo space-shuttle footage to a distorted rendering of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’. We begin on Kennedy, silently launching the space race while the viewer realises which ‘Kelly’ the video refers to. The song is distorted more and more as the seconds tick on, right up to the chorus, when an Apollo rocket launches. It’s beautiful. Clarkson’s “gone” is still feminine but no longer human. Sparks falls like Technicolor rain onto the camera. The repetitive power chords of the original become ominous yet hopeful drones. Various parts of the shuttle fall off into our atmosphere. It’s everything audiovisual art could ever hope to be; a perfect meeting of two of our senses that says more than prose ever could.

Space* is the setting for both the best and worst of human culture. For every 2001 there’s a Dracula 3000. For every Empire Strikes Back there’s a Phantom Menace. It’s the ultimate blank page, a setting that can be empty or teeming with locales. In space, the rebel alliance might help you out, or a xenomorph may use your chest as a womb. In space, you can escape from Earth’s problems or just project them onto a new landscape. Obey a few basic rules and you can make anything happen. With all the possibilities of space, it’s almost hard to understand why all of our narratives aren’t set there.

Our obsession with space began as soon as we could understand it, but it really reached its zenith in the 20th century. We entered with 1902’s Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), one of the first films to coalesce separate scenes into a narrative, and we left with 1998’s Deep Impact and Armageddon, with special-effects blowouts that proved how sophisticated computer imagery had become. The space of Le Voyage was fantastical, a mushroom-filled Moon inhabited by explosive aliens which one could fall back to Earth from. Deep Impact’s space was dangerous and lifeless, with a huge meteorite hurtling towards our tiny, defenceless planet. What changed?

Depictions of space travel, often to the Moon, continued throughout the first half of the 20th century. Fritz Lang, the director of Metropolis, brought us Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) in 1929, a silent film which appears to have created the famous ‘countdown to zero’. Lang’s Moon has gold mines and a breathable atmosphere on its far side, but he acknowledged the need for oxygen on the actual trip, and presented rocket travel more accurately than ever before. Ultimately however, our space culture didn’t become more scientifically sound until science actually caught up with it, in the mid-’50s.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first ever artificial satellite, naming it ‘Sputnik’, or ‘Satellite’ in Russian. This set off what we now call the ‘space race’. America, both jealous of the technical prowess displayed and appalled at how boring the name ‘Sputnik’ was, ramped up its space research, eventually launching ‘Explorer’ to match. The Soviets beat them again in 1961, with Yuri Gagarin the first man to go to space, but the Americans caught up in only three weeks, and went on to win the last leg of the race, sending a man to the Moon in 1969. During these years, space became even more of a symbolic force than it was before. The space race was a metaphor for the march of modernity itself, for technology improving how we lived our lives. Dr Geoff Stahl, a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Victoria, sees space culture as a means for cleansing science’s image. “If science was kind of demonised during and after the Second World War as a result of atomic bombs, space was perhaps a more benign way of seeing science—of seeing it as progressively and positively extending humanity’s reach into the ether.”

Bound up in all these developments were two powerful symbols: the rocket and the astronaut. Rockets are, well, phallic, but they don’t quite reach the pure masculinity embodied in an astronaut. “These guys were jet-fighter pilots, they were agents of the military,” asserts Stahl. “We needed a human face for this notion of scientific progress, we needed a kind of character that we could load and burden with this semiotic power.”

Since actual developments in the space race weren’t quite occurring weekly, pop culture had to fill in the blanks, allowing us to dream of the near-future with ease. In 1955, just prior to the race’s proper start, Disney aired Man in Space, a half-cartoon/half-documentary show where prominent scientists pushed for space travel. The Jetsons first aired in 1962, showing a future where living in space was normal. Star Trek began in 1966, using space as a canvas for political discussion. And, of course, just prior to the Moon landing, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, used the void of space to ask questions about humanity itself. These texts used space in different ways, but they all saw it as one thing: the future.

When the future actually arrived, and man stepped onto the Moon, Western culture rejoiced. “Death is all okay,” wrote John Updike in 1969, “if it means being in the sky.” However, as the future marched on, with the Vietnam War in tow, things got a little hairier. We had reached space, and it had not solved our problems. In 1977, Star Wars showed us space “a long time ago”, worn and dirty from years of use. Alien presented us with a space where “no one can hear you scream”. If space was our future, it was going to be just as terrible as our present.

The present felt even worse when, in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded on live TV, killing its entire crew. “The myth of the space race, it lingered for so long, even after it reached its peak in the late ‘60s,” explains Stahl, “but then the Challenger happened, and like the fall of the Berlin Wall signified the end of Communism, it signified the end of the space race.”

Space had never really been presented as cuddly, but after the space race ended it lost much of its aspirational qualities. After all, space, as we scientifically understand it, is terrifying. We appear to be completely alone, in a cold Universe that could kill us in seconds were we to leave our tiny bubble of sustenance. “There’s this kind of infinite landscape that is beyond us; it’s incomprehensible,” agrees Stahl, but he thinks space has another problem now: it’s become boring. “Space has become kind of naturalised; it’s become just a general part of the mediascape. It’s been routinised. Nobody cares about how many days they’ve been on the space station any more.”

For all the hurdles the notion has had to overcome over the past half-century, space still connotes ‘the future’ pretty powerfully. Just look at the default OS X background of the pink galaxy, or that old Windows 98 screensaver where the stars flew at you. It’s still a romantic notion, a ‘final frontier’ that we haven’t tamed yet. George W. Bush was laughed at when he suggested that we should strive for a manned Mars trip in 2004, but almost 100,000 people signed up for a one-way trip there a few months ago. We all watched the Curiosity rover land on Mars with at least a little bit of awe, and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield received praise from all over the world for his rendition of ‘Space Oddity’ inside the International Space Station. The internet has made the world feel smaller and more boring than ever before. Space was the ‘final frontier’ in the ‘50s; it’s the only frontier now. Everyone I’ve ever met has some desire to visit space, but only my flatmate has explained why in two words:“It’s different.”

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*Yes, pedants, ‘space’ technically refers to everything, including the Earth. I just don’t want to type ‘outer space’ out a million times, okay?

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