The great space exploration: optimism or diversion?

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After we realized there were other worlds, how long before we dreamed of setting foot on them? When Copernicus saw the solar system for what it was, did he imagine humans might one day leave Earth and land amongst our neighboring planets?

By the late 1960s, humankind had recently ventured into low-Earth orbit and was poised to set foot, for the first time, on a surface other than our planet’s. A resultant sense of triumph and optimism infused American culture (1).

Gene Rodenberry, for instance, created Star Trek (1966-1969) to portray a future comprised of interstellar exploration and diplomacy, forging alliances, and facing the unknown as unified species. It showed us that space exploration results from Earth having achieved the best version of itself—or vice-versa.

Has the underlying attraction to space exploration changed in a new age of social unrest and climate change? Has the chaotic environment of our societies prompted a cynicism that can only be mollified by having a “Plan B?”

Space exploration should happen because we cherish the planet and recognize how others, earthlings, and even aliens see its value.

Space culture

NASA took a funding cut in 2010, and the then-ongoing Constellation program was shut down. But for the first time, commercial space flight was a viable alternative to government-funded space exploration. In 2002, the private company SpaceX was founded, and within a decade, it would become the primary means of reaching the International Space Station (2).

Then, in 2017, the U.S. Government announced funding for a new set of NASA missions: the Artemis program. And in 2019, the White House founded the creation of the U.S. Space Force, meant to “provide space capabilities and to protect U.S. and allied security interests in space” (3).

The general public is equally interested in outer space. A study by the Pew Research Center states that “on most issues regarding NASA and space exploration, there are no more than modest differences among the generational cohorts” (4). The moon landing may have belonged to the Boomer generation, but space exploration never lost its ability to fascinate the people of Earth.

Space exploration for all

Developments in space exploration have never been more accessible: through social media, people can see the most recent events within the space exploration industry. NASA (83.8 million Instagram followers) and SpaceX (16.3 million Instagram followers) share breathtaking images and videos captured by the latest technology.

Also, NASA’s logo has re-emerged as a fashion icon. In 2017—coincidentally, the same year the Artemis missions were formalized—the fashion house Coach released a line of NASA-themed clothing that inspired a near-global trend (1). Aéropostale, Vans, and even Ariana Grande have released incredibly successful apparel lines bearing NASA imagery (5).

Fashion designers, pop stars, consumers, world leaders, and private investors are signaling that space is once again part of the cultural, scientific, and political conversation. But why?

The milieu

On one level, space exploration is a symbol of how well the peoples of Earth can work together to achieve tremendous feats, all for the benefit of both science and society.

As the Apollo missions were underway, the American Civil Rights movement was reaching its peak (6). History’s biggest leap in Space exploration was taking place alongside massive strides in social justice—and today, NASA’s logo ensures that these two endeavors remain intertwined. In the words of Jahn Hall, creative director of a New York-based design agency, the NASA logo refers to a “sort of quintessential American optimism that we can do anything” (1).

The current renaissance of space exploration is taking place along a similar but new set of social justice movements. Matching the milieu of our times perfectly, NASA is quick to promote the fact that the Artemis missions will not only return humans to the moon but will bear a woman and a person of color. Not only will the program establish a system of regular launches to this moon, but Artemis will also eventually turn its gaze to Mars (7). NASA is calling back to and reinforcing the idea that progress in space exploration is tied to societal progress.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Space: frontier or salvation?

Some of the earliest stories about interplanetary travel were about colonialism and eco-criticism. For example, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898) was not a celebration of Earth’s technology or togetherness. It is about Martians who occupied our planet to save their species after an environmental cataclysm led their civilization to downfall.

21st-century space narratives have flipped the script back to where they began: as a critique of our species rather than a celebration.

In 2014’s Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey searches for hospitable worlds after Earth’s environment becomes incapable of supporting the human population (8). In The Expanse (2015-2022), humans colonized the asteroid belt to exploit its natural resources (9). What’s more, the show depicts space exploration as exacerbating, rather than mitigating, the hatred and division that permeates (and possibly defines) human society.

These stories are based on an unfortunate truth: our planet is in extreme peril. Many of the damaging effects of climate change are irreversible, and the true scope of the damage is yet to be experienced (10). The COVID pandemic taught us that increasing population densities and uneven distribution of wealth have left us ill-prepared for biological and widespread catastrophes.

Also, no matter how much we claim to value unity and progress, there’s no shortage of hatred in the world today. Many people are entrenched in radical mindsets that result in violence—between individuals, communities, and nations (11).

In other words, space fever could be symptomatic of a deeper affliction: the knowledge that–as a profanely-titled Muse song suggests–we are ultimately doomed.

Implications of exploring space

Space exploration was, indeed, fused with notions of hope and optimism in the 1960s, but today, space exploration seems to be associated with the narrative of humanity’s ultimate demise. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, believes that becoming a “multi-planet species” may be instrumental in “protect[ing] civilization” (12, 13).

Now, when we talk about space travel, we’re not only talking about exploration or colonization. We’re also talking about abandoning the burning ship that is Earth and saving as much as we can.

However, it’s possible that narratives of optimism and apocalypse are not opposed but rather two sides of the same coin. Perhaps the optimism that comes with today’s space exploration is inextricably tied to leaving Earth—without necessarily fixing it.

When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, a set of human eyes could, for the first time, lay eyes on our planet from afar. The astounding fragility of Earth, and the corresponding impulse to preserve it, was impressed upon humankind. But when we look now from the same position, we may have conditioned ourselves to see the planet as a lost cause.

If we’re genuinely committed to reaching Mars and beyond, we have to ensure that Earth supports fruitful civilization long enough for us to figure out the logistics of getting there. And if we want to reach the beyond as a unified, pluralistic species, many divides need to be bridged. Should the climate reach a boiling point (pun intended), or nuclear weapons start flying, it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to maintain focus on space exploration. In many ways, the idea of “leaving our problems on Earth” is a fallacy.

Putting space exploration on hold until all of Earth’s problems are fixed would probably mean that we’d be waiting a long time to get to another planet. But at the very least, we could ensure that space exploration, environmental preservation, and fostering respect remain intertwined. If we work on, rather than escape, our Earthly matters, then we’d have no need for a contingency plan in the first place.


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