by Mark Simpson
(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2007)
Like many kids in the late 1960s and early 1970s I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up in the space-age future. I had no idea that:
a) I wasn’t going to grow up and b) the future was going to be cancelled due to lack of interest.
Back when we had a future, astronauts were ideological warriors. Not just in the glamorous, flamingly phallic Cold War Space Race, but in the Apollonian battle for men’s souls. Space travel, whether ‘cosmo’ or ‘astro’, was an expression of a devout faith in Progress and the Future: ‘One small step for man – one giant leap for mankind.’
To beat the commies America became… a little bit commie. NASA was the New Deal in Space. Astronauts were Utopian pioneers. Winged vanguardists of the shiny, silvery new Future. That’s why they had to pass so many tests and spin round and round in those giant centrifuges. Their souls were being assayed. They had to be made of the Right Stuff.
But the Apollo Missions were cancelled. A decade or so later the USSR imploded, and the Space Shuttle exploded – twice: once in 1986 and again for good measure in 2003. Even without these disasters the dream behind the Shuttle – a relatively cheap, fast-turnaround, reusable ‘space taxi’- has gone up in smoke. The Shuttle never really achieved what it was designed to do.
Space just isn’t so spacey now. Fifty years after Sputnik flashed through the heavens and gave humankind cause to crick its neck and dream of the stars, we’ve got other things to think about. Like unanswered e-mails and all the porn we haven’t downloaded yet. Cyberspace has captured, if not our imagination, then certainly our attention – not to mention our phallicisms. Instead of heavenwards, we’re all looking down at our laps.
Yes, President Bush said something recently about the US returning to the moon and even visiting Mars – but does anyone really still believe the US put a man on the moon? Haven’t we all seen the websites that prove it was all faked? And yes, there is some talk of a ‘new’ Space Race, as an ascendant China enters the fray, and an apparently stagnating US tries to maintain its strategic advantage. Though I suspect that this new space race, if it materialises, will fail to capture earthly imaginations. The world was already bored and changing channels in 1970. That’s why the Apollo TV reality show was cancelled.
For now, what’s left of the Space Race is between private entrepreneurs, free of ideological and bureaucratic baggage, competing to be the first to offer commercial flights into space.
Though not entirely free, of course. If you want to be an astronaut today, you don’t have to be made of the right stuff. You just have to have to be made of $200,000. For that price you’ll get to see, as the website for one spaceflight company promises appetisingly, ‘the distinct curvature of the Earth with the thin blue line of the atmosphere’s edge… the iconic image of the space age, of which you are now a part of.’
$200,000 buys you, in other words, a piece not of the Future, but of the past – but with you now starring in it. The New Space Race isn’t about global hegemony or Progress or even much about space, but rather about being the first to satisfy the latest infantile wish-fulfilment of an infantile age. Hey! Doesn’t space look, like, really coooool!
Richard Branson, a man who has been highly successful at satisfying our infantile wishes on Earth (and become richer than Croesus for his pains) thinks he can do it in space. ‘Like many of you,’ says the very smiley, bearded, fun-time airline, lifestyle, and media mogul in a video on VirginGalactic.com:
‘I can still remember watching with my parents on TV those live black and white images in 1969 of two men who travelled to another world [cue grainy b/w footage of Armstrong & Co. gambolling on the Moon]. ‘I was spellbound and vowed to follow them into space one day. It took a bit longer than I expected, but now we’re well on the way to offering the world’s first commercial spaceflights.’
It’s not exactly Jack Kennedy – more Children’s BBC.
A host of entrepreneurs are in the wacky New Space Race, many of them having made their billions in geeky ‘innerspace’: from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin (developing what appears to be a flying saltcellar), to video game designer John Carmack’s Armadillo Aerospace (developing what appears to be a flying bunch of onions). But the two main contenders – the USA and USSR of privatised manned spaceflight – are Branson’s Virgin Galactic and former computer guru Jim Benson’s Benson Space Company. Both Branson and Benson are booking flights now and have found plenty of people willing to stump up the $20,000 deposit. Both are also slating their first commercial flight for early 2009. As Benson’s site puts it: ‘Spaceflight, the extreme luxury sport, is becoming a reality.’
Except it isn’t. Not quite. Not yet. This is more of a joy-ride – a souped-up simulation of spaceflight. BSC and Virgin Galactic are offering ‘sub-orbital’ flights that are in space for only a few minutes before returning to Earth less than an hour after launch – their vehicles only achieve at altitude of c.100 km instead of the 300 km required for low-Earth orbit, and don’t approach anything like the speeds required for proper, superpower space flight.
The view from your passenger seat will certainly be impressive. You will experience a few minutes of weightlessness. And you will be able to tell your impressed dinner guests back home you were ‘in space’. But you really won’t deserve the hallowed title ‘astronaut’, as both Branson and Benson, of course, emphasise you will. What you will be is just a very wealthy and mildly adventurous tourist. (Though if Branson or Benson are handing out press flights, I’ll happily take all that back.)
According to BSC, ‘astronaut preparation facilities’ will ‘include exclusive first-class accommodations’ and an ‘ultra-modern Launch Viewing Lounge’ where family and friends ‘can have a gourmet experience while watching their loved ones make history in the New Space Age…’. Or, more accurately, watch hubby relive his childhood by unmaking history between gourmet dessert and coffee.
Funnily enough, they don’t mention anything about spinning around in giant centrifuges.