Why Go To Space?
In an episode of The Simpsons from 1997, Lisa’s class is shown an educational film from 1952 that confidently predicts: “by 1964, experts say man will have established 12 colonies on the moon — ideal for family vacations”. All-American men and women are shown on the surface of the moon in grainy black and white, playing slot machines and fishing in lunar craters. The joke rides on the certainty of this projection of the future and its total failure to materialise. For viewers who were too young to be children during the golden period from the space race to the explosion of the Challenger — viewers born into the failure of the early promises of space travel — it’s a throwaway gag, but what if you really believed that it was going to happen?
In Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher (born 1968) quotes Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi discussing what he calls “the slow cancellation of the future”. Berardi (born 1947) describes the confidence that post-World War II modernism has in the idea of “ever progressing development”. Berardi writes that “my generation grew up at the peak of the mythological temporalization, and it is very difficult, maybe impossible to get rid of it”. Fisher, though born 21 years later, feels the same: “I, too, will never be able to adjust to the paradoxes of this new situation”.
To put it another way, Berardi and Fisher are articulating their response to the transition from a modernist to a postmodernist view of the world. They struggle to acclimatise to a disappointing new cultural framework where things don’t get better, where new music just sounds like old music and we don’t go on holiday on the moon. What if a whole generation feels the same? On Jeff Bezos’s (born 1964) space exploration website, Blue Origin, there’s some copy in the ‘about’ section that says “Blue Origin was founded by Jeff Bezos with the vision of enabling a future where millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth.” Which has more than a ring of “by 1964, experts say man will have established 12 colonies on the moon — ideal for family vacations”. The site goes on to say “In order to preserve Earth, Blue Origin believes that humanity will need to expand, explore, find new energy and material resources, and move industries that stress Earth into space.” Does anyone really believe this will happen? If that were the case, why does he have to go? Surely no one believes that private space exploration is going to save the world. It makes me think of Jenny Holzer’s excoriating text ‘The End of the USA’, from 1982, where she says, “space travel is uncertain and any refuge of yours can be blown off the map. There’s no other place for you to go. Know that your future is with us”. Yet Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson (born 1950) and Elon Musk (born 1971) all want to go to space.
Songs written by artists of Bezos’s and Branson’s generation shed some light on this question. In the work of David Bowie (3 years older than Branson), from Major Tom floating into the void in Space Oddity to the skeleton found in an astronaut’s suit in the video of Blackstar, space is both where you go to die and also death itself. Perhaps Branson and Bezos are attempting to enter the (over) underworld in their metal boxes and then, like Orpheus, come back. The lesson from Steve Jobs is that the only thing that seems to kill billionaires is their belief that they can’t die, or can cure themselves better than the doctors. For Elton John (same age as Bowie) in Rocket Man, space is lonely, depressing and quotidian: “I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife”. In Whitey on the Moon from 1970, Gil Scott Heron’s perspective is earthbound: “no hot water, no toilets, no lights, but whitey’s on the moon”.
In the work of Jarvis Cocker (born 1963, a year before Bezos), the connection between space and disappointment is most clearly seen. In Space (1993) Cocker vindictively banishes a romantic partner: “you said you wanted some space, is this enough for you?” He juxtaposes the fanciful and poetic elements of flying into space (“the whole universe shining a welcome”) with the mundane grind of everyday working class life (“after days trying to sell washing machines in the rain”). But space is also disappointing: “well the stars are bright but they don’t give out any heat, the planets are lumps of rock, floating in a vacuum”. In Glory Days, from 1998’s This is Hardcore, Cocker develops his class analysis, yelping at the climax of the song “oh we were brought up on the space race, now they expect you to clean toilets when you’ve seen how big the world is”. In Cocker’s work he is disappointed when he travels to space but is also disappointed when he is not to be able to go.
The lyrics Cocker wrote for 1st Man in Space by The All Seeing I (1999) are his space masterpiece. In the song, which builds on some of the same ideas as Rocket Man, a suburban everyman is given the opportunity to go to space: “I was the first man in space on my street/I had to leave my wife and kids behind”. The experience is vaguely traumatic — “it was rough but I held it together” — but the real emotional kick of the song comes when he has returned. He finds himself alienated from the world he finds himself in: “how you’re supposed to open these new milk cartons?/why don’t they make Golden Nuggets no more?” The trip to space functions as a way to explore suburban alienation and the disappointments of ageing.
Cocker takes the disappointment of being “brought up on the space race” and yet still being expected to clean toilets and reflects on it. In Cocker’s hands, space becomes a metaphor for disappointment itself; in his work it is a place to go to be disappointed and a place where he situates the disappointments of life. Rather than reflecting as Cocker does, Bezos, Branson and Musk have poured billions into correcting this psychic wound; I wonder if it’s been worth it.