Aleksandra Mir

The Future was Cancelled

Spiked Science, London, Sept 2003
By Sandy Starr

Whatever happened to the space age? This question is posed, from quite different perspectives, by two new publications.

The final report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) into the explosion of US space shuttle Columbia upon re-entering the Earth's atmosphere earlier in 2003, examines the specific causes of the accident but also explores the impact of broader changes in the space programme.

Meanwhile, Sean Topham's book 'Where's My Space Age?: The Rise and Fall of Futuristic Design' looks at space exploration through the prism of culture—the culture that the space age achievements of the past gave rise to, and the way that those achievements are understood in the culture of today.

Both publications illustrate just how optimistic and forward-looking the 1960s heyday of space exploration was. The CAIB report explains how 'the Apollo era created at NASA an exceptional "can-do" culture marked by tenacity in the face of seemingly impossible challenges.... The culture...accepted risk and failure as inevitable aspects of operating in space' (1).

And Sean Topham looks at the way that space exploration had a positive influence upon diverse fields, as 'space travel, with its spectacular successes arising from new and untried means, legitimised and...encouraged experimentation in other areas of life and creativity', because 'there was a popular feeling that if human beings could travel in space then surely anything was possible' (2).

A melancholy theme that recurs in Topham's book is the abrupt manner in which the original era of manned space exploration drew to a close, its promise unfulfilled; the 1972 launch of Apollo 17 marked the last manned mission to the Moon (to date). Up to then, 'there was talk of establishing colonies on the Moon and trips to Mars. The technology that fuelled the excursions into space was going to solve the major problems on Earth'. Even as the era drew to a close, 'pundits suggested that Apollo was just a precursor to the establishment of a lunar base and a human colony on the Moon, but that never happened.... The Moon was abandoned. The future was cancelled' (3).

The great achievements of the age were contingent upon massive state funding, a willingness to take considerable risks, and the US/Soviet rivalry of the Cold War. Changing administrations and political priorities led to a scaling down of manned space exploration—the space shuttle developed during the 1970s out of a background of compromise. The CAIB report describes the original cost-cutting rationale behind the shuttle: 'If the same vehicle, NASA argued, launched all government and private sector payloads and if that vehicle were reusable, then the total costs of launching and maintaining satellites could be dramatically reduced.' (4)

For reasons of expediency, the space shuttle, originally intended to be a transitional and fairly experimental design pointing the way to something better, came to be characterised as a fully operational vehicle. The Challenger shuttle disaster of 1986, instead of prompting a more urgent development of a shuttle replacement, ultimately led to space exploration being deprioritised still further. The CAIB report outlines how ambitious plans for more advanced reusable launch vehicles such as the National Aerospace Plane were raised, but subsequently shelved, and 'this pattern—optimistic pronouncements about a revolutionary shuttle replacement followed by insufficient government investment, and then programme cancellation due to technical difficulties—was repeated again in the 1990s' (5).

In apportioning blame for the Columbia disaster, the CAIB report is torn between blaming NASA for its excess of ambition, and the US government for its lack of vision and investment. At times, the report errs too much on the side of blaming NASA: 'No longer able to justify its projects with the kind of urgency that the superpower struggle had provided, the agency could not obtain budget increases throughout the 1990s. Rather than adjust its ambitions to this new state of affairs, NASA continued to push an ambitious agenda of space science and exploration.' (6) Yet the problem with NASA is not that it is too ambitious, but rather that its sights have fallen in recent decades.

By criticising what it refers to as NASA's 'powerful human space flight culture', the CAIB report threatens to neuter NASA; rather than making specific safety recommendations, it is targeting the agency's general willingness to take risks. In its more sensible moments the report acknowledges that 'organisations dealing with high-risk technology cannot sustain accident-free performance indefinitely', and that 'all flight entails some measure of risk, and this has been the case since before the days of the Wright brothers' (7).

It is when risks are born of insufficient investment, rather than out of a spirit of endeavour, that they become unacceptable. The report points out that with the recent short-termism of the space programme, 'the measure of NASA's success became how much costs were reduced and how efficiently the schedule was met', whereas in reality, 'we cannot explore space on a fixed-cost basis' (8).

In Where's My Space Age?, Topham points out that risk-taking and the development of ambitious technology for manned space exploration sit uneasily with present-day attitudes of precaution, and the current hostility towards the pioneering spirit. But while some of his observations are astute, he has a tendency to read history backwards, projecting the sentiments of the present - such as environmentalism—on to past developments in space exploration.

For example, discussing the Apollo 8 mission of 1968, Topham asserts: 'The photographs taken of the Earth from lunar orbit handed a potent symbol to the growing environmental movement. They showed the Earth as a luscious yet vulnerable object against an expanse of nothing.' (9) But this is a distinctly modern interpretation—in earlier eras, the 'expanse of nothing' that surrounds us was as capable of inspiring a desire to conquer new frontiers as it was of inducing existential angst.

Elsewhere, Topham claims that 'the ideal home of this period reflects a society aspiring to a life of zero responsibility, where everyday tasks are automated and all products are disposable'—why 'zero responsibility' and not 'maximum convenience'? He argues that 'the space age made children of everybody: zero gravity in space brought a ground zero of knowledge on the Earth, as we had to accept our insignificant place in the universe'—why 'insignificant' and not 'singular'? (10)

Topham is on surer footing when he comments on interpretations of the space age in the art and culture of the present. Far from seeing the space age as an ambitious instalment in humanity's ongoing quest for adventure and enlightenment, today's artists and commentators tend to see the era merely as an eccentric cultural phase, much like tie-dye shirts or flares. The optimism of the era seems alien to contemporary artists, in whose work, as Topham describes, 'the heroic images of astronauts and cosmonauts in space have been subverted...into inert, empty shells', while 'capsules are not intended to facilitate a busy modern lifestyle—they are tools for extreme survival...pods are equipped with food and water and provide a safe haven from the apocalyptic aftermath of a nuclear explosion' (11).

Modern art often treats space exploration in a mocking and playful manner, which is emblematic of our diminished aspirations to conquer the stars. 1972 was the last time that humans actually travelled to and walked upon the Moon. In 1999, by contrast, artist Aleksandra Mir staged her 'happening' First Woman on the Moon—in which, as Topham explains, 'a beach at Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands, was transformed by mechanical diggers into a crater-filled landscape', and participants 'enacted their own lunar landing while children played among the giant sandcastles' (12).

Genuine space exploration seems to have become subordinate to cultural kitsch. In the absence of substantial state funding, even pioneers of real-life space exploration missions have to turn their work into a cultural gimmick in order to win investment and publicity. Topham describes how the Beagle 2 probe currently travelling to Mars was dressed up as a piece of Cool Brittania: 'Blur composed a track based on a mathematical sequence to act as a call sign once the Beagle has landed. A spot painting by Damien Hirst will be used as an instrument calibration chart to check everything is in order after touchdown.' (13)

Rather than assessing the space age for the achievement it represented on the part of humanity as a whole, Topham perceives the gains of the era to be inevitably tainted by their Cold War associations, concluding that 'it would be wonderful to be able to view the space age through innocent eyes and simply be bowled over by the spectacle, but the dark history behind the grand experiment will always be there to cloud the sensation' (14). However, you could argue that the space race was the one great thing to come out of the 'dark' days of the Cold War.

But is the 'grand experiment' really behind us? While the report of the CAIB contains many calls for safety and precaution—understandably, given the disaster that it is responding to— it is reassuring that all members of the CAIB 'agree that America's future space efforts must include human presence in Earth orbit, and eventually beyond' (15). In order for that to happen, those who want to boldly go will have to challenge the political constraints placed on space programmes by our increasingly cautious leaders—who, for all their talk of going to the stars, remain risk-averse. The sooner the bar is raised for manned space exploration, the sooner it might inspire us all once again.

Sandy Starr is chairing the session 'To boldly go...?', with Sean Topham as a speaker, at the Transport Research Group conference Future Vision: Future Cities, being organised at the London School of Economics on 6 December 2003.