This last weekend, I was in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and, at 2:20 p.m., on Friday, I and my family walked out to the beach and, with the Atlantic Ocean washing over our toes, turned north to watch the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. The launch (from our point of view, at least) went flawlessly, and the spacecraft arced up into the sky, fire and cloud below it — and more quickly than you would expect, it was gone from sight, up into space. I’m glad I got to see it, and that my daughter, 11 years old, got to see it, too.
One reason I’m glad she and I got to see it is that it will be gone soon: this was the last time the shuttle Atlantis would be sent into space, and, in the entire shuttle program, there are only one or two more launches before the program is closed forever and NASA (and the United States) is without a formal manned-spacecraft program. We could spend days and days discussing whether this is a wise and smart thing for NASA and the U.S. to do, but this is a science-fiction-film column, so…
The tie-in is this: I do think that, to a very real extent, our
film industry’s portrayal of space and its exploration is tied into our
relationship with actual real-world space travel. Nor is this a new
thing; it goes back six decades, at the very least. In 1950, the film Destination Moon, written by Robert Heinlein, gave filmgoers their
first (somewhat) realistic glimpse of what travel to the moon might look
like; its story and its rationale for going to the moon were in some
ways priming the audience for the U.S.-Soviet “space race” to come.
years later, in the full rush of the space race and close to the climax
of the Apollo program, which did in fact send men to the moon, 2001:
A Space Odyssey reflected the confidence we had with our progress
into space. It was optimistic but not unreasonable to think that just a
couple decades into the (then) future we would have expanded our reach
into space to orbital stations and moon bases and that Pan Am, one of
the great airline companies, would, naturally, have service to them.
optimism regarding space travel soured in the seventies, along with much of
the U.S. optimism about, well, pretty much everything, and, by 1977, the
can-do spirit of Destination Moon and optimistic technical
assumptions of 2001 had been replaced by the cynical view of Capricorn One, in which a mission to Mars is faked owing to both a fatal flaw
in technology and the need for the space program to have a “win” to keep
its funding flowing. NASA had become just another government
bureaucracy and its mission just another way for the public to be lied
to by its government.
As the turn of the millennium closed in,
the film that arguably represented human space flight in its best light
was Apollo 13, a nostalgic look at a “successful failure” that
also captured how quickly the public interest in space flight waned once
the moon was achieved. In science-fiction film, the best the current
manned-shuttle program could do was to show up as bomb-delivery devices,
in Deep Impact and Armageddon. Our real-world expectations
that humans would explore a fascinating universe in our spacecraft was
in effect replaced by the idea that, in the real world, the best we could do
was defend ourselves from a hostile cosmos. Closer to our own moment,
there’s Moon, a beautiful little film that imagines us
achieving the moon but, once there, being lonely and looking back at
Earth and what it contains with longing.
The end of the U.S.
shuttle program doesn’t mean the end of manned space flight. There is
still the International Space Station and the rockets we use to get
there, and, finally, the era of commercial space flight is dawning,
although in a different way than Heinlein imagined, back in the days of Destination
Moon — we’ll be sending tourists, not scientists and explorers,
out to the frontier of the cosmos. And there’s the hope, mentioned by
President Obama recently but met with some skepticism among space hounds,
that one day the manned-space program of NASA will return with missions
to near asteroids and, eventually, to Mars. One way or another, humans
will stay in space. And of course science-fiction films will keep
showing humans there.
But having watched that shuttle go up for
its last time, I wonder how Hollywood will reflect those ambitions now.
Will we see space travel in some far-flung future or a new
optimism for space exploration closer to our own time and our own
capabilities? I enjoy the former as much as anyone. But I hope that we’ll see
more of the latter and that they are successful. Because, in space
exploration, what we enjoy in movies says something about what we’re
feeling about it in real life.