William Shatner will be aboard the next
amazon.com publicity stunt “Blue Origin” flight — An actor who inspired generations to imagine that humankind would one day travel to the edge of the universe and beyond will spend a couple of semi-weightless minutes kind of close to space — Instead of a ten-year mission, the “up and down” flight will last ten minutes
I was never a Star Trek fan. I knew it primarily by reputation and from the handful of episodes I watched as a kid on sick days from school. Nevertheless the characters and, more importantly, the Star Trek universe, made as indelible a mark on my young imagination as any cultural phenomenon could have. It was part of a broader American hopefulness that managed to survive into the 1980s. When I was growing up science fiction was synonymous with human potential, the idea that we could slip the surly bonds of Earth and humankind’s petty quotidian divisions to reach our fullest blossoming in the endless vacuum of space. When the Space Shuttle Columbia made its maiden orbital voyage on April 12-14, 1981 it confirmed everything young people like me had been raised to believe, hope, even expect about humanity and particularly the collection of people known as the United States of America.
It was a nice dream, while it lasted.
When William Shatner rides a tiny “Blue Origin” rocket up into the sky sometime in the next couple of weeks he will not be in the company of a diverse crew of best and brightest who embody and represent the planet he will briefly leave behind. He’ll be with an executive from
amazon.com “Blue Origin” and a couple of other CEOs whose primary qualifications are the checks they wrote to amazon.com – dang it! – “Blue Origin” to cover the fare. The company is calling the passengers “customers and astronauts,” which is kind of like calling the flatulent fellow in 37C on the Southwest flight to Kansas City a “passenger and pilot.” The final frontier it ain’t.
In fact, it’s not even clear that Shatner will reach “space.” There’s no universally-agreed upon boundary, relegating the various corporations and their CEOs to debates over whether or not their “customers and astronauts” went to space at all (rendering the “astronaut” part of the appellation problematic).
The whole point of Star Trek was that space exploration was a cause and mission too great for any one country, much less corporation. The starship Enterprise wasn’t just a marvel of (make-believe) technology, it was an interstellar declaration of human freedom.
amazon.com’s “Blue Origin’s” New Shepherd – oh, let’s call it a “spaceship” – is a for-profit space tourism proof-of-concept. It’s the beta version of a new era of capitalistic exploration in which the moon is reduced to little more than a tripadvisor.com bucket list destination (“Online pictures looked amazing. Reality was cold and indifferent…..”) and the cosmos are accessible to the highest bidders.
It’s as if the last 50 years came up with the perfect synecdoche for themselves: An actor who inspired actual astronauts and pilots, who gave millions of young people the raw material to dream their biggest dreams no matter the risks or costs, hitching a ride on a for-profit publicity tour sponsored by the world’s second richest person. Captain Kirk, boldly going where quite a few men and women have gone before.
Then again, it’s rather what we’ve come to expect out of this particular moment in U.S. history, which is the bigger issue with Shatner’s flight. For the last quarter century or so we’ve less and less intent on exceeding and expanding humanity’s notion of the possible. Quite the contrary: If the first two decades of the new millennium will be remembered for anything it will be for kneecapping Americans’ sense of what we can accomplish. No wonder we can’t get to the moon anymore much less the cosmos. No wonder we no longer talk of slipping those surly bonds.
“Blue Origin” won’t reach the altitude the Mercury 7 mission attained 60 years ago in 1961. During that flight Alan Shepherd (who unlike “Blue Origin’s” “customers and astronauts” was an actual astronaut who piloted his own vessel) traveled more than twice the distance Shatner’s will. Nor will “Blue Origin” enter low earth orbit the way Yuri Gagarin did, also in 1961.
It’s not a stretch to say that when it comes to space flight human progress, at least in this country, has stalled. In fact, we’re going backward. In a destabilized and competitive multi-polar (in more ways than one) world that kind of technological loss isn’t just unfortunate, it’s dangerous. One of the reasons NASA sustained the Space Shuttle program for years beyond its expected service life was that there was nothing to replace it, no technological leap. We had gone from Explorer 1 to Apollo 11 to Skylab to the Space Shuttle to – the Space Shuttle. When the Columbia disaster forced the end of the Shuttle program in 2003 the US space program went into a decade-long dark age. We were reduced to purchasing fare on Russian heavy rockets, the ultimate humiliation.
Into that void have stepped billionaires celebrating feats that others with more moxie and at far greater risk achieved generations ago. At this rate Bill Gates soon will announce a radical new plan to transport human beings in machines that soar through the skies, followed by competitor Tim Cook’s declaration that Apple is on the verge of mastering the wheel and Mark Cuban’s daring effort to harness the power of fire.
There is a glimmer of hope. Regardless of how one feels about Elon Musk, SpaceX may well be the last best hope for the future of the US’s presence in space. That maniac pothead may get us to Mars yet. And there’s ample reason to believe in the eventual triumph of that incorrigible and incorruptible fact of existence, human curiosity.
Look skyward next week. You might see the last flicker of a dream crest the horizon on its way to oblivion. Then turn your eyes toward the California coast. That’s where from time to time at night or in the early morning you might catch the smoke trail of a new one rising from Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Help us, Elon Musk. You’re our only hope.