The Space Age – there and back again
🌌 How nostalgia paved the way for a new era of space exploration🌌
Nostalgia is more than just a wistful sentimental yearning for the return of an irrecoverable past. Undoubtedly, it is an immensely powerful emotion – it defines people, pervades popular culture and forges political movements. So far so obvious. But there may be a lesser appreciated function of nostalgia: it is a driver of innovation.
The irrational longing for a supposedly better past inspires our future and shapes technological progress – right now. That may sound counterintuitive at first. After all, technology from the past is pretty outdated by our standards. Famously, the smartphone in your pocket is more powerful than the computers used for NASA’s moon mission in 1969. So how could something like nostalgia ever inspire new technologies?
Conveniently, the moon mission example steers us right towards the root of what we could call our contemporary ‘progressive nostalgia’. The moon mission falls into the period in the 60s and early 70s that is also commonly called the ‘Space Age’. It was dominated by the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, with the moon landing as the ultimate prize. But the Space Age was more than Gagarin, Mercury and Apollo. It sparked a powerful cultural movement that dominated the arts, music and literature of its time. Take the Los Angeles Chemosphere. Designed by John Lautner, this saucer-shaped home seemed like the future of housing. Or take the stories of authors like Arthur C. Clarke that fuelled our collective imagination and made us believe that we were already travelling among the stars. And musicians like David Bowie made even the cold, lonely death in space sound romantic when he sang us of Major Tom’s last adventure in Space Oddity. It only seemed like a question of time until we would finally embark to seek our manifest destiny beyond our home planet.
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Plot twist: That future never came. Instead of cities on Mars and O’Neill’s otherworldly space cylinder starships, the 1970s brought us nuclear war, race riots and economic crisis. The bright future receded behind the horizon and we found ourselves hitting the ground pretty hard. ‘Space’ devolved from the mysterious final frontier to Earth’s backyard. The space agencies no longer were miracle machines for high technology, but instead became very expensive haulage companies, charged with building smaller, less ambitious launchers. No more to send humans to the Moon and beyond, but to carry lifeless satellites up into Lower Earth Orbit. Rather than taking inspiring giant leaps forward, NASA turned its sights inward and got caught up in the much more practical task of Earth observation.
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But far from disappearing entirely, the space age and its promise of a future among the stars survived. Not in popular culture, where it was replaced by grim dystopias like Blade Runner or the Fifth Element, fitting the doom and gloom vibe of the late 70s and 80s. Instead, the space age lived and prospered in the heads of a long-neglected subculture: nerds. While the people around them moved to embrace the bitter resignation to our planet, many nerds continued to shelter and embrace the fantastic narratives of science fiction works like Star Wars, Star Trek and other remnants of the space age.
Over the reasons why it was exactly this group that should benefit disproportionately from the boom of the digital economy we can only speculate. Maybe it was their natural affinity to technology that drove the Zuckerbergs of this world to experiment with computers and the internet. In any case, a past as a nerdy high school outcast seems almost like precondition for success in the predatory world of the Silicon Valley. And this is exactly where our initial notion of ‘progressive nostalgia’ comes into play. After all, what does an accomplished tech billionaire with too much free time and an itch for adventure do these days? Right, he takes his unimaginable riches and founds a space startup.
Companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin show signs of their Space Age nostalgia everywhere. Take the rockets themselves: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launchers are named for Star Wars’ Millenium Falcon, while Blue Origins’ New Shepard and New Glenn invoke American astronaut pioneers Alan Shepard and John Glenn. A popular series of posters released by SpaceX in 2015 features a style heavily drawing on travel posters from the 1960s. But it’s not only a question of style and appearances. These new space companies in many ways pick up the thread left behind by the unfulfilled promises of the Space Age. Almost naturally, massive interplanetary colony starships in the spirit of O’Neill’s space cylinder and settlements on Mars have become the raison d’être of SpaceX.
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Granted, for people like Musk and Bezos, nostalgia, or the longing to fulfil their childhood dreams, isn't the only motivation to confront the final frontier. But there is a case to be made that the inspirational nostalgia of powerful Space Age memories paved the way for what we could call a nascent ‘New Space Age’. Of course, rational arguments and economic incentives play their (very important) part in the development of this new era. Reducing the cost of launching satellites into space and colonising Mars to have a backup plan for the survival of the human species are just two examples. But without the narrative created by the original Space Age, would we really have seen 21st century space startups develop in the first place? After all, space is by many standards still a highly uneconomical and risky endeavour. Costs for research and development are ridiculously high and make for an almost insurmountable barrier of entry, unless, of course, you are a Silicon Valley billionaire.
In many ways, if you’re expecting the highest return of investment, the space economy is not the smart choice to invest your money. To commit to such a venture, it takes a spark, an irrational, emotional impulse, the sentimental yearning for the return of an irrecoverable past – the Space Age.
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by torben david