A Failure of Imagination?

Our fascination with space may have continued, but not as expected. Published by Chatto & Windus 2003. Cover image copyright Space Studies Institute www.ssi.org

Since the crew of Apollo 17 returned to Earth in December 1972, no-one has been back to the Moon, and no-one has gone further than Low Earth Orbit.  On the face of it, this could leave a somewhat sour legacy from the Apollo missions, and might not bode well for humanity’s future in space.  But there are far more positive outcomes from those missions, in terms of the on-going drive to conquer space, as we consider in the latest edition of Odyssey which has just been issued.

Even so, although the enthusiasm has continued, one cannot ignore the simple fact that the great achievements of that period were not carried through to even greater successes in manned space travel – was the promise we then felt really no more than a mirage, as some have suggested?

Both serious writings on space activities and science fiction have reflected what might have been a failure of nerve.  JG Ballard’s 1988 collection of short stories Memories of the Space Age describes fictional activities within a failed space programme at a decaying Cape Canaveral, and shows a dark side to the business.  Plague from space, a lost capsule, astronauts suffering mental breakdown or insanity, dead astronauts orbiting the Earth forever – these are signs of the programme as it might have been, but fortunately wasn’t.  On this basis, the reader would be in little doubt that we took a wrong turn by trying to venture into space in the first place, which may have been Ballard’s message.

In her 2003 book Rocket Dreams: How the Space Age Shaped Our Vision of a World Beyond, the journalist Marina Benjamin took a careful look at the question of how our fascination with space developed during the period after those halcyon days.  Taking a negative view of the prospects for manned space exploration, given the apparent lack of progress since Apollo as well as the contention that human biology is not suited for space travel, she argues that the previous dreams of expansion beyond the Earth have been translated into largely fictional on-screen visions of reaching out into space; “it became possible to realise online what we could only dream of in the Sixties: scanning the stars for ET, messaging other solar systems, even building colonies on alien worlds.”

She considers that the “break with gravity did not produce the desired result, but that did not snuff out the hopes embodied on the Space Age…These hopes are now more alive than ever, although they manifest themselves in unexpected ways…”  And so “cyberspace has effectively replaced outer space as the new frontier”, with the enormous advantage it allows for participation by absolutely anyone, which the Space Age never did, and is “both capacious enough and sufficiently ‘real’ for it to accommodate an almost wholesale transplanting of our extraterrestrial ambitions.”  But the main underlying concern about this is that the contents of this virtual Space Age need not be true.

All of which can easily lead to cynicism about the whole venture, and possibly the sad tendency to look to conspiracy theories about secret projects to develop manned spacecraft using technology that has not been disclosed to the public for some reason.  To some, fantasies of this sort might be the only true hope for a future in space – Area 51 in Nevada is a frequent setting for such projects, ranging from the reasonably feasible to the downright absurd.  But that can all too easily distract attention from the significant advances in spacecraft technology which are genuinely underway.

It’s tempting to say simply that people shouldn’t be diverted by such theories, since sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction.  Agent Mulder raised that point in Hollywood AD, an episode of The X-Files from 2000.  Wayne Federman, an American comedian who appears as a film producer, replies: “Well, fiction is quicker than truth, and cheaper.”  Therein lies the problem – a failure of imagination in one area can quickly be replaced by possibly excessive use of the imagination somewhere else.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: Escaping from Reality | Inspiration in the Sky

Be sociable; support the BIS!