James Nicoll linked to Dwayne A. Day’s article at The Space Review criticizing recent movies for suggesting that space colonies are pointless and dangerous, or worse, potential homes for only the 1%. As commenters noted, Day’s critique doesn’t take into consideration the fact that, with what we know now, space colonization is pointless and dangerous, and doesn’t note some of the separatist issues lurking behind the space colonization memeplex.
The tag line for the new Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar premiering in November could have been written by a space settlement enthusiast: “Mankind was born on Earth, it was never meant to die here.” Based upon the newly released trailer, however, it appears as if humanity’s salvation is not asteroid mining or Mars settlement, but sending a spaceship to another solar system (because “nothing in our solar system can save us”). Quite possibly the answer is “aliens.”
But at least Interstellar’s message seems to be that there is hope in our stars. For the past several years a theme that has emerged from a number of movies is that space, and spaceflight, is at best a pretty distraction, and not humanity’s future. Human destiny, these movies argue, is on Earth, which we need to stop trashing. These movies indicate that the pro-space movement has essentially failed in its primary message. A few thousand people attending pro-space conferences and claiming that space settlement is the solution is nothing compared to the millions of people around the world who have been exposed to the message that space is at best a distraction. Space is pretty and wondrous, but also dangerous and pointless, and at best, a playhouse for the rich.
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One of the biggest and most praised movies of 2013 was Gravity. The film stormed the box office and received rave reviews and numerous Oscars, including one for best director. Although astronauts and spaceflight experts stumbled all over themselves to discuss the technical inaccuracies in the movie while praising it for its visual and excitement, what was lost in all the chattering is that Gravity is one of the most anti-space movies to come along in a long time. It may have done just as much damage to NASA’s image as the frequent reports during the October government shutdown that NASA was the “least essential” agency, based upon the determination that 97% of its employees should stay home.
Gravity makes its message blatantly clear in text at the very beginning: “Life in space is impossible.” But the rest of the film simply reinforces that message. The resounding theme, repeated again and again throughout the film, is that space is a very dangerous place and that people do not belong there. Sandra Bullock’s character, astronaut Ryan Stone, is only in space because she’s fleeing the grief she experienced on Earth, the gravity that killed her daughter in a fall, a fact that her colleague’s ghost tells her when she’s about to give up and die. By the end of the movie, every person who was in space at the beginning of the film, most of whom are never seen, has either abandoned it for the safety of Earth, or died. And low Earth orbit has become so polluted that it is clear nobody is going back. Goodbye Hubble, goodbye space station. Goodbye Mars colony.
The other major film of 2013 that took aim at the pro-space message was Elysium. It lacked the visual grandeur of Gravity but tried to make up for it in heavy-handed symbolism. Its story was more ambitious, but also messily convoluted, and possessing all the subtlety of a sledgehammer: poor, sick masses on Earth, abandoned by the rich who have fled to the sky. This is a relatively straightforward adaptation of the pro-space message touted by groups like the L5 Society and later the National Space Society (NSS), which in the 1970s started proposing space as a means of dealing with resource depletion on Earth. More recently, NSS and others in the pro-space community have embraced space as a tourist destination for rich people, out of the belief that maybe, someday, it will become affordable for the rest of us. The film’s look deliberately borrowed from 1970s-era artwork of space colonies.
The message was so similar to ones that have been around for decades that the National Space Society went so far as to issue a press release separating themselves from the film. Clearly the NSS leadership recognized that their vision had been perverted in the movie. Rather than cities in the sky where people worked in support of providing services to Earth—Gerard K. O’Neill’s original vision for space solar power—the beautiful space station is an escape from the thoroughly unpleasant Earth.