Visionary Space Announcement Disappears from the Media
Last month, I watched the press conference that announced a new company, Planetary Resources, and their plan to mine the asteroids, redefining “natural resources”. MINE THE ASTROIDS! The audaciousness of the vision is almost beyond belief. And apparently that’s exactly how it appeared to the media and the small segment of the public their meager coverage reached.
For this announcement, surely one of the most ambitious and visionary space projects since Kennedy’s goal of landing on the Moon, was met with mild admiration, much skepticism and derision, and essentially dropped from the media-sphere within a week.
I submit that this is one of the clearest examples of the near total lack any REAL “Space Awareness” in our culture today.
What Is “Space Awareness”?
Wait now! I haven’t forgotten all those beautiful star fields and colorful nebula snapped by the Hubble Telescope, or the breathtaking new night-side views of the Earth lit up like fields of glowing jewels; or even the collective sense of loss, brought on by the end of the Shuttle Era.
I’m talking about THE REAL AWARENESS OF SPACE, the visceral SENSE OF WHERE WE ARE and even WHAT WE ARE; a thin smear of biology on a tiny ball of rock; a pebble in a sky filled with an infinite number of stars, harboring an infinite number of worlds.
In particular, I’m also talking about THE SHIFT IN ONE’S INTERNAL WORLD VIEW that accompanies such awareness; an experience that just over five hundred people in history have had personally, the astronauts and their few space traveler associates and guests.
As I have said repeatedly in this blog, this is the Overview Effect. And it is precisely what is missing in our current World View. Its lack makes every space proposal, no matter how much it might benefit us; seem like some distant, currently unreachable Science Fiction world.
Most of the public thinks that space awareness, the Overview Effect, is about Space; about turning your eyes to the stars, about looking “Out There”. However, that’s only part of it. Others, especially many of those who have heard the term “Overview” Effect, think that it is seeing the Earth From Space. That too is only a part.
The reality of the Overview Effect is seeing the Earth IN Space; seeing the reality of our position in the larger Universe, the larger REALITY, and the “REALLY Big Picture”. For the Reality of our Position is that we are already IN space. And once that fact becomes real, viscerally real, then many other previously known facts also start to become real as well.
Some Implications of the Overview Effect
When you look into space from outside the atmosphere; you VISERALLY REALIZE that we are one tiny planet in an unimaginably vast universe of stars and planets. It suddenly becomes real to you that we ARE a tiny smear of life on a tiny fragile ball; separated only by a paper thin atmosphere from a Universe of powerful forces we presently know little about.
And when you look down from space and see the Earth, particularly on the night side, where you see those fields of glowing jewel-like lights spread over the whole world, lights that weren’t there just a century ago, and you realize that we are growing and consuming the Earth’s resources at an ever increasing pace, resources that themselves are finite.
And then you realize, not only do few down there get this…really GET It…but they are fighting and killing each other over these things, this tiny ball of land, these finite and dwindling resources and the political, religious and intellectual doctrines and dogmas that separate us and perpetuate the blind mutiny of the crew of this little Space Ship Earth.
And all the while, over our heads, closer than the nearest neighboring city, is unimagined space and resources and insights into the very problems we now face. A whole new World View with new possibilities and ways of looking at both our challenges and our opportunities.
And you wonder what would happen if everyone could see this, or at least our political, social and opinion leaders, and they brought this vision back, and found new and powerful ways to communicate what is now so obvious and important. If this ould happen, wouldn’t everyone get just a glimpse of a larger reality, of new choices and new possibilities?
It’s not about space per se, nor is it about science or exploration or political or military supremacy. It’s about the next stage in Human Evolution, the evolution of our culture, our species. It’s about a whole new World View. But without at least beginning to sense that such is waiting for us “out there”, it’s just a techno-fetish, a joy-ride, a “science fiction fantasy” that we can’t afford at this time. Not while we have “Real World” things to take care of.
Response of the Media and Public to the Announcement
While space community media outlets were briefly awash in articles about the announcement, the major media quickly relegated it to minor “page 2” mention (if that), with little comment beyond the announcement, roughly split between cautious optimism and outright skepticism.
Now while balancing pro’s and con’s may just be good journalism, reader comments were, on balance, even more negative, from lay critics asking, “are they going to strip mine the universe like they have the Earth”, to space scientists and engineers asserting that “these people just don’t understand the physics (or space or other technical issues),” glossing over the fact that the team includes ranking planetary and space scientists building on decades of research.
And despite the fact that the company was formed by leaders of the New Space Industry that are rapidly preparing to take over near space activities for NASA, provide space travel for private citizens and land private rovers on the Moon. And they are being advised by leading planetary scientists and headed by Chris Lewicki, the man who led the landing of the Mars rovers. A bunch of “starry-eyed” hobbyists they are not!
Perhaps the most surprising criticisms have been that they don’t understand how bringing huge amounts of valuable resources into the earth will impact the world economy. Really? They are funded and advised by some of the most accomplished tech billionaires in the world, leaders of Google, Microsoft, Perot Systems and The James Cameron “franchise”? They don’t understand the economy? Or how technological innovation impacts it? What is this about?
The Current Disconnect Between Earth and Space
I suggest again that this is one of the best examples of the fact that our culture thinks of space as something “out there”, separate from life on earth and solely the domain of NASA scientists and astronauts. It’s a research laboratory and a desolate place for exploration where intrepid astronauts plant flags and bring back rocks for research; sort of like Antarctica or the ocean bottom. It extends science and technology and inspires the public and future scientists, but has little or nothing to do with daily life here on planet Earth here and now.
But that focus, dominant in the public’s mind and media ignores two major factors. The first is the essentially unlimited resources available in space as opposed to the inherently limited supply on Earth. This is the meaning of “Planetary Resources”. Mining asteroids that are incredibly rich in heavy metals and other valuable substances can add Trillions of dollars to the world GDP over just the next couple of decades.
If these incredibly accomplished and visionary leaders in business, technology and space science can’t propose big ideas in space commerce today, what happened?
And by mining and transforming resources in space rather than lifting them out of Earth’s deep gravity well, all forms of space exploration, commerce and even settlement will be orders of magnitude cheaper.
Our First Age of Space Awareness – And It’s Loss
By the Apollo Program, our culture had identified itself as living in The Space Age. Cars had “tail fins” echoing rockets; popular media such as Star Trek and even architecture (i.e. the Seattle Space Needle) were heavily space themed. A multitude of products were sold as “Space Age Technology”. Hilton announced that it was planning a Hotel on the Moon and bought product placement in Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Moon vacations were widely expected by early in the 21st Century.
In short, immersed in space images, media and cultural we had a growing Space Awareness.
The Apollo Program was prematurely terminated, the central political goal of beating the Russians to the Moon now accomplished. In its wake, and partially the cause of its termination, was a host of other, more immediate challenges.
Against the background of the messy end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the first Oil Crisis and the sudden rise of the modern Environmental Movement which focused on the Earth (jumpstarted by the very words and pictures returned by the Astronauts) a severely underfunded NASA would never again recapture that first burst of cultural Space Awareness.
The long slow build of the Space Shuttle and the long delayed development of what became the International Space Station, punctuated tragically by the televised destruction of the Challenger and later the Columbia disasters, confirmed in the public’s mind that space travel was only for superhumanly courageous professional Astronauts, and space only an otherwise desolate science laboratory.
Curiously, some space historians have even suggested that we shrunk back from the reality of the enormity of the universe to the “cocooned” virtual world of the computer. In any case, space rapidly faded from cultural awareness. Perhaps it has taken us all this time, not just to perfect our technology, but to recover our courage.
Shift in Science Fiction Mirrors the Loss of Space Awareness
The simultaneous rise of the ubiquitous personal computer and the ever-expanding internet replaced space in the public’s imagined techno-future. By the mid Eighty’s, Science fiction, ever the harbinger and driver of techno-futurism, shifted rapidly from Space to various forms of computer themed “Cyberpunk”, typified by 1999’s “The Matrix” and its many imitators. As futuristic computer technology infused all forms of more traditional dramas, science fiction turned to Fantasy ala Harry Potter, Twilight and various comic book heroes and themes.
Space science fiction, with few exceptions, dropped progressively from public view, with the nadir arguably occurring in 2005, with the final appearances of the two longest running space franchises, Star Wars and Star Trek, within months of each other.
Perhaps the most peculiar thing about this timing is that it occurred in the middle of the rise of the New Space industry. Space X, Blue Origin, Bigelow Aerospace and Virgin Galactic (jumpstarted by the X-Prize winning flight of Spaceship One, the first privately built space ship) all began work in the previous six years. Six years after, all have demonstrated working space technologies, and within the next few years all will likely be doing business in space.
Again, “What’s going on here?” What’s the “disconnect?” NASA and other space histories all cite the growing popularity and sophistication of space science fiction in the decades just prior to the beginning of the Moon Race, as preparing the public for the reality, do-ability and desirability of space travel and of Kennedy’s challenge of landing on the Moon.
Yet today, there is no comparable space science fiction heralding and preparing the public World View for the New Space Age, one that will make good on the broken promise of the Apollo Era and finally make space travel a real part of our world. It’s another indication of Space having dropped from our collective World View.
The “Sales Pitch” – Shifting Our World View
In a recent article, two leading mathematicians, David Bailey and Jonathan Borwein speculating on the cultural and technological influence of the iconic space movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and our past and current New Space eras, concluded their interesting article with this insightful comment…
“There is clearly a public appetite for human space discovery, independent of the public’s appreciation of spin-off technologies generated from the first space age. What is missing is a sales pitch — like the arms race but ideally less grim — that made possible the Apollo program.”
It’s all about shifting our World View, and what it takes to do it. Once we grasp this simple but subtle idea, and do what is necessary to support that shift, then the Overview Effect will indeed begin to change the world.
It will begin to change our World View!