SpaceX, a company owned by South African businessman Elon Musk, launched the world’s most powerful operational rocket into space this week from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The rocket also took Musk’s old car, a cherry-red Tesla, along for the ride in an elliptical orbit around the sun, with a David Bowie soundtrack on loop in the car. The bold launch has caused a proliferation of media activity, most of which have only focused on the ostensible qualities of the launch itself.
In alignment with modern cultural references to space and entrepreneurialism in the form of television and cinema, Musk himself has been branded as a real-life Tony Stark, a persona that’s almost eclipsing the real human being behind the entertaining ‘billionaire entrepreneur/mad innovator’ mask that people hang on to as his identity. But, there’s no doubt that Musk himself is a unique and intriguing man, a factor that acts as yet another draw for public interest in his company’s activities. Elon Musk is admirable in his commitment to taking action and achieving tangible results, an intrepidity that does seem to be missing in our generation.
But the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket into space reveals a lot more than just the event itself. It’s an event that’s packed with thought-provoking symbolism and big concepts that are easily glossed over. Some interesting aspects, to name but a few, are: the increasing competitive pressure for a ‘space-race’ resulting in interplanetary tourism from which commercial companies can obtain a new revenue stream from the super-rich; the ‘made by humans’ circuit board that reverberates an ingrained human hope for the discovery of life on other planets; and most importantly, and worryingly, the pervasive ideological treatment of the Earth as a disposable commodity that should be escaped from. The need for something more, bigger, and better seems to be an inextinguishable longing that simultaneously can be categorised as an inherent human trait, and a bleak pitfall that makes us ask ‘What is enough?’.
SpaceX’s ultimate goal is “enabling people to live on other planets”, a goal that may well have to be preceded by the introduction of space tourism. There’s no doubt that the implementation of interplanetary travel and tourism will result in international news coverage and will have huge profit-making potential stemming from an elite customer base seeking novelty, excitement, and newness. Necessitating space holidays at all seems to already be futile after the rocket launch, which seemed to surpass the need for justification in its mission and cement SpaceX’s quest as legitimate through its sheer bold determination. Whether the presumed exorbitant costs of this kind of tourism are warranted amidst such economic disparity in the Western sphere is another contentious consideration. Regardless, Elon Musk has made it explicitly clear that a commercial space race is on:
“I think it’s gonna encourage other countries and companies to raise their sights, and say ‘Hey, we can do bigger and better’ which is great. We want a new space race. Space races are exciting.” – Elon Musk
The circuit board on the car sent into space featured the words “Made on Earth by humans”, a mildly humorous presumption that the message will be not only received but understood by an alien discoverer, which perhaps can be seen as a jokey-veil shielding a set of more understandable and relatable human aspirations. These underlying wishes being: the need to explore; the need to discover; the need to be ‘first’; and the need to connect with those of other cultures (or those of other planetary species, in this instance).
“Do just once what others say you can’t do, and you will never pay attention to their limitations again.” – James Cook
The limitations of discovery have been stretched increasingly, and since even the furthest reaches of the Earth have been explored, space has become the next target destination with its mystery only furthering its appeal. The allure of distant lands for explorers can be seen throughout history, as can the need to communicate what has been discovered, whether that was through writing or traditional arts. This can be perceived as the pursuit of shallow novelty, or the hope of exploitation and reward. But equally, it could represent a deeper desire for connection.
Desire for connection is something that is becoming intensely complex in the modern digital age, in which people are expected to adhere to industrialised standards that place intelligent production as ideal and emotional involvement and connection with our human counterparts as secondary. In an effort to be the most effective, productive members of society, we subdue the need for emotional connection and come to function as the mere automatons and androids we hoped would replace the more mindless aspects of our work. But the need to connect and engage with the foreign is still there, an inkling that brings us back to the realisation that the need to connect as an emotional being, communicate, and share is part of an immutable core that has been present in the human species throughout time.
Mars as the backup plan
Mars as a replacement Earth seems to be a frightening aspiration of Space X, and probably other commercial companies. Beyond tourism, it is suggested that Mars is a backup plan, an ideology that suggests our planet is already something we should give up on. The proclivity to escape has been heightened recently, with prominent public figures such as Stephen Hawking moving the preferred deadline to escape Earth forward to a timeline as short as a human life. Although we all know that eventually an alternative planet will be necessary due to the immense destructive force of our species on Earth, the push for an alternative has almost become a push for a replacement, a shameful and unpleasant reflection of mankind’s hopes to destroy and then flee. The difficulty of conservation and remediation is therefore presented, unintentionally perhaps, as unworthy of effort in comparison to an idealised future wherein we can simply fly off to another planet whilst our own explodes in the distance like the depictions of a burning relic being swiftly abandoned in modern cinema.
A lot of this underlying pressure for a new space race is undoubtedly enhanced by, and reflective of, ingrained American capitalism and the pecuniary freedom of choice that comes with it. The launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket, in essence, conveys at once the sometimes-distorted priorities and deep-rooted intersubjective human desires of those invested in the future of space exploration and planetary colonisation.