Well, it’s happening.
We are now living in an age of popularized space exploration. We are, little by little, becoming a space culture.
When I first stepped foot in NASA and opened my eyes to the industry, this wasn’t the case. I may have believed that space was swimming in the minds of millions, but that wasn’t necessarily true. I was simply surrounded by the sub-group of people who were already curious about what lays beyond our sky. 8 years later, things have changed. While I witnessed the space community alter their mindset, NASA workers switching from an opinion that commercialized space was a deadly and dead-end proposition to claiming that it’s essential to the future of near-Earth-orbit transportation, I realized that changes in the space community tell little about the big picture.
According to one of my favorite forward thinking professors and Doctor of Future Studies, Jim Dator, culture is everything when it comes to space exploration. Hell, culture is everything when it comes to pretty much everything.
What’s needed, then, in a society where mindsets, opinions, and votes are guided by cultural paradigms, are shifts in those cultures towards space-faring aspirations. I propose to you that we are in the middle of such a shift, where ideas and dreams of discovering space are once again beginning to grow in the mind of the average citizen.
Don’t believe me?
After all, I’m surrounded by people and news that love space. Well then, let’s hop on the magic pop-culture school bus and take a look around.
Every year, the number of space-related projects on Kickstarter seems to grow. Recent years show easily funded projects including space-collector items such as gold versions of the voyager record sent out to tell alien species about our race, high-end watch lines made from flown Soyuz rockets, space exploration film projects, posters, music, and more. Nostalgic Apollo-era items have always been popular, but new space is more marketable now than ever. Examples include merchandising of the cutesey cartoonisation of Europe’s Rosetta probe or NASA’s recently successful attempts at minimalist-style art posters of imagined future missions.
In fact, the first phase of an actual mission to the Moon was even funded on Kickstarter! It’s called Lunar Mission One, and the cost of preliminary market and scientific research studies were funded through crowdsourcing. It sold opportunities to sequence your own genome which would then be placed in a digital vault deep under the surface of the Moon, along with a record of human history and life, leaving its preservation and ultimate fate up to the imagination.
The project aims to enable a real scientific mission to the Moon by marketing an idea.
Meanwhile, passive entertainment media provides us hints to these changes as well. Space movies and television shows are more prominent than ever. The Martian became a hit book and movie series, tv shows are popping up all over including a show about Apollo astronaut wives, drama-documentaries about trips to Mars, and movies taking place in the International Space Station. Video games have seen this increase as well, from Astroneer and Space Engineers to No Man’s Sky and Kerbal Space Program.
This isn’t to say that space hasn’t been a typical setting for entertainment media in the past. Now, however, more and more of it is rooted in real locations, based on actual plans, or include hardware that is used in real life or planned for future space missions. The Martian borrowed heavily from actual roadmaps for a Mars mission and focused on real scientific issues with working and living on another planet. There was no apocalyptic comet hurdling towards the Earth, nor were there Monsters hell-bent on selflessly ending the self-destructive human race. The movie’s premise is based on a dust storm that led to equipment failure.
The difference in many up and coming video games are that they are rooted in exploration itself. Instead of space providing an excuse to fight aliens and monsters in dark and lonely settings, we are beginning to see a wave in interactive media that require you to build and progress, solely for one purpose:
To go discover.
This isn’t limited to space, either. Games such as Subnautica have players surviving and exploring an underwater world on another planet. Increased computer power combined with individualized choice and capability becoming societal virtues has made exploring for its own sake the new name of the game.
Beer. Yes, Beer: The substance that makes your awkward self become more sociable at Friday night parties and think “If anyone took pictures of that, I definitely can’t run for president” on Saturday mornings.
Recently, Budweiser expressed interest in brewing the first beer on Mars. A marketing ploy? Probably, but it shows that companies are recognizing that space enthusiasts are an ever growing, soon to be tapped market. Meanwhile, Dogfish Head created Celest-jewel-ale, a limited beer brewed with dust from Lunar meteorites and served in beer koozies made out of spacesuit materials. Ninkasi Brewing Company created a beer made from yeast that was sent to space on a suborbital flight and created a beer called “Ground Control” using the recovered yeast.
Need I say more? No longer enough to get “high on life”, now people are looking to get buzzed on the Universe.
Now, let’s talk about some observations that do come from my niche space world. Every single month (back when I wasn’t on Mars), my news and Facebook feeds would pull my attention to yet another space business, non-profit, or NGO coming out of the works. The idea of commercial space has taken over. What’s more is that these businesses aren’t (only) being created by people filled with imagination but no experience.
One recent company includes names such as Steve Altemus and Michael Suffredini, talented individuals who I was lucky enough to meet at the Johnson Space Center. There they were known as the head of engineering and the International Space Station program manager. They’re now beginning plans for the first privately-owned space station. Meanwhile, companies such as Bigelow are creating inflatable space station hotel rooms, while Blue Origins and Virgin Galactic are revolutionizing travel and tourism with rocketry capable of sending any individual to a place formerly reserved for daring test pilots for the price of a BMW 7 series.
Countless other companies are competing for space vehicle contracts, or creating hardware to minimize the cost of sending satellites to orbit. Google Lunar X Prize has teams from countries all around the world developing technology to get back to and explore the Moon further.
Commercial space means commercial astronauts, and several non-profits are popping up, providing training to young scientists and engineers in preparation to be the first organization to provide trained privatized astronauts. Spaceflight analogues similar to HI-SEAS are being created all around the world as people become more and more comfortable with the idea of interplanetary travel and settlement.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be.
Is it any wonder that space is becoming popularized? The point in history that my life exists in is one of increased connectivity and globalization due to the rise of internet and instant cellular communication, work, and play.
Our world shrinks down further each day, with more and more international organizations and partnerships resulting in opportunities for young individuals to travel. My parents took a one-way trip from one country to another just to find work. I’m lucky to meet a person my age who hasn’t been to at least 3 for fun. Meanwhile, we went from typing in pagers to being able to message anyone, nearly anywhere in the world within the fraction of a second. This ability to immediately transmit information has increased understanding and curiosity within those who take advantage of it.
This technology increase stretches far beyond the internet. Virtual reality applications begin to grow in popularity, with total immersion into someone else’s real or imagined world becoming more and more realistic and desirable. Capable and well-equipped camera drones are now affordable making the feeling of flying and seeing the Earth from below as you soar around can be yours for the cost of a flat screen tv.
While this world continues to shrink, geek culture continues to rise. A word that used to coincide with images of getting stuffed in a locker is now a badge of honor, exemplified by the cries of desire for acceptance now normal in social interactions, “Oh, I’m totally a geek”. Somewhere down the line, wearing a Mario Brothers t-shirt became sexy and my generation of science and engineering friends started resenting the era we were born in. Again, this is reflective in media, with shows like the Big Bang Theory celebrating geek culture, the rise of hipster fashion, and those overly thick black rimmed glasses everyone in Providence wears.
How did jocks let this happen?
This change isn’t surprising either, in hindsight.
Our social, work, and private lives are now completely dominated by this interconnectivity. Jim Dator always says: we create our tools, and then our tools shape us. There is no better way to state the phenomenon.
I can attest to this each morning, watching my crewmembers stumbling downstairs from their recently ended slumber, getting into computer-position, pushing buttons and moving cursors for about an hour before acknowledging any other human existence. I’m guilty of it too, but we can always be brought back by basic primal instincts: a warm breakfast.
Evolution has always ranked the most capable as those who can gather and protect resources. Some of the richest, most powerful people in the world were ‘nerds’, or as we are starting to learn to call them: experts-turned-businessmen.
A software architect named Bill Gates changed the world and became the wealthiest man on Earth. Mark Zuckerberg simultaneously revolutionized relationships and marketing, making his one of the most recognizable names in America. Meanwhile, amateur app developers began making hand over fist with random social media and video game hits. Others learned to game the system, making money from unloading piles of technical garbage on app stores.
One software programmer from South Africa created a payment system called Paypal, allowing money to be digitally transferred from pocket to pocket, meanwhile transferring enough into his to put forth into motion something he only imagined as a child: owning his own rocket company. What was his name again?
People and The cross-over
Elon Musk. Elon Musk is a name that many people now know. His popularity, however, isn’t a result of his creation of X.com. Some may have known him just from his creation of Paypal. Most, however, know him as the man who has begun to revolutionize the space industry by developing private, reusable rockets that self-land on drone carriers in the ocean (and maybe those sweet Tesla cars).
Whether you believe in his ability to push humans further into the solar system, he has undeniably become a necessary symbol, giving a face of success to the space industry in the same way Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did to the computer industry. Perception matters most, and his legend is summed up in the fact that he is often described in the media as the Tony Stark of reality. This is true so much so that he was given a cameo in Iron Man 2.
Meanwhile, Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a name that has also become popularized. He was recently on Twitter giving baby name suggestions to Beyoncé, can be seen sitting alongside of Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert, and was eventually given his own tv show. Who is he? A billionaire extraordinaire? A foreign movie star with a unique accent? An unstoppable prize fighter? No.
He’s an astrophysicist who works at a planetarium.
And he has more followers than you. Think about that. I mean, the man received title of “World’s sexiest astrophysicist alive”, a category that I can only imagine must have been created solely for him.
Ultimately, it’s a beautiful progression. Someone is recognized in pop culture for their ability to understand and communicate our Universe, it’s wonders, and our place within it.
That’s pretty damn cool.
Why does it Matter?
Well, frankly: I’m jealous. I’m also very excited.
I’m jealous every time I look at my nephews and little brothers. They are growing up in the age of the push towards space exploration becoming private and publicly accessible. They’re growing up in a time where it’s cool to be intelligent and capable, where living on another planet is something real professionals are working towards, and where the focal point of much of their entertainment is creating and exploring on your own terms.
Should any of them be lucky enough to have the heart of an adventurer, they stand a damn good chance of having the Karman line, 62 miles above sea level with Earth steadied below them, as a viable travel destination.
We are growing up in a very special, still somewhat hidden era. It’s not quite at the forefront of scene yet, but it’s growing and getting there. We’re inherently part of this era, but it’s up to each one of us to decide if we will be active participants and supporters, or bystanders watching the defining change in our species pass us by. We all have a choice in small or large ways to be adventurers and passengers, allowing our work and minds to float beyond the limits of our blue marble, or to stay grounded, eyes focused on our feet below while they carry us through already-trekked soil.
Regardless of our choice, it’s happening. We’re finally getting what was lacking for non-militaristic focused space to take off: not solid rocket fuel, intelligent inventors, or willing participants. Instead, we’re beginning to create the visuals, music, imagination, and mindset that will ultimately enable our ability to light rockets.
Welcome to the second space age.
Don’t be a redshirt.