The soft’ning wax, that felt a nearer sun,
Dissolv’d apace, and soon began to run.
The youth in vain his melting pinions shakes,
His feathers gone, no longer air he takes:
Oh! Father, father, as he strove to cry,
Down to the sea he tumbled from on high,
And found his Fate; yet still subsists by fame,
Among those waters that retain his name.
This partial verse represents the climactic demise of Icarus, as passed on from the Greek myths. As written by Publius Ovidius Naso in his famous mythological poem Metamorphoses, Icarus could be construed as a euphemism for humanity’s dream to fly. Oftentimes, though, a dream can lead to an unexpected outcome. In 1986, this became an unfortunate reality for the heroic astronauts aboard the space shuttle Challenger. On this fortuitous January 28, an in-flight breakup resulted in a large explosion. The spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean near Florida. All seven crew members were killed. After this much-publicized event, manned space missions became scarce for many years. In 2003, the space shuttle Columbia and its crew met a similarly disastrous fate, and now, except for flights to and from the ISS (International Space Station), there is very little human activity happening in space today.
40 years ago, it was wholly different story. Literature and Hollywood films captured the imagination of millions with compelling tales of the future of humanity. One of the films stood out for its extreme realism and ambition to tackle the most profound questions we have ever asked. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick released 2001: A Space Odyssey, a science-fiction film that would come to be heralded as a masterpiece of cinema. It is, to this day, an immense artistic and technical achievement, yet beyond the cinematic accolades, it also is a triumph of visual philosophy. The posters described it as “an epic drama of adventure and exploration,” which, by modern standards of cinema, would most probably be considered rather mundane. But as Norman Mailer describes in his vast account of the Apollo 11 mission, actually being in space is quite boring. Carl Sagan, on the other hand, would probably add to that, “it is a humbling and character-building” experience.
In the very recent film Prometheus, director Ridley Scott uses the name and story of this important figure of the myths as a metaphor. Prometheus is, of course, the famous Titan who defied the gods of Olympus by giving fire to humanity. For that transgression, his fate meant eternal punishment. As an immortal, he endured a giant eagle ripping out his liver every day; it would grow back only to be ripped out again the next day into a forever of next days (until Herakles freed him). In the history of science fiction cinema, stories have often been metaphors based on these tales as old as time, just like man’s dream to fly. For elusive reasons, space and mythology go hand in hand. Both implicate a far greater and heroic future for humanity.
2001 and Apollo 11
Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal film predicted a bright future for Pan Am Airlines. Said corporation was absolutely enthused with the idea of being the first airline to offer commercial flights to the Moon. It was possible even to “reserve” a seat on the first flights to our nearest satellite. Today, these reservation cards are nothing more than a prized collector’s item. And so the world continued to dream of reaching the stars. The ISS carries no resemblance to the circular, Hilton-branded station of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Instead, it looks like a pieced-together airborne laboratory consisting of separate modules. The actual year of 2001 was truly different from Kubrick’s vision. Space station? Check. However, not a commercially accessible, welcoming space for the public. It will take many decades yet before technology comes close enough to be able to result in a habitable space station. Apollo was the Greek deity often considered to be the god of light. In the form of NASA’s Apollo program, he represented humanity’s dream to venture into space. It was President Kennedy’s landmark speech to Congress in 1961 that kindled the space race.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” These were his words to Congress, which were, of course, also a side-effect of the Cold War. The United States did not want in any way to feel inferior to the USSR, which was at this point far ahead of the flock with its own space program. The first man in space was Russian. Under somewhat tragically brutal circumstances, Kennedy was murdered in 1963, robbing him of the joy of seeing Apollo 11 depart for the Moon. In science fiction, the exploration of space is hailed as an epic adventure and a heroic act of valor, while in reality the space race was only a political device to prove a nation’s superiority. In the end, the whole world united in celebration as Neil Armstrong made his giant leap for mankind. To this day, it remains the greatest achievement of manned spaceflight.
Space exploration begins to have a different face today. Until now, it was organizations like NASA or ETA, funded by the government, which led the initiative for space missions. Now, privately owned institutions like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are looking to take the reigns to our future in space. Earlier this week I also wrote about a Dutch project called Mars One, which has the ambitious goal of landing four brave astronauts on Mars by the year 2023. If anyone can do it, smaller organizations are probably better able to assess risks and adapt quickly than a bureaucratic, government-tethered behemoth like NASA.
What Has Mythology Got to Do with Space?
The Greek myths have given many names to human space missions — the most prominent of which is, of course, the Apollo program. One apparent parallel between fiction and reality is the moral of the stories. Greek mythology gives us many tales of heroes completing set tasks, gods versus Titans, or, if you will, good versus evil. The human urge to explore the unknown darkness of space is, in a way, also a tale of heroes finding their way through the labyrinth, as to slay the mighty Minotaur. Space exploration is as fascinating as it is crucial for sustaining our collective human morale and keep us reaching — literally — for the stars. Some may argue that enough problems on Earth require our immediate attention and that billions of dollars are wasted trying to uncover the mysteries of the cosmos. From a philosophical standpoint, though, the cosmos represents a challenge; if we master it, we might become wiser and stronger beings. This is, in my opinion, the meaning of the star child floating in space over Earth at the end of 2001.
One space shuttle was named Atlantis. Everybody has at least heard this name before. In legend, Atlantis was an advanced ancient civilization that sank into the sea and perished. Was it a real place, or just a story? Many expeditions have been launched to quest for remains of this legendary island-city, yet in spite of a few seemingly promising leads, nothing conclusive has yet been proven. In mythology, it is a place that plays a big role in the story of the Titans, namely Atlas (brother to the aforementioned Prometheus). In the myth, Atlas was the king of Atlantis, until its people fell into disgrace with the gods. Atlantean people began to have delusions of grandeur, ambitious to become as powerful as the gods themselves. In response to their arrogance, Zeus destroyed the island and punished Atlas. The iconic image of him carrying the world on his shoulders is exactly his fate in the myth.
A Brief Look into the Future
Just recently the world witnessed the successful launch of the privately funded Dragon craft. Elon Musk, billionaire founder of SpaceX, became $1.4 billion richer after the company’s value soared 200%. This values SpaceX at $2.4 billion. Kirstin Brost Grantham, executive, said that the privately held company has entered into $4 billion worth of contracts for commercial and government launches through 2017. This is a huge achievement in the history of human space programs. So much so that even President Obama made a personal call to Musk just to congratulate him on the occasion. Musk was one of the founders of PayPal, and is also the major backer of Tesla, the electric car company.
This company and others, such as Virgin Galactic, are pushing the envelope of technology and dreams coming true. The first flight with Virgin will still set you back a cool $200,000 today. However, 30 years from now, this sum will likely diminish tenfold — or so I hope. We can only keep our fingers crossed that humanity will not face a fate like the mythic heroes we admire so. As we expand into space, we must also remain humble. Our civilization can achieve awe-inspiring goals, but also forget that we have responsibilities far more important than flying into space.
If prices do fall dramatically, let know me. If someone told me I could be one of the lucky astronauts flying to Mars, I would answer, “Sign me up!” For a brief moment in time I would feel like a Titan, until I remember that I am still mortal.