The beginning of the end of the dream began on January 28, 1986 at 4:39 pm. At this point the space shuttle exploded Challenger shortly after the start because of a defective sealing ring. All seven crew members died, including teacher Christa McAuliffe.
The mission was planned as a new start for space travel, which had reached a low point 17 years after the moon landing and the public-interest contest between the Soviet Union and the USA, which had been declared a matter of national honor, but which had fallen asleep. Instead of a moon base and a future in the stars, space travel seemed to consist only of boring experiments and a better local transport system called the Space Shuttle Program. The teacher Christa McAuliffe, however, was supposed to arouse new interest in the subject in school children.
The tragic story of the mission, which ended before it really began, is currently being told on Netflix in the documentary series “Challenger – The Final Flight”. Since the 50th anniversary of the moon landing last year, the media interest in space travel has been as great as the members of the Challenger had dreamed of: The film “Astronaut” with Richard Dreyfuss started this week, last year “Proxima – The Astronaut” . Disney Plus is currently running the series “The Right Stuff” about the beginnings of NASA, and Damien Chazelle filmed the moon landing with Ryan Gosling two years ago. And then there are the planetary pajamas, astronaut shirts and NASA jackets that the big fashion chains are throwing into their closets.
Where does it come from, this great current fascination for space travel?
Even the countdown before the launch of a rocket aligns the whole present with a spectacular event, a better future. Perhaps it is this euphoria, this spirit of optimism that is sorely missed in view of the current catastrophes Corona, Trump and climate change. Space travel borrowed the dramaturgical effect of the countdown to the rocket launch for its self-staging from the cinema, from Fritz Lang’s film “Woman in the Moon” from 1929. The physicist and writer Daniel Mellem tells this story in his recently published debut novel “The invention of Countdowns “about the rocket developer Hermann Oberth. So you can also find it in literature, the longing for the pioneering age, of course, it was responsible for utopias even before the cinema.
Space travel was thought ahead as a metaphor for the ascension long before it was realized
The fascination for space travel reflects the desire for undoubted heroes who are strapped to the tips of former war weapons and continue in space where the undoubted heroes of the American western, the cowboys invented in their well-known form by the cinema, are opening up new lands and the subsequent order of the same had ceased. In addition, those years were a time of political upheaval that one can only wish for today in the fight against climate change and other problems. Rock music, the hippie movement and New Hollywood called the conservative worldview into question, while at the same time the photographic view from the small windows of the Mercury– and Apollo– Space capsules and, from the surface of the moon, made the earth appear for the first time as the famous blue point it can be imagined as today.
At the time, the threateningly empty foreground of the moon in particular corrected some perspectives on the earth, and perhaps it is more than a nice coincidence that the Federal Ministry of the Interior was expanded to include a department for environmental protection for the first time in the year of the moon landing.
“For All Mankind” at Apple Plus shows how clearly these political upheavals and the utopian potential of this time were related to space travel. The series tells an alternate story of space travel, in which Russians and Americans compete not only on the size and range of their missiles, but also on gender equality. A second season is due to appear later this year, and it is precisely this “What if …” moment that explains the continuing nostalgic interest in the space era.
What if the space program had continued with the consistency of those early years?
Perhaps this unfulfilled promise and possibly also unfulfillable promises of the rocket age is part of the fascination. Because when you leave the earth, all life-world standards of time and space lose their meaning. The duration of journeys to distant stars, even with theoretically physically achievable fractions of the speed of light, is outside the human lifetime. But space travel never got to that point.
What if you thought the future as openly as it was then?
In one of his many glosses on space, the philosopher Hans Blumenberg described how space travel had been thought in advance as a metaphor for the ascension long before it was realized. The media longing does not only reveal the desire for a time that promised a better future. It also has a dark side, the secret desire to escape all earthly limitations of space and time, vulnerable bodies and complicated politics, and to flee into a state of eternal being. Like that Voyager– Space probes, which were also launched in that glorified time and will now shoot through nowhere for tens of thousands of years.
The new films and series are reminiscent of these dreams, and back then, too, it was books, such as the novels Jules Verne, and films, such as Fritz Lang’s, that made the utopian appear conceivable and ultimately also feasible. What if you not only projected these new fictions into the stars, not transfigured them in terms of salvation history, but applied them to earthly conditions and thought the future as openly as it was then?
The longing for the stars holds a utopian potential in store that is very much needed on earth. Perhaps then you wouldn’t even have to want to leave it.