THE CENTER'S NEWEST PROJECT

Into the Cosmic Sublime: Apollo, Star Trek, Interstellar, and the 21st Century Space Age

A new book by Barry Vacker

To be published in Fall 2015.

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The future begins. — tagline for Star Trek (2009)

We used to look up in the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt. — astronaut Cooper in Interstellar (2014).

FROM CHAPTER ONE

Click on poster to view trailer.It's 2015. We are now 14 orbits of the sun past “2001,” the year once slated for Stanley Kubrick's “space odyssey.” And we have orbited the sun almost 50 times since Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 produced two of single greatest accomplishments of the human species — the views of Earth from space in 1968 and the moonwalk in 1969. 

Perhaps even more profoundly, Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 did something that had never been done before or since, for the missions to the moon largely united the human species in the celebration of a scientific and human achievement. In so doing, NASA and Apollo basically did the impossible, inspiring the world to set aside their petty squabbles, for once and if but for a moment, and to look up in awe and wonder, to contemplate our place in the cosmos. Though few agreed on what Apollo meant, beyond being a stunning achievement, it at least inspired humans to reflect upon our shared human destiny and the great things humans can accomplish. Together, Kubrick and NASA directed space odysseys that expressed the highest trajectories of the space age, when humanity ventured into the cosmic sublime — the overwhelming sense of awe, wonder, and sometimes horror that is felt when viewing Earth from space or gazing at the vast and ancient cosmos.

2001: A Space Odyssey and Apollo 11 have yet to be matched, though it seems some grand space films have emerged in the 21st century. Released in 2014, Interstellar is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time, while the new Star Trek films have proven immensely popular. The new Star Trek was released in 2009, followed by Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013. Though these three films all present apocalyptic scenarios in the future, Star Trek and Interstellar have very different visions for human destiny on Earth — human flourishing in Star Trek versus near-human extinction in Interstellar.

Given the visions of Star Trek and Interstellar and the emergence of privatized space travel, perhaps it's time to explore the deeper meanings of space films and what humans are doing in space in the 21st century. These films suggest a renewed popular interest in space exploration, which has significantly diminished since the heights of the Apollo program in the 1960s. We send human bodies into space on to live on space stations, while we extend human consciousness into space with the Hubble Space Telescope — to reveal a vast and ancient cosmos with billions of galaxies each with billions of stars, along with untold numbers of planets, moons, supernovas, black holes, and so on. Our current understanding of the expanding universe surely ranks as the greatest intellectual accomplishment in the history of the human species. Sending bodies and extending consciousness into space has produced humanity’s greatest scientific and intellectual achievements. At the existential level, venturing into this vast universe seduces our aesthetic sensibilities, triggering our experience of the cosmic sublime. 

Space exploration seems to be entering a new era. Private firms like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic hope to capitalize on privatized space travel and space tourism. China has sent astronauts into orbit, while India has a spacecraft orbiting Mars. The European Space Agency recently landed a space probe on a comet, while the International Space Station continues to orbit the planet as a symbol of international cooperation in science and space. Meanwhile, one-time pioneer NASA currently has no plans to launch human bodies into space, but continues to extend human consciousness ever farther into space via the Hubble and Kepler telescopes, among many others, which are revolutionizing the sciences of cosmology and biology. Space exploration points to a wide range of issues far beyond mere nationalist politics, radical new technologies, and cool astronaut selfies, for these cosmological discoveries suggest we rethink the narratives for humans in space and on Spaceship Earth? Isn’t this explicit in the visions of Star Trek and Interstellar?

Click on poster to view trailer.What does the cosmic sublime and new cosmology mean for the human passengers on Spaceship Earth? Nothing or something? For example, do the views of Earth from space mean nothing for how humans organize their societies and imagine their destinies? What does it mean to know that the raw materials of our DNA were forged in the furnaces of stars? Did hydrogen atoms evolve across 13.7 billion years to become self-aware and wonder about their origins, only to produce humans who imagine their infinitesimally small lives are the center of the universe? Is this awe-inspiring cosmology merely a scientific curiosity with no meaning for our species, our society, and our relation to the planet and cosmos? Or does this cosmology point to a new space odyssey, with new trajectories for the organization of civilization and the vision of human destiny on Spaceship Earth — a future that is sane and humane, ecological and technological, optimistic and inspiring, meaningful and beautiful? Do Star TrekInterstellar, and the new space exploration efforts collectively signal a new space odyssey? Are we living in an emerging 21st century space age?

This book will draw from cosmology, technology, philosophy, aesthetics, and media theory, including the ideas of President John Kennedy, Jean-Paul Sartre, Marshall McLuhan, Carl Sagan, Jill Tarter, Jean Baudrillard, Immanuel Kant, Brian Cox, and others. The book hopes to inspire you to think critically and creatively about space and human destiny, in ways that are broader and deeper than the conventional perspectives. That should not be surprising, as there are a wide range of issues — far beyond economics and nationalism — that inform the space age narratives for our species and they are present in Star Trek, Interstellar, and other space films, past and future. 

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