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The Wrong Stuff: The Private Space Race

  by Mark Simpson

(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2007)

Like many kids in the late 1960s and early 1970s I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up in the space-age future. I had no idea that:

a) I wasn’t going to grow up and b) the future was going to be cancelled due to lack of interest.

Back when we had a future, astronauts were ideological warriors. Not just in the glamorous, flamingly phallic Cold War Space Race, but in the Apollonian battle for men’s souls. Space travel, whether ‘cosmo’ or ‘astro’, was an expression of a devout faith in Progress and the Future: ‘One small step for man – one giant leap for mankind.’

To beat the commies America became… a little bit commie. NASA was the New Deal in Space. Astronauts were Utopian pioneers. Winged vanguardists of the shiny, silvery new Future. That’s why they had to pass so many tests and spin round and round in those giant centrifuges. Their souls were being assayed. They had to be made of the Right Stuff.

But the Apollo Missions were cancelled. A decade or so later the USSR imploded, and the Space Shuttle exploded – twice: once in 1986 and again for good measure in 2003. Even without these disasters the dream behind the Shuttle – a relatively cheap, fast-turnaround, reusable ‘space taxi’- has gone up in smoke. The Shuttle never really achieved what it was designed to do.

Space just isn’t so spacey now. Fifty years after Sputnik flashed through the heavens and gave humankind cause to crick its neck and dream of the stars, we’ve got other things to think about. Like unanswered e-mails and all the porn we haven’t downloaded yet. Cyberspace has captured, if not our imagination, then certainly our attention – not to mention our phallicisms. Instead of heavenwards, we’re all looking down at our laps.

Yes, President Bush said something recently about the US returning to the moon and even visiting Mars – but does anyone really still believe the US put a man on the moon? Haven’t we all seen the websites that prove it was all faked? And yes, there is some talk of a ‘new’ Space Race, as an ascendant China enters the fray, and an apparently stagnating US tries to maintain its strategic advantage. Though I suspect that this new space race, if it materialises, will fail to capture earthly imaginations. The world was already bored and changing channels in 1970. That’s why the Apollo TV reality show was cancelled.

For now, what’s left of the Space Race is between private entrepreneurs, free of ideological and bureaucratic baggage, competing to be the first to offer commercial flights into space.

Though not entirely free, of course. If you want to be an astronaut today, you don’t have to be made of the right stuff. You just have to have to be made of $200,000. For that price you’ll get to see, as the website for one spaceflight company promises appetisingly, ‘the distinct curvature of the Earth with the thin blue line of the atmosphere’s edge… the iconic image of the space age, of which you are now a part of.’

$200,000 buys you, in other words, a piece not of the Future, but of the past – but with you now starring in it. The New Space Race isn’t about global hegemony or Progress or even much about space, but rather about being the first to satisfy the latest infantile wish-fulfilment of an infantile age. Hey! Doesn’t space look, like, really coooool!

Richard Branson, a man who has been highly successful at satisfying our infantile wishes on Earth (and become richer than Croesus for his pains) thinks he can do it in space. ‘Like many of you,’ says the very smiley, bearded, fun-time airline, lifestyle, and media mogul in a video on

‘I can still remember watching with my parents on TV those live black and white images in 1969 of two men who travelled to another world [cue grainy b/w footage of Armstrong & Co. gambolling on the Moon]. ‘I was spellbound and vowed to follow them into space one day. It took a bit longer than I expected, but now we’re well on the way to offering the world’s first commercial spaceflights.’

It’s not exactly Jack Kennedy – more Children’s BBC.

A host of entrepreneurs are in the wacky New Space Race, many of them having made their billions in geeky ‘innerspace’: from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin (developing what appears to be a flying saltcellar), to video game designer John Carmack’s Armadillo Aerospace (developing what appears to be a flying bunch of onions). But the two main contenders – the USA and USSR of privatised manned spaceflight – are Branson’s Virgin Galactic and former computer guru Jim Benson’s Benson Space Company. Both Branson and Benson are booking flights now and have found plenty of people willing to stump up the $20,000 deposit. Both are also slating their first commercial flight for early 2009. As Benson’s site puts it: ‘Spaceflight, the extreme luxury sport, is becoming a reality.’

Except it isn’t. Not quite. Not yet. This is more of a joy-ride – a souped-up simulation of spaceflight. BSC and Virgin Galactic are offering ‘sub-orbital’ flights that are in space for only a few minutes before returning to Earth less than an hour after launch – their vehicles only achieve at altitude of c.100 km instead of the 300 km required for low-Earth orbit, and don’t approach anything like the speeds required for proper, superpower space flight.

The view from your passenger seat will certainly be impressive. You will experience a few minutes of weightlessness. And you will be able to tell your impressed dinner guests back home you were ‘in space’. But you really won’t deserve the hallowed title ‘astronaut’, as both Branson and Benson, of course, emphasise you will. What you will be is just a very wealthy and mildly adventurous tourist. (Though if Branson or Benson are handing out press flights, I’ll happily take all that back.)

According to BSC, ‘astronaut preparation facilities’ will ‘include exclusive first-class accommodations’ and an ‘ultra-modern Launch Viewing Lounge’ where family and friends ‘can have a gourmet experience while watching their loved ones make history in the New Space Age…’. Or, more accurately, watch hubby relive his childhood by unmaking history between gourmet dessert and coffee.

Funnily enough, they don’t mention anything about spinning around in giant centrifuges.

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6 thoughts on “The Wrong Stuff: The Private Space Race”

  1. HH: I found living in Southern California at the end of the 80s the nearest thing to The Jetsons – largely because there was still a great deal of that 1950s-60s ‘futurama’ architecture around, mostly in the form of diners. And because you could still zoom on and off the raised freeways – and go from Downtown to the beach in a few minutes.

  2. I don’t need to go into space. But I do need a jetpack, a nuclear-powered car, and those little pills you can eat instead of food.

    At least they’ve invented the treadmill where you walk your dog, I guess.

  3. Thanks very much for reassuring me that I’m not completely mad, Fresca. Or that, at least, I’m in good company.

    Ta also for saying that my piece on ST is the funniest one out there – I think your article is much funnier than mine, and I can’t believe that I missed those parted lips and high heel boots – or the fact that Shatner looked like Shelly Winters!

  4. Dear Mr. Simpson,

    I noted these space flights, too, and was about to feel deprived when I realized they never leave sub-orbital space. I’m waiting till they escape Earth’s atmosphere before I become green with jealousy because I can’t afford to go…

    But actually, I’m writing here to say thank you for your 2003 article “Capt. Kirk’s Bulging Trousers.”

    As part of a middle-aged life review, I’ve been watching classic Star Trek for the first time in 30 years, and I’m enjoying noting at how much I missed back when it was my 1970s high school life support, here in the American Midwest. I don’t recall pondering Star Trek’s Cold War ideologies or dropping my jaw at the show’s many BDSM elements, such as “collars of obedience” (“Gamesters of Triskelion”) and “givers of pain and delight” (“Spock’s Brain”).

    After musing and blogging a bit about Star Trek’s subtexts, I decided to see what other people are saying, and the other day (2/29/08), Google offered me your article. Its title caught my eye because I had similarly titled a post “Capt. Kirk’s Parted Lips” a few weeks earlier. [I’ll cut-and-paste it here, below.]

    I read your article and howled with delight to recognize expansions of conclusions I had reached myself–and more. You especially helped clear up my confusion about why the post-’60s series leave me cold–Picard’s bourgeois underwear (etc.). In fact, your article is the best thing I’ve read on Star Trek, (there’s a lot of ponderous stuff out there, as you know), and certainly the funniest.
    Thanks for your work.

    “Capt. Kirk’s Parted Lips”

    [photo of Shelley Winters as a lush young thing, lying down, arms over head, lips parted.]
    Shelley Winters advised her roommate and sister-starlet Marilyn Monroe in the 1940s how to assume the cheesecake look: tilt your chin up, cast your eyes down, (or chin down, eyes up), and part your lips slightly.

    The physical blind spot is an actual place on the retina (on the back of our eyeballs) where the optic nerve passes through. At this place, there are none of the light receptors necessary for vision. Because the brain fills in the missing image, we don’t know that we’re not seeing something.

    Star Trek’s view of women is a textbook case for demonstrating psychological blind spots. Or, as Donald Rumsfeld called them, “unknown unknowns.”

    Star Trek set out to challenge social stereotypes, and they did pretty well for the time pushing the boundaries of race and nationality.

    E.g. Kirk and Uhura’s kiss is the first interracial kiss on fiction TV, which counts even though aliens made them do it. Star Trek used a bunch of classic Grade-B-movie tricks, a la film director Douglas Sirk (“All That Heaven Allows,” etc.), to fly under the censor’s radar.

    But they didn’t question the stereotypes that fell in their own blind spots, and it seems the blind spot where women were concerned was enormous.

    Long story short: look at those ridiculous uniforms the women starship crew members wear. Don’t they just scream, “guaranteed yeast-infection”?

    But, boy, does the show mess around with gender where men are concerned. It’s a big part of the fun.

    Let’s start with those high-heeled boots the starship’s men wear.
    Anything that destabilizes the body and elevates the rump, like high heels do, accentuates vulnerability and sexual receptivity, which is traditionally what sexy clothes for women, not men, do.

    OK, cowboys wear boots with high heels, but that’s to hold their feet in the stirrups.
    Star Trek boots look like men’s flamenco boots. Wikipedia comments that male dance shoes with Cuban heels are “not considered effeminate.” Maybe not in Seville, but when you have to tell a North American audience that something is not effeminate…well, ’nuff said.

    I got thinking about the S-T boots when Captain Kirk does not wear them in “Arena.”
    In that episode, he has to climb lots of rocks (real rocks! not those spray-painted styrofoam jobs), as he evades the enemy lizard captain.

    I can imagine Mr. Shatner (or the insurers) insisting he not risk twisting his ankle in the usual boots. He wears instead what look like black leather high-top tennies.
    So why are unsafe boots standard Starfleet issue, except that they are considered cute in the 23rd century?

    And speaking of cute, the biggest gender-bender is the captain himself.
    He’s all manly and decisive, sure, but why does he wear eye liner? I like it–it makes him look pretty.

    Spock wears blue eyeshadow, true, but he is never girly.

    But girly? How ’bout the way Kirk sits in the captain’s chair, with his legs crossed, closed tight? Manly men in the 20th century rested their ankles across their knees.

    Less obvious is one of the most feminine things Kirk does:
    he parts his lips slightly, like Shelley Winters. The look is more about being kissed than kissing.

    In fact, Shatner kind of reminds me of Winters.
    Don’t think “The Poseidon Adventure” (or–look at her when she’s young.

    Both actors, when young, had a ripe, sexy fleshiness that promised an overblown-rose old age.
    (Simone Signoret and Marcello Mastroianni are other examples of this kind of lush actor, who you bet battled temptation in the form of pasta and gelato––or whiskey and French fries. I can relate.)

    There’s a whole realm of Star Trek fandom that explores or invents a gay relationship between Kirk and Spock.
    That’s not what I’m talking about here.

    I haven’t kept up with Queer Theory, but when I last looked in, gender was not the same as sexuality, and I don’t think it is.
    True, Kirk and Spock make goo-goo eyes at each other, and they’re obviously crazy about each other, but I don’t read their love, while romantic, as sexual (tho’ it certainly could be).

    No, I just think that by the 23rd century, men get to wear high heels and eye-liner, sit like sissies, and make pouty, kissy faces at other guys if they want–and also beat the hell out of giant killer reptiles.

    That’s a future I’d sign up for. But not if women are still wearing pantyhose to work.

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