The Broken Beyond: How Space Turned Into an Office Park
Last summer the last Space Shuttle took its last space flight, but last week it took its last worldly one. It ended a generation’s era of space marvel, which turned out to take a very different path from that of the previous generation. During the 1950s and 1960s, space exploration was primarily a proxy for geopolitical combat. It was largely symbolic, even if set against a background of earnest frontiersmanship. By the 1970s, space had become a laboratory rather than a frontier. Despite its status as “space station,” Skylab was first called Orbital Workshop, making it sound more like dad’s vision for his garage than like Kubrik’s vision of 2001. Space exploration became self-referential: missions were sent to SkyLab in order to repair SkyLab.
The Space Shuttle turned the workaday space lab into a suburban delivery and odd-jobs service. Satellites were deployed, space labs serviced, probes released, crystals grown. Meanwhile, the aspects of space travel that really interest people–such as the fact that it’s travel in motherfucking outer space–were downplayed or eliminated. The very idea of a reusable space vehicle is contrary to everything that space travel had previously represented–wealth and power for one, but also enormity and smallness and risk and brazenness and uncertainty and dark, dark darkness–expedition rather than experimentation.