The Stars Our Destination?

Marking FACT’s Republic of The Moon exhibition, C. James Fagan ponders our appetite for the future as envisioned by previous generations…

The opening of Arthur C Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, tells the story of Moon-Watcher, an ape who attempts to catch our lunar neighbour. Moon-Watcher’s imagination, his need to reach something he cannot comprehend, is rewarded with an evolutionary leap; life on Earth is given the encouragement to develop; Moon-Watcher, a greater depth of understanding.

This sequence is a condensed history of our relationship to the Moon, especially as a symbol for our aspirations; the bright signpost to our hopes, and our need to explore beyond the horizon. It also highlights the dangers inherent in our evolution. Eventually these aspirations, fuelled by the politics of two competing ideologies, would lead to Neil Armstrong standing a quarter of a million miles away from the Earth.

A dream fulfilled? If so, what became of this dream? Has the grand achievement of going to the Moon lead to the emptying of poetic and romantic notions of our closest galactic neighbour? Did landing on the Moon mark the end of the era of heroic, grandstanding projects and the space race as a whole?

Of course the race to the Moon wasn’t simply about our spirit of adventure. Without the Cold War, our getting there may have been longer in the coming; there was doubt over the need to send people to the Moon. The need to trump the Soviet’s endeavours in the Space Race (and to ensure, as some people believed at the time, the Russians hadn’t built bases on the dark side) was the driving motivation to head to our celestial neighbour, not the need to explore and advance humanity. These concerns about the dubious motivations behind space exploration are expressed by a character in Stanislaw Lem ‘s Solaris who states: ‘We don’t really want to explore other worlds. On the contrary, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth.’ Coincidentally, the novel and film bookend the Space Race, published in 1961, the (original) movie followed in 1972.

“If you feel insignificant gazing at the night sky, imagine how you’d feel floating up there”

This leads us to question how people view the space race. When I read about or watch films such as ‘Destination Moon’ it strikes me that this belief in pure exploration belongs to a future which happened before many of us were born. Sometimes it feels that going to the moon in silver rockets is as realistic as flying to the moon on a goose led chariot. Does the notion of a Space Age simply stand out like a jewel within a murky part of history? It’s also interesting to note how the image of space travel changed in such a short time, moving from the silver bullets of the fifties, through the technically correct ships of 2001, to the battered workaday ships of Star Wars which have become the industry standard. I wonder how this shift influenced or reflects a general attitude towards the future.

Science is as subject to the influence of society and culture as those films and novels inspired by our collective idea of the future. Perhaps in these fearful times our striving to look beyond the horizon has been dimmed. In saying this, progress seems in rude health over at CERN, where sub-atomic particles are seemingly exceeding the speed of light, leading to thoughts of that other oft-imagined frontier: time travel.

But I digress. Maybe the dream of the Moon simply belongs to another generation, one which saw it as a way of escaping the terrible dark years scarring the first half of the 20th century. Have we forgotten the dream? I remember overhearing a conversation between a father and his child, where the child asked ‘Why hasn’t anyone gone to the Moon?’

In a way the kid had a point; nobody has been to the Moon since Gene Cernan left nearly thirty years ago. There’s no real political drive; space exploration is often seen as a waste of money with no real benefits (though it’s much cheaper than a war). Perhaps there’s something darker in the human psyche holding us back. As much as we need to expand to explore and evolve, we need to avoid dangers to survive. The effects of this contradiction, the comedown from the Space Race as it where, are explored by J.G Ballard in his short story collection ‘Memories of the Space Age’, where rocket pads lay empty, inhabited by people filled with a desperate nostalgia, collecting Astronaut bones as fetishistic totems and generally contemplating the ‘moral and biological rightness of space exploration.’

I think what I’m trying to hint at here is that space is huge, terrifying. If you feel insignificant gazing at the night sky, imagine how you’d feel floating up there. Neil Armstrong talks about how being able to cover the Earth with his thumb didn’t fill him with godlike feelings, rather just made him feel small and vulnerable. Of course this kind of talk won’t do much to fire the public’s imagination. You might argue the difficultly the moon walkers have in expressing their experiences has fed into a malaise about space exploration in general.  What are the reference points for such a unique experience, an experience which led a Lunar Module pilot to comment about falling into an ‘earthly ennui’ on his return?

Did we go to the Moon too early? Perhaps there is an argument to be made that before the colonisation of outer space, a colonisation of inner space needs to take place. I’d like to think that Arts Catalyst’s current exhibition at FACT is the vanguard of this colonisation. The artists involved are wrestling The Moon away from those who’ll merely use it as a means to an end, a source to be stripped, a stepping stone, and ensure it remains in the hands of the descendants of Moon-Watcher, the dreamers who’ll be the true inheritors of The Republic of the Moon.

C. James Fagan

Illustration by Thom Isom

The Republic of the Moon at FACT continues until February 26th

Read our review

Posted on 04/01/2012 by thedoublenegative