From Space Odyssey to Satellite TV

Pop Culture

From Space Odyssey to Satellite TV

Illustration: Mandar Mhaskar

As ISRO’s 104 satellites went into orbit today, they added yet another chapter to the ever-expanding book on human flirtation with outer space.

Almost exactly thirty-three years ago, one of the book’s earlier chapters was written. In 1984, NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless became the first human to fly untethered in space. The US Navy Captain exited the Challenger shuttle, wearing a jetpack of his own design, and flew freely in space. McCandless’ backpack was regarded as an important step on the road to technology that would enable astronauts to conduct spacecraft repairs while on long space journeys.

In what must have been one of the greatest thrill rides a person can experience, McCandless orbited the Earth in tangent with the shuttle at speeds of 17,500 mph. For an hour and a half, he flew back and forth in space, admiring the Earth and testing his invention. The picture of the shuttle astronaut floating 300 feet from the orbiter Challenger made for one of the most iconic pictures in space exploration that brought home the sheer vastness of the terrifying unknown that lay out there.

Thirty-three years later, the sense of wonder surrounding space exploration has dimmed. Barring a few exceptions like China and Russia, countries aren’t sending humans into space. Even the ongoing and proposed programmes we currently have are mere orbiting missions, conducted so that a country can claim to have sent its citizens into space. Space adventures do not excite us anymore unless they’re on large IMAX screens served with a super-size tub of popcorn.

Science fiction’s success as a genre was hugely reliant upon public curiosity generated by the first real world missions to space.

Today, modern space missions are no longer about human beings exploring the final frontier but about increasing the number of channels on our TV screens and updating Google Maps. Instead of being awed by the infinite expanse of the universe, we’re more concerned with discovering exoplanets to colonise and finding ways to mine minerals from asteroids. Instead of world governments doing exciting stuff like trying to make contact with extra-terrestrial life, they’re more concerned with being able to put missile silos in orbit. Space exploration seems to have shifted from the adventurous to the transactional, which may be admittedly more efficient, but is also exploitative and comes at the significant cost of deeply satisfying science fiction.

Science fiction’s success as a genre was hugely reliant upon public curiosity generated by the first real world missions to space. If it wasn’t for guys like Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin, we wouldn’t have had Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi. Gene Rodenberry’s series about the starship, Enterprise, and its voyages across the breadth of the final frontier, showed mankind united in pursuit of progress. Sentient and intelligent forms of alien life come together to work towards mutual betterment, and the Enterprise’s mission directive is to gather knowledge, not plunder resources.

The way we use space today is a far cry from the romanticised ideal that most of us live with.  We no longer see space as a gateway to the next chapter in human history. In fact, as space research becomes more and more ambitious, space also becomes a junkyard for our debris. Space’s demotion from the final frontier to a garbage dump is a sad indicator of our times. When ISRO’s 104 new satellites begin orbiting Earth, they will be entering a crowded field of space junk, filled with dangerous objects such as rocket parts and dismantled satellites that float around the Earth’s orbit. If McCandless and his jetpack were to go into space today, they would collide into random debris like the Star Trek creator’s ashes, frozen peas, and of course, the debris of 104 ISRO satellites once they run out of power.

So now instead of Jedi vs Sith battles, we’ll perhaps get rom-coms featuring Paul Rudd as a mailman fighting space junk to deliver love letters to the moon?

The thought leaves me with a tinge of sadness. When I was younger, I used to dream about going on journeys to uncharted planets and cataloguing the mysteries of the universe, à la Calvin’s Spaceman Spiff. The way we’re going, I’m worried that by the time we even get to Mars, it’s going to be one large construction site with a sign that says “CASA MARS BY KANAKIA BUILDERS – COMING SOON!”