Monday, August 11, 2014

Space Oddities and Eventualities

With the relationship between the United States and Russia growing increasingly more strained over the crisis in the Ukraine, there has been a great deal of concern over our reliance on Russian rockets. Not only have we been depending on Russian Soyuz rockets launched from their base in Kazakhstan to get our astronauts to the International Space Station ever since the end of NASA's space shuttle program in 2011, but we also import their rockets into the US to get our own satellites into orbit, and this includes our military and spy satellites.

Of course, our use of Russian space technology was only supposed to tide us over while private, commercial companies moved in to fill our government's needs. That's the American way, after all, to turn things over to the private sector whenever possible. And it has worked well for us in many instances, but there are some things that the private sector is just not equipped to handle, and some things that just ought not to be privatized. Like roads and highways and prisons, for example, and police forces and fire departments. Moreover, Neil Postman pointed out that western nations that did not privatize broadcasting in the way that the US did were able to mitigate some of the negative effects of the television medium. 

On the other hand, we have a long history of commercial transportation by land, waterways, and in the 20th century by air as well. Stanely Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey famously portrayed a future where Pan Am, ironically enough given that the airline has been defunct since 1991, provided shuttle service from the Earth to an orbiting space station still under construction, and from there to our lunar colony.

Now, I want to acknowledge the very powerful argument made by Lewis Mumford, among others, that much of our space program has amounted to an enormous waste of resources that are sorely needed in so many other places. Having grown up during the Space Age, cheering on as we won the Space Race with the Soviet Union, I still have an emotional connection to the idea of space exploration, and I am more than a little disappointed that we are not living in the future that Kubrick depicted during my childhood, not to mention the kind of future Gene Roddenberry gave us in the original Star Trek TV series. And while I was not in favor of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly referred to as Star Wars, I did note that many science fiction fans actually came out in support of the proposal, not so much out of political conviction or military necessity, but because it provided a reason to expand our involvement in space.

So, from a hawkish perspective, there are legitimate national security concerns, given our present dependence on Russia, and China's expansion of its space program—they have their sights set on the moon now. From a more centrist position, there still are reasons to want to see space dominated by western democracies rather than nations with authoritarian regimes. And apart from these more practical considerations,
space exploration does represent the intangible value of inspiration, not just in lifting our morale, but in giving us a new perspective on ourselves and our world, as  summed up by Buckminster Fuller's famous phrase, spaceship earth, and with it in granting us the basis of a utopian vision of humanity united and looking outward, instead of consumed by internal conflicts. Now wouldn't that be something?

And maybe space is the means by which we can transcend our current travails, but we have a long way to go, and the question of whether our current activities are worth the price tag remains open. Be that as it may, the current concern over our capabilities of getting into space on our own reminded me of the video sensation that was a product of happier times, just a little over a year ago, in May of 2013. As you may recall, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to walk in space and the first Canadian to serve as commander of the International Space Station, caused quite a stir before returning to earth from his final mission in Earth orbit, when he posted a YouTube video consisting of footage videotaped aboard the International Space Station. It was a music video in which he sang the David Bowie song, "Space Oddity," but with a somewhat different set of lyrics. In case you missed it, here it is:

Now, for those of us of a certain age, "Space Oddity" was one of the best known and most popular songs of the progressive rock era, and it was David Bowie's first big hit back in 1969. For those of us who were into that kind of music, it was a song we loved to sing along to, or sing by ourselves. This was marvelously illustrated in a scene from the Adam Sandler 2002 film, Mr. Deeds (which was, of course, a remake of Frank Capra's 1936 classic Mr. Deeds Goes to Town):

The song also comes up in Ben Stiller's 2013 film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (which of course was a remake of the 1947 film of the same name starring Danny Kaye, both being adaptations of the 1939 short story by the brilliant humorist James Thurber). First there's the spoken word reference that comes up towards the end of this clip:

And then there's this wonderful scene, which has the performance of the song occurring in Mitty's imagination motivating him to actually continue on his adventure:

The scene mixes together with Kristen Wiig's imaginary barroom performance with David Bowie's original version. And I suppose I really ought to include the original recording here too, while I'm at it:

Now, when you consider how Chris Hadfield changed the lyrics, it makes perfect sense for him to not only make the song more descriptive of his experience as an actual astronaut, but to shift the sense away from Major Tom's essentially suicidal space walk. The original sensibility of the song was not at all the positive spin that Hadfield gives it. In some ways, it's more in line with the 2013 film Gravity, which actual astronauts have hailed as the most realistic cinematic depiction to date of what it's like to be up in space, albeit one that portrays a kind of disaster that has not yet occurred, a snowball effect where a destroyed satellite starts to take out other satellites resulting in a large debris field orbiting the Earth and destroying all in its path. It's a scenario that is not at all impossible, and sets up the main conflict in the film:

By the way, Sandra Bullock absolutely deserved the Academy Award for Best Actress for that film, no question about it. She was entirely brilliant in her performance, and about 80% of the film was her alone. But holding that aside, the film served as a reminder that space is not all fun and games and singing our favorite classic rock hits while floating in zero-g. In fact, it's an environment that is completely hostile to any form of terrestrial life, and space travel, at least as it exists now and will exist in the near future, is risky, dangerous, claustrophobic, disorienting, and absolutely inhuman. This all connects back to Mumford's criticism of the space program.

Getting back to "Space Oddity" by David Bowie, the song is a product of the sixties counterculture, and as such, runs counter to the depiction of astronauts as heroic types, blessed with what Tom Wolfe famously referred to as the right stuff. In Bowie's song, that other Tom, Major Tom, had become a media celebrity, was feeling vulnerable and impotent circling the globe in his tin can, and was apparently suffering from depression, although the song is also clearly inspired by Kurick's Space Odyssey where Dave Bowman also leaves his capsule at the end, but that occurs as part of a transcendent encounter with an alien intelligence. So perhaps Major Tom is also seeking the transcendence of becoming one with the universe, but the point is that he is no longer functioning in the efficient and predictable manner of an astronaut.

I would also venture to guess that science fiction writer Ray Bradbury's short story "The Rocket Man" (included in his 1951 anthology The Illustrated Man) was an influence on Bowie as well. The story depicts a near future in which astronauts are no longer the best and brightest, cream of the crop types, but rather more like workers, albeit ones working in extreme conditions, and therefore relatively well paid for their labor. Written a decade before Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth in 1961, Bradbury gave us a vision of the future in which space travel had become somewhat routine, and outer space a place of work, like, say, an oil rig or coal mine.

Bradbury's story gives us a future in which going to outer space is neither glamorous nor heroic, and that's what Bowie's song does as well. "The Rocket Man" is also the inspiration for the Elton John hit from 1972, "Rocket Man" (included on his Honky Château record album):

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry on "Rocket Man" states that, "the song echoes the theme of David Bowie's 1969 song 'Space Oddity' (both recordings were produced by Gus Dudgeon)." A third song I would group together with these two is neither as spacey as Bowie's nor as wistful as the lyrics Bernie Taupin wrote for Elton John, but rather one that exhibits a bit of humor about it all: Harry Nilsson's: "Spaceman":

While owing much to Bradbury, I think Nilsson's version is the most prescient of the three and it's certainly the most fun!)). By the way, the view of space as a working environment involving a great deal of drudgery was the basis of the little known 1974 dark science fiction comedy directed by John Carpenter, Dark Star. The script for this relatively low budget, independent film, written by Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon, borrowed heavily from Bradbury's short story. Here's the trailer:

Dan O'Bannon, it is worth noting, went on to become the lead writer on the 1979 Ridley Scott horror-science fiction hybrid Alien, which further elaborated on the vision of a future in which astronauts are nothing more than employees of a corporation, in this case divided between white and blue collar types, and all considered expendable in an effort to obtain the incredibly dangerous and deadly alien for the company's weapons division. 

But maybe the way to bring this post to a close is with the Grateful Dead song, "Standing on the Moon" from their final album, Built to Last released in 1989:

Although Robert Hunter's lyrics were written almost two decades after "Space Oddity" was released, the sensibility is in keeping with the sixties, perhaps less dramatic, more, dare I say it, down to earth? "Standing on the moon, with nothing left to do, a lovely view of heaven, but I'd rather be with you." Mumford would approve—what really matters, in the end, is not our technological prowess, but our human relationships.

1 comment:

marty friedman said...

And not to forget Peter Schilling's 'Major Tom' which put a more positive spin about the space exploration experience with a happier ending than Bowie's original 'Space Oddity.'