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A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Mars

A slew of art projects, entrepreneurial ventures and sci-fi flicks ask whether it's time to give up on the planet Earth. by Maxwell Williams

June 22, 2013

Ask a Bangladeshi knee-deep in muddy waters from the Ganges, and he’ll tell you the world is a different place than it was 40 years ago. Same goes for the farmer in Cambodia, whose crops are consistently destroyed by severe rainfalls—not to mention a certain ex-community organizer from Chicago who warned a rapt audience about “the destructive power of a warming planet,” just after being re-elected for his second term as president this past November. The world is finally beginning to acknowledge the macabre truth of Earth’s unseemly demise. As Van Jones puts it in Do the Math, 350.org’s 42-minute documentary about the state of the planet, “This is the biggest emergency the human family has faced since it came out of the caves.”

Environmentalists, of course, have been warning us about these inconvenient truths for years, urging governments, leaders, organizations, and individuals worldwide to take action, but in recent years the fact that humankind finds itself a few thermometer degrees, a series of natural disasters, or a bad gambit in the Middle East from deep levels of cosmic dung has been steadily steeping into the zeitgeist. Seven years after  Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth grossed $50 million at the box office, filmmakers can now take for granted that audiences need to suspend very little disbelief to acknowledge that Earth is in terrible danger. This year, a trifecta of would-be blockbusters imagine Earth as utterly uninhabitable, be it from overpopulation (Elysium), pollution (After Earth), or nuclear annihilation (Oblivion). The dramatic action of the respective heroes of each of these films is to get off the rock... quickly. As Matt Damon says in the trailer to Neill Blomkamp’s space thriller (hitting theaters nationwide on August 9th) about jettisoning off a collapsing planet Earth to the deluxe health spa in the sky: “I need to get to Elysium.”

But the big screen is one of many—if not the most salient—cultural sites beckoning humanity to head for the hills. In fact, a curious cross-pollination of conversations has recently been emerging among artists, innovators, entrepreneurs, and futurists shifting their gazes from our much-maligned planet to the infinite expanse of possibility that is outer space.

The Brown Auditorium at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is packed in a standing room-only presentation with academics, gallery directors, and students hanging on the every word of Trevor Paglen, a New York-based installation artist who’s built a cult around his incisive, research- based art projects. In late November of last year, Paglen, who burst onto the international art scene at the 2008 Whitney Biennial with a photography project that displayed super-classified military patches, launched The Last Pictures, 100 photographs etched upon a silicon disk and sent to geosynchronous orbit, which will, at least theoretically, circle the Earth forever. The art project’s most obvious inspiration is the notorious “Golden Record” placed on NASA’s Voyagers 1 and 2, which has been probing the outer limits of our solar system since 1977. Curated by Carl Sagan and inspired by the popular belief at the time that a large number of extraterrestrial civilizations existed, it’s now difficult to fathom that Voyager’s Golden Records were the product of a modern mind—its litany of international greetings etched into the gold plating and milquetoast megamix of songs seem like the fantasy of a people who might otherwise use children’s toys like Hasbro’s SIMON to communicate with spaceships or Texas Instruments’ Speak and Spell to “phone home.”

In front of a podium, Paglen describes his residency at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developing archival materials and deliberating with scientists and scholars over the series of 100 images to make sure they would tell a more truthful version of the human story for future sentient life. He wanted to share “some kind of story about what happened to the people, a future in which human beings have come and gone, and there’s no traces of human beings on Earth’s surface.” He displays a slideshow of some of the images from The Last Pictures: Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei flipping off the Eiffel Tower, a man in a business suit surfing, and a video still of migrants seen crossing the U.S.-Mexico border taken from the camera of a predator drone. The pictures won’t be confused for the bon mots and musical interludes of NASA’s Voyager records; rather, they evoke thoughts of a dying species on a dying planet—a memorialization of civilization.

While Paglen gazes upon an imperiled humanity, Tom Sachs, a New York-based sculptor represented by the Gagosian Gallery, measures the distance between that once-magical period in the 1960s and 1970s when space exploration was merely a ritual of gumption and ingenuity—and today, when governments have largely gutted their programs and deferred to the private sphere. Nations raced to space in those days, not because they needed to, but because they could. As Sachs tells me over the phone from his NASA-themed studio in New York City, “Landing on the Moon was the greatest art project of the 20th century... A lot of great by-products came out of it, but it was essentially done as a show.”

Sachs has created a lot of work about space throughout his 20-plus year career including “Lunar Module” (1:18) (1999), “Space Program” (2007), and “Florida” (2007). His most recent, “Space Program 2.0: Mars,” is a DIY-style pre-creation of a manned Mars mission installed at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. Sachs jests that his “landing” was as real as the Mars Curiosity Rover’s was in August 2012—a belief he partially attributes to the information-sharing drinking sessions he held with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory team.

“[My assistants and I] did everything we possibly could. We strengthened our bodies and minds. We built expensive spaceships. We researched our life support system. We fundraised. We did public relations.... The more detail that we focused on, the more it became real for us. I don’t see it as ‘we didn’t actually go.’ We just made compromises to the reality of the experience that other space programs haven’t had to make, yet we didn’t have to make some compromises: We got to send people there.”

Whether in Bushwick or Kreuzberg or Dalston, artists are well-known for moving into areas previously deemed uninhabitable and making them feel... well... habitable. In this context, Sachs’ Mars landing makes more sense. Sachs is simply giving us a glimpse of life on another planet the way, say, an artist friend might regale you with harrowing tales of his low-rent studio in a neighborhood perceived to be off-limits. In a 1991 article in Leonardo, the journal of the International Society for the Arts, Sciences, and Technology, called “In Defense of Space Art: The Role of the Artist in Space Exploration,” astronomer and Leonardo Executive Editor Roger Malina writes that after Sputnik’s launch in 1957, “Artists immediately began visualizing artworks to be located in space and visible from the ground.” Malina notes that Dutch artist Paul Van Hoeydonck sent up a small sculpture, “Fallen Astronaut,” that was left on the Moon in 1971, as was work by artists like Joseph McShane and Lowry Burgess, who created conceptual works to be flown aboard the space shuttle (though the Challenger disaster of 1986 put a kink in those plans, halting all nonscientific uses of the space shuttles).

But things have changed a lot since 1986. Whether it is Cristina de Middel telling the apocryphal story of Zambia’s secret space program The Afronauts, the street artist Invader sending one of his signature tile pieces beyond the stratosphere at Art Basel: Miami Beach, or Los Angeles-based artist Michael Salvatore Tierney taking richly oversaturated photographs of top-secret areas at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, a palpable sense of escape and ascendancy increasingly permeates the art world—often expressing humanity’s failures, fears, and uncertainties. “What really fascinates me is how our most advanced technology becomes ridiculous as soon as we leave our atmosphere,” says the Spanish-born photographer de Middel.

Kenny Scharf, a Los Angeles-based artist associated with the early-‘80s East Village graffiti scene, distills these notions in “Cosmosescapism”, a 2009 painting showing the boneheads of Earth (represented by the Flintstones) embracing an alien language as they rocket away from multiple nuclear explosions on the surface of the planet in their manually pedaled car. Our fear of a dying planet is perfectly synthesized into a cartoony painting. Says Scharf: “The Flintstones are happily escaping the destruction of the Earth. They’re on their way to a much better place in the future.”

The day I visit SpaceX’s main plant at the Hawthorne Municipal Airport just south of Los Angeles, the main floor is crawling with activity in preparation for a July launch. The hollow top of a rocket rolls by like a giant bullet being pushed by three men. It’s an atmosphere modeled upon the Google ethos: an open floor plan, a healthy cafeteria, transparent emails from the boss—Elon Musk, the multibillionaire enigma who founded this private space transport company (as well as co-founding Tesla Motors and PayPal). SpaceX is the face of the new space race. The NASA Space Shuttle Program completed its final mission in July 2011, the deal sealed with a Toyota Tundra towing it to its final resting spot at the California Science Center. Immortalized in a widely distributed advertising campaign for the car brand, the towing of the nearly 300,000-pound shuttle was a poignant moment, speaking as much about the passing of the baton from NASA to the private sector when it came to space exploration as it did about the Tundra’s pickup power. Since then, SpaceX has gone operational, successfully launching cargo via their Dragon rocket to the International Space Station in May 2012. Meanwhile, billion-dollar space flight company Orbital Sciences Corporation launched its own competing, low-cost Antares rocket to send supplies to the International Space Station through NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. And other exciting commercial developments are in the works including Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and a half dozen others in the testing phases for a rocket, a space plane, or a livable space capsule. SpaceX has a goal of one launch a month until it culminates with what it hopes will be the first-ever manned Mars mission.

Landing on the Moon was the greatest art project of the 20th century

“There’s a small segment of American entrepreneurs—like 15 of them—who are working on conquering space or making space more accessible,” says Kosta Grammatis, a feisty young technology activist who previously worked in avionics at SpaceX and now works at A Human Right, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to bringing internet connectivity to remote or low-income areas of the world. “We are at the dawn of a new time when it comes to global problems,” he says. “Environmental catastrophe is on our minds. Global warming, the depletion of fossil fuels and natural resources, the loss of biodiversity—all these things make it look like our Earth is unhealthy, and there is no backup policy. There is no insurance policy for planet Earth, so if we do manage to ruin this, and not fix the problems that we have created, it’s over. Leaving Earth is that insurance policy...”

Other voices from the private sector are more circumspect: “I think space is important for helping save the Earth, not as an escape hatch,” says Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s science and project coordinator, on the phone a few days after the company’s first rocket jet test on their SpaceShipTwo craft. “Elon Musk talks about ‘backing up’ the biosphere—he’s a computer scientist—onto Mars, and I love that. A long time ago, there was the hope that God or religion would save us from the mess we made for ourselves. In the 20th century, a lot of people just substituted space for God... but I think the real power and opportunity of space is to use it as a catalyst for our species to mature and learn how to save ourselves.” Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation and author of the optimist guide Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, is arguably the most important figure when it comes to space-related commerce. He’s also the co-founder of Planetary Resources, a company moving quickly towards the goal of mining a near-Earth asteroid. “Everything we hold of value—metals, minerals, energy, real estate—the things we fight wars over, are available in near-infinite quantities in space,” he says in an email. “The Earth is a ‘crumb’ in a supermarket filled with resources. In order for humanity to keep its continued growth toward abundance, we will need to tap into these resources.”

Grammatis agrees and points to the ways that space exploration might kickstart the private space sector into further launches. “If you find one asteroid that’s rich in diamonds, then all of a sudden, you’re a trillionaire. There’s going to be a new race for who can mine these asteroids more effectively.”

When you listen to social entrepreneurs speak about outer space, you hear the same themes over and over: abundance, resources, hope—sometimes, unfortunately, with questionable motives. Take for example, Dutch businessman Bas Lansdorp of Mars One, who plans to debut a Big Brother-style reality show featuring colonizers on a one-way ticket to Mars by 2022 using television sponsorship as a financial launching pad. But perhaps it is inevitable that popular culture would reflect the conversations happening elsewhere in the culture back to us when it comes to space exploration.

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

I go to see Oblivion, a schlocky Tom Cruise vehicle, with my girlfriend, and it is dismal from the start, its only saving grace being some stunning imagery of a nuked Earth—the result of a war with aliens. In real life, nuclear annihilation is a genuine public concern, with several contentious neighboring nations possessing warheads. Add to that the threat of a meltdown at any of the 437 nuclear power plants in the world, like the Fukushima Daiichi disaster during the Japanese earthquake of 2011, and you’ve got yourself a real-world storyline of apocalyptic proportions. In Oblivion, the human race uses its nuclear arsenal on an invading alien species, leaving Earth’s atmosphere a mess of malevolent lightning storms and the surface a barren desert with hazard zones that will “cook you from the inside.”

Perhaps more interesting, there is a sub- plot involving Cruise’s character’s desire to stay on Earth, no matter what. His character, Jack, doomed to mop-up security duty on post-apocalyptic Earth, is due for a transfer to the rest of the earthling population, set up on Titan—a moon of Saturn that has long been studied for its Earth-like atmospheric properties. But despite his obliterated environment, Jack builds a lake shanty in a secluded forest area. His instinctual ties to the planet are strong, and they’re not so much about humankind, but about a sense of home. The movie seems to be asking, not whether we will have to flee our planet for a space habitat, but when we do, if we will ever feel quite at home when we arrive elsewhere.

“Dystopian movies are like the flood in Noah’s ark, and us building space rockets and exploring Mars is like us building the ark,” says hyperactive filmmaker and self-described “epiphany addict” Jason Silva, whose pop-science show on National Geographic, Brain Games, was the network’s highest-rated launch ever. “This is the ultimate obstacle—the potential loss of the habitat of the planet...this story of us needing to find a solution.”

Oblivion is one of several such space thrillers out this year. Elysium, out this summer, stars Matt Damon and acts as a parable for a space-age class war—à la Titanic—in which the rich get premium seats on the lifeboats from the sinking planet Earth. Elysium depicts a divided humankind, where those at the idyllic Elysium space habitat get perfect health care, while Earthbound humans are stuck with a cancer- ridden, crumbling, radioactive planet—a kind of sci-fi immigration/health insurance/ haves-have nots allegory. Taken literally, it raises a serious question: If the Earth were to begin to die, would those with the most money get the first ticket out of here? Dennis Tito was the first person to buy his way into space, spending a reported $20 million to fly on a 2001 Russian Soyuz rocket. With the asking price for Virgin Galactic at $250,000, it will be some time before the hoi polloi will be able enjoy a ride on a rocket—let alone a first-class trip to paradise, as Elysium seems to be suggesting.

Meanwhile, After Earth, starring Will Smith, acts as a portent of perhaps the worst of all possible imaginable fates—an Earth that willfully turns against humankind. “The temperatures on this planet fluctuate dangerously,” says Cypher Raige (Smith) to son Kitai (whelp Jaden Smith) in the trailer. “Everything has evolved to kill humans.” Set 1,000 years in the future, After Earth is directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who situates humankind on the fictional Goldilocks planet Nova Prime, light years from Earth. After a mission to Earth is interrupted by a crash landing, the Raiges need to find the homing beacon that separated from their ship during its crash landing. After Earth feeds into the notion of an angry Mother Earth—that our treatment of the planet will result in a series of self-destructive cataclysmic events forcing us to leave.

Pop culture, it seems, has traveled light years since the halcyon days of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where humanoid creatures came to visit us and the greatest threat to our well-being was still our bullying big brothers. Even the kids’ movies of today seem to signify earthly alarm in their space narratives. (Exhibit A: the recent Escape from Planet Earth where aliens threatened by earthlings’ malevolence deign to flee from the doomed planet). If art, social innovation, entrepreneurship, and popular culture are the four corners of our galaxy, each seems to be beckoning the human race to flee whatever dangers Earth may bestow upon us into the bosom of outer space.

The curious cross-pollination of conversations that connect the state of the planet with space exploration is not without its critics. Take, for example, David McConville, the Asheville, North Carolina- based president of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, a foundation set up by the family of the late futurist, designer, and inventor to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. McConville doesn’t think it’s healthy for the human race to be looking to outer space with a frontier mindset. “Sometimes it’s easier just to fantasize about going and setting up a colony on Mars than dealing with the plastics in the oceans,” McConville says over the phone.

Everything we hold of value—metals, minerals, energy, real estate—the things we fight wars over, are available in near-infinite quantities in space.

Even before NASA pulled the plug on the planet-hunting Kepler spacecraft this past May, McConville was urging space explorers to temper their expectations, especially when it comes to Goldilocks planets, those bodies that orbit their stars in theoretically habitable zones. “In this whole search for exoplanets,” he says, “people are getting excited because they’re finding planets that might have water on them 20 light years away. Well, okay, even if they happen to be in the zone where the temperature’s right, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a molten core, they developed a magnetic field. When you watch Battlestar Galactica, people always land on these planets and it just so happens it’s got the right gravity, it’s got the right moon. We’re just so naïve in how we’re thinking about it, because science fiction narratives have been so convincing.”

McConville isn’t against space exploration. He just wants to caution us to the narrative we’re using to further it. I’m reminded of Cristina de Middel’s comment about our tendency to “think of outer space as exaggerated and utopian versions of our own society” and Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides’ cautious way of thinking about asteroid mining. “A lot of my friends are asteroid miners,” she told me. “I consider myself an environmentalist. I think that the moons of Saturn have rights....I don’t mind asteroid mining. I have a very Native American approach to it, that we take what we need and we don’t waste any of it. And we don’t perpetuate the myth that asteroids are limitless, because that’s what got us into trouble on Earth. ‘Look at water and land: it’s limitless.’ It just seemed limitless. Asteroids seem limitless, because the universe is so great.”

“It’s not like I’m against people who have the desire to go up into the stratosphere and have these epiphanies about the connectedness of earth,” continues McConville. “I think that’s great. But we can do that in balloons or something that doesn’t do it at the expense of the stability of the Earth’s ecosystems.”

Dr. Carter Emmart, director of astrovisualization at the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is even more critical of the current conversations about space exploration. “Mars is the most Earth-like place in the solar system. It’s colder than Antarctica. Its atmosphere is 100,000 feet above Earth’s. Maybe we could terraform it. Maybe we could bring in factories. We should be sending a robot. But as far as sending humans, maybe we should, maybe not. I’m not trying to attract controversy. What I think is useful is that this planet, Earth, is what we’ve got to take care of... Our home is here,” he says wistfully. “Mars is right next door, and if right next door is not a pleasant place to be, I’d rather stay in my apartment. I love how the Moon and Mars are reminders of how wonderful things are here.”

Of course, we will need to reverse quite a number of self-destructive trends to insure a future that will still generate wonder.

Whatever climate change report you believe, it seems there will be unavoidable bad news in the coming years. It’s possible some solutions to our current problems will be found in space. Maybe though, some of them are right here on Earth in front of our eyes. And maybe, just maybe, there is something counterproductive about searching for the answers on a frontier “out there.” Perhaps if space exploration inspired us to be more creative about solving our problems, rather than offering a fantastical escape hatch, we’d be better off in the long run.

Futurist Jason Silva thinks that this is actually already in the process of happening: “The more we are able to map and quantify and understand the universe, and the failure of there to be any evidence of a more intelligent being that might be god-like and come save us, has made us realize that the only potential god that we can see in the universe is us.”

For more, check out this companion piece offering some straight talk about the recently discovered Goldilocks planets. 

Photos courtesy of Trevor Paglen, Creative Time and Tom Sachs

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