In Space Companies, “No One Can Hear You Yawn”
Amazing NewSpace Events Get Brief Media and a “Yawn”
The recent milestone accomplishment of a delivery of cargo to the International Space Station by Elon Musk’s SpaceX was, in the eyes of the space community, a Game Changer. Because it was the first U.S. launched delivery to the ISS since the end of the Shuttle program and the first by a private space company, it was widely covered by the national media.
Within a week however, this landmark event, which a number of space leaders suggested may be seen by history as the beginning of a Second Space Age, was submerged in the usual mix of media. Even its place as the leading space story was quickly overtaken by the Transit of Venus.
In my last post, commenting on the Planetary Resources press conference that announced their plan to Mine the Asteroids (remember that?), I focused on the curious disconnect between the scale and scope of their Mission (heavy team credentials, deep pockets, space expertise and huge upside) and the tepid and the even shorter-lived response from the mainstream media.
A few days later, Will Oremus at Slate.com had this to say:
“How did the tech world respond? It yawned, rolled over, and returned to its collective dream aboutthe next hot social-media startup. My message to the tech world: Wake up! This is outer space we’re talking about! This is awesome!”
A Lack of “Space Awareness”
From the lack of enthusiasm for the incredible vision of the Planetary Resources announcement (perhaps because it seemed in-credible) to the apparent failure to grasp the implications of the historic accomplishment of SpaceX, we are witnessing the hugely diminished space-awareness of our present culture, an awareness that began to fade immediately following the abrupt end of the Apollo Program.
While the SpaceX story gained more and longer coverage, there was clearly no cultural grasp of the unique significance of these accomplishments and plans, let alone the vision behind it, which is rapidly moving us toward a new and far more robust Space Age than even the remarkable accomplishments of Apollo.
The public, distracted by numerous current issues and interests will be hard to move out of its prevalent perception that space “belongs” to Science and national government programs.
It’s entirely likely that cautious and technically sophisticated NewSpace companies, headed by experienced entrepreneurs will undoubtedly make sustained, profitable progress. But lacking Apollo Era space awareness by the public, Congress, and Wall Street, the explosive growth of a new Space Age that space leaders and enthusiasts envision may not happen nearly as rapidly as they imagine. Because, apparently, in space companies, “no one can hear you yawn.”
The Historic Roots of our Current Lack of Space Awareness
Apollo originally included three more moon landings and the follow-on development of a compact space plane to carry astronauts to orbit (the “X-Plane” Program) allowing the massive Saturn 5 or subsequent heavy lifter to carry cargo. Combining the two in the Shuttle was thus a bad political/economic compromise between the smaller, an inherently safer space plane and an unmanned cargo lifter, a fact that the previous NASA Director admitted some years ago.
(It is ironic but not coincidental that all NewSpace orbital and suborbital crew vehicles are either reversions to the earlier capsule design or a jump to the astronaut-only space plane design, not seen in fully operational form since the legendary X-15 Program was canceled in 1968. Eight X-15 pilots actually received astronaut wings.)
With the Challenger disaster just five years into the Shuttle Program, the nearly three year wait till resumption of flights and the Moon Race over, the public’s waning sense that NASA was birthing the Space Agewas quickly replaced as the world’s premier technology icon by the rapidly advancing personal computer that birthed the Information Age.
Space Science Fiction in Decline
Not coincidentally, the mid-80’s saw the shift in science fiction from space to the rise of the “Cyberpunk”Science Fiction genera with its computer/internet themes. The increasingly realistic and sophisticated space science fiction of the 1950’s has long been cited by both cultural and NASA historians as a precursor to public acceptance of the reality of space travel.
By century’s end, the new computer and Internet driven themes were ubiquitous in movies and TV, while only the iconic Star Trek franchise remained until 2005, when Star Trek Enterprise ended. Perhaps it’s only serious analogue had been Babylon 5, which lasted five years and ended in 2000. From the 80’s on Space SF was eclipsed by Cyberpunk and today both are outsold 3 to 1 by fantasy (i.e. Lord of the Rings, Twilight, etc.).
Between the historic loss of focus on the Space Program and the paucity of coverage of the NewSpace industry, reinforced by the lack of current space science fiction (especially any based on the near future plans of the NewSpace industry); there is now a profound lack of current public space awareness.
Instead, there is a default assumption of the primacy of computer-based technology and business. Indeed, unless you put a qualifier up front (i.e. drug, aerospace, solar, etc.) the frequent assumption when using the word “technology” today is that you are referring to Computer (or Internet) Technology.
Despite growing NewSpace achievements, while they will undoubtedly be cheered by the community of space enthusiasts, without the kind of cultural and media “groundwork” that seeded space awareness for the early U.S. Space Program, it is entirely likely that the tech community, and the computer/Internet culture it has created, will continue to “yawn”.
The Agenda of the Overview Institute
The Overview Institute was created to research and focus attention on the World View shifting impact of space awareness. While, as I have previously written, this does highlight a “Third Case” for human space travel (in addition to Science/Exploration and Commercial Development) it is not specifically a polemic for space travel itself, but for the World View that it tends to engender.
The fact that such a World View already exists, and that pre-Space Age observers such as astronomer Fred Hoyleand even Socrates have predicted that such a perspective would tend to engender such a World View shift, supports the conclusion that space travel itself is not absolutely necessary to grasp the Overview Effect.
In fact, there are many such predictions of the positive value of adopting an “Overview” perspective of the Earth sprinkled through history from ancient to modern times. For a good summary of these historic observations see British Historian Robert Poole’s enlightening book on the historic and modern impact of Earth images and visualizations, Earthrise.
However, this long history of such statements by prominent figures also support the conclusion that such a shift is difficult to create simply through words. On the other hand, the sudden and rapid World View shifts attributable to the astronaut’s firsthand accounts and visual records indicates that space travel and its socially transmitted Overview Effect is an especially powerful driver for shifting World Views.
A Second Way of Communicating the Overview Effect
Parallel to the accelerating rise of space travel technology is the equally rapid increase in advanced simulation media technology, from increasingly high rez, high frame/rate projection systems to 3D, Virtual Reality and a host of related immersive media tools.
These new media technologies (enabled by the intervening Computer Revolution) allow art, entertainment and education creators to immerse audiences in experiences of unprecedented reality and presence, a sense of immersion and presence unavailable during the first Space Age.
This will allow the space perspective to be extended to hundreds of millions of citizens who will never see space themselves, extending and amplifying the World View shifting effect to the entire population. However, this also requires an appreciation for the need for such content.
The Role of the Overview Institute
There is one additional caveat. If these high-tech creations are based only on existing space images, which themselves have been limited by prior technologies and perspective, they are more likely to reinforce current marginalizing or misunderstanding of the Overview Effect, already widespread, even in the space community.
The Overview Institute therefore, is dedicated to bringing as clear and detailed account of the experiences of the astronauts and the coming wave of “Citizen Astronauts.”
By building on first-hand accounts and supported by the best modern science of perception and the impact of media on the mind, these new space media experiences will produce previously unavailable levels of immersion in the World View-shifting experience of space travel.
Such new space media experiences, rooted in and validated by the firsthand accounts of space travelers, will communicate a powerful “taste” of the World View shifting nature of the Overview Effect, and produce far, far more than a “Yawn”. Indeed, as both astronauts and eminent cultural observers have predicted, the Overview Effect of space will soon become one of the dominant forces in shaping our world in the coming decade and beyond.