SPACE. IT’S A FUNNY THING.
Kubrick knew that. Because if you start a story with apes, how can it not be funny? Then again, doesn’t everything that’s about humans start with apes? Here’s the funny thing about space: ask people what they think about it and you’ll get every kind of answer. We should colonise Mars. We should stay home. We should look for life. Space, really, is a giant Rorschach. Into it we send rockets and satellites and space stations. But more than that, we send beliefs. About what is meaningful. About what is possible. About what is inescapable. Look, I’m no space nut. More of a space optimist – I believe in the mission. The night Neil Armstrong walked off the lunar module and onto the moon, I was there, next to my mother. She kept my seven-year-old brother and me from falling asleep, jostling us every few minutes as we sat on either side of her on the living room sofa, so we could witness history. The night Skylab fell from the sky, I sat in the parking lot of the grocery store next to our house, sure that I would catch a piece of it. Bruce Mccandless making that first untethered spacewalk in 1984? I watched with shivers of dread and awe – stunned by the image of him floating, seemingly adrift. And then there was the winter morning I walked into my college cafeteria to punch in for my shift as a dishwasher when Doc, one of the cooks, walked by holding his transistor radio to his ear and telling us the Challenger had exploded. When Columbia broke up over Texas, it was early on a Saturday morning, and I heard the news as I was driving through empty back roads in New Jersey. If you ask me what I think about space, I say this: I’ve always believed there is, somewhere in our core, a need to push forward. To explore what is over the next horizon. We’re curious. We’re knowledge-seekers. We’re tool-makers. We’re problem-solvers. Get off the beach or die. Get off this rock or die. That’s what I project into the void. But somewhere along the way – maybe when NASA discontinued the Space Shuttle – I, like a lot of people, lost the sense of what forward means. ( Forward to where? Forward to what?) My whole life I had gazed up, tracing the ballistic trajectory of the US space program, and suddenly that trajectory showed me only the vast emptiness of… space. Now, space is back. Musk, Branson, Bezos. Each pursuing a pet project: build reusable rockets and ultimately colonise Mars; send ultra-rich tourists on the world’s most expensive roller coaster; mine asteroids. NASA, meanwhile, keeps plugging away at its science and robots. It’s hard to know how seriously to take any of it – there’s no focus. Yet the pace of space news continues to accelerate like a hailstorm on a roof. There are new images of Pluto. Signs of water on Mars. Viral videos of rockets blown to smithereens as they attempt ludicrous vertical landings. Then… viral videos of rockets executing those same ludicrous vertical landings successfully. A few months ago, between gigs and longing to clear my head, I took a road trip and ended up at the Very Large Array (VLA), the radio astronomy observatory in New Mexico. You’ve seen it – a giant field of 27 white radio telescopes, mounted on railroad tracks, all turned toward the sky. It got me thinking about space again. And I realised: I don’t know how people dream about space anymore. What they believe about it. What I believe about it. And an image popped into my head. A slick computer rendering of a sci-fi-looking building in the desert – roughly the shape of a manta ray – blue lights arrayed in a halfmoon around it. Spaceport America. Whatever happened to Spaceport America? You remember Spaceport, right? Just over 10 years ago, New Mexico persuaded Richard Branson, who was then boasting of plans to start regular flights into outer space on Virgin Galactic space planes, to base his company in a deserted patch of the Jornada del Muerto (Spanish for Day of the Dead) desert, 50 kilometres outside the town of Truth or