I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
What do we see when we gaze at the stars? In May 1902, the great pioneer of cinema, Georges Méliès released what is now his most famous film. La Voyage Dans Le Lune, which was a loose adaptation of a Jules Verne short story, From the Earth to the Moon as well as H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon. In the film a selection of members from the Astronomers club, led by Professor Barbenfouillis, (played by Méliès himself) climb into their spaceship which is shot out a canon before landing in the eye of the man in the moon. It’s an iconic scene, in a beautiful bit of cinema history – all imagination and whimsy, a little grainy flicker of astonishing magic at the very earliest stages of cinema history. Like many of his films, there’s a lightness of touch, a sense of joy and wonder that comes through even now, watching the film in a fourteen-minute video on YouTube. Méliès looked at the stars and wondered just what would it take to blast mankind up and out, into that star-dappled darkness. To show us going to the moon, entering that space beyond the limits of the Earth demanded illusions, for what other way was there to show the impossible?
We’ve always been drawn to the stars, ceaselessly reaching upwards, and outwards albeit for wildly different reasons through history as material conditions shift and roil around us. After the magic of Méliès, science fiction went onward, propelled by ever advancing technologies. Even in culture this was true – this was the era of Buck Rogers, tales of excitement and a kind of thrilling, giddy optimism. The pulp tales were full of wild adventures and gleaming Art Deco illustrations of bold new utopias on the Moon and on Mars and even further afield. Climbing into the stars was no longer magic but something we could do – we could imagine it, we can make it out there one day. Where once we had gazed up and seen the home of the Gods, we looked up and saw that maybe, one day, there could be a place for us too. Watching or reading early science fiction now, with eyes of the angel of history, is inevitably tinged with a melancholy sense that the future those stories were rushing towards was not a sleek and shiny paradise in amongst the stars but the horrors of modernity as the whole thing came crashing down in the rise of fascism and the catastrophe of atomic weapons.
Post the war the cultural representations of space shifted a little. No longer were we looking up at the stars, full of hopeful magic. Now, the darkness above didn’t contain possibilities and wonder but was laden with threat. It Came From Outer Space.
Something was out there, coming for us all. Think of Dr. Miles Bennell, sprinting down the road, desperately screaming at the passing motorists, ‘They’re already here, You’re next! You’re next!”
In the 1960s we looked up at the stars again. In an age of optimism, we saw the potential of what could be, out there, among the stars. It was the age of Star Trek, a utopian vision of the future that moved beyond the pulpy thrills of thirty years earlier but kept the thrills of fist fights on far-off worlds. Two years after that came Stanley Kubrick’s symbolist masterpiece, with its Star Child ending, man reborn, floating over the Earth. Looking at the stars was a way of imagining a new possibility – we could free ourselves and out there, things would be different.
We still look at the stars now, but where once we dreamed of freedom, of potential utopias, of a glorious expansion and exploration, now it seems we dream of escape. The Earth is done, a blunt and brutal wasteland, rapidly approaching ecological catastrophe. It’s oceans a soup of acids and plastics, the air an arid fog of toxic chemicals and the biosphere disappearing. Where once we looked at the stars and dreamed of a better future or adventures out among the stars, we look up at the great void above us and see the dim and distant possibility of escape.
Who will get us off this rock? Who is going to save us?
What does Elon Musk see when he looks at the stars? What drives him to blow a Tesla Roadster into space? The successful Falcon Heavy launch is maybe the most impressive bit of reaching toward the stars we’ve seen in the last few years. An astonishing bit of technical skill brought together through Elon Musk’s obscene wealth. Yet it wasn’t the rockets that attracted the most attention – it was the rocket payload. A gleaming Tesla roadster, with a mannequin in a SpaceX branded spacesuit in the driver’s seat and Bowie blasting from the stereo. They weren’t just testing rockets – they were reaching for symbolism, for imagery – science served with a side of brand savvy marketing. Launched from the same pad that Apollo 11 launched from back in 1969 it was a symbol of the success of wealthy private individual doing what we, collectively, no longer cared to pay for. Just look at the pictures, the multiple angle live streams of the car drifting through the void. It’s an image that seems impossible, like cheap photoshop made strangely real.
Elon Musk wants to save us by driving us into space, and he wants to look cool doing it.
Why must you be serious? Why can’t you enjoy the spectacle? They had to use SOMETHING as payload, it’s cool, admit it.
There’s a degree to which those responses have a point – we should celebrate the technical skills and the possibilities of exploring beyond the stars, but the spectacular images and surreal juxtaposition of car and Earth and moon is an image we should not be taken in by. What’s more important is to resist Musk’s advertising imagery but preserve the possibility of space exploration as utopian possibility, not merely branded, privatized and brought to reality through gross displays of corporate power. We should look at the stars and think of more than just a fetishized commodity. How can we think of the galaxy as our lifeboat if those who lead us into it are the same whose work has made the Earth an unlivable husk?
The criticisms from the left immediately picked up on the fact that sending the car was an ostentatious display of disposable wealth and, at the same time, the very best publicity for the Tesla and SpaceX brands whilst distracting from the problems they’ve been having delivering the Tesla 3. We all gawped at the magic man of tech, hypnotized by his wealth and geek cred, ignoring the technicians and engineers who made the magic, who made that incredible combination of fire and metal leap into the dark and the cold.
What does Elon Musk see when he looks into space, when he gazes into the vast dark? He sees opportunity, the cold calculus of profit and loss. The left worries about Musk’s flashy, public showboating, yet what’s more concerning is that whilst we all wish to flee the rock we’re trapped upon, when we make it out there we’ll find Mars is no celestial common resource, a blank slate to be remade into a better place, but the domain of our new benevolent philanthropist King. Hail Musk.
The roadster is simultaneously both advertising and a claim. Tesla has the fastest cars in outer space and Elon Musk wants you to know all about it, and given how the wealth enamored media think of Musk and his brands as synonymous, Musk wants you to know all about HIM. We looked at the stars once and dreamed of the future, yet now when we look up what we’ll think of the Tesla – in a sense we’ve made Musk immortal now, one of the few who have reached the home of the Gods. As Alice Gorman points out, the roadster in space is ‘an armour against dying, a talisman that quells a profound fear of mortality.’ It is both a memento, monument and mausoleum all in one. Kant, in his Critique of Practical Reason, wrote that ‘two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.’ What impact does gazing up at those stars have now, knowing that the Starman floats on up there, waiting for us, in his bright red car?