‘Rocket Dreams: How the Space Age Shaped Our Vision of a World Beyond’ by Marina Benjamin; Simon & Schuster, 2003. 242pp
Reviewed by Martin Earnshaw | 27 June 2003
What became of our dreams of the aspirations that fuelled the ‘space age’ of the 50’s and 60’s? In this fascinating study Marina Benjamin takes on this problem in a fresh and innovative way. Rather than recount the familiar story of cut funds and scrapped space programmes, Benjamin traces the fate of the broader yearnings that underpinned space travel. Benjamin argues that we have a tendency to project our existential longings onto new technology. As the space age gave way to the ‘information age’, dreams of space colonies gave way to cyber utopias.
Benjamin realises that although the space age has been superseded by information technology, space still has an appeal, its vast expanse a blank slate onto which we can project our hopes. Space travel she deems too risky and expensive. Information technology however, could create a new kind of space age. Real time footage from probes, for example, involves us all in the experience of exploration without risk or exertion on our part. Space can provide us with the enrichment that comes from contemplating the infinite. Benjamin argues that the achievement of the space age was not so much that it put people into space, but that it made us more aware of our earthly confinement.
Was the inevitable consequence of the space age to bring us back down to Earth? While Benjamin makes a good case that much of the desire to reach into space was a reflection of a narrowly technical conception of the solution to earthly problems, she makes rather too much of the difficulties inherent in space travel. In the current climate, where even flying the space shuttle is likely to be condemned as too risky, it is small wonder that more ambitious projects are not on the table.
What Rocket Dreams does outline very well is that our perception of the role of space has changed. Benjamin concludes that ‘space’s most rewarding function may be to serve as a thought experiment’. This ‘thought experiment’, however, is not about dreaming about what we could become, but is more about finding ourselves. In this vein the book ends up endorsing a project to show live video feeds of the Earth from space. The implication is that by becoming more aware of our place in the universe, and consequently our limitations, we will have a heightened sense of our interconnectedness.
Unfortunately, this more limited vision of space, far from envisaging something new, can only give credence to already fashionable dogmas such as Gaia theory. By contrast the aspirations of the 50’s and 60’s, however unlikely they seem today, had a positive role as they were envisaged at a time when humanity was experimenting with the possibilities of what space technology could do. If we want our space age dreams to reignite space needs to be a place not just of contemplation, but experimentation.