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Space travel and exploration in popular culture

Explore space travel in popular culture: yesterday, today, and tomorrow

By Nicholas Folidis

Space travel and exploration is a subject that never ceases to amaze and that is apparent in popular culture. The birth of the Space Age, after the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1, kickstarted the science fiction industry and subsequently led to the production of hit, space-related movies and TV series. Neil Armstrong shook the world by taking a “giant leap for manking” by setting foot on the Moon for the first time back on July 20, 1969. Yet, it was visionary filmmakers and directors that managed to travel farther into space.

Director Stanley Kubrick's profound and futurist film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is a prelude to the Apollo 11 mission. It is a film of space travel and the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence, that predicted a lot of the technologies currently in use. In the movie, Kubrick foresees the moon landing and the creation of a Space Station that constantly orbits the Earth. One could even say that he in a way envisioned NASA’s New Frontiers Program –a series of space exploration missions within the Solar System. In Kubrick’s world, nuclear-powered spacecraft Discovery One (XD-1) is sent on a mission to Jupiter, manned with five astronauts and an intelligent AI computer, HAL 9000.

In ‘Star Wars’, smuggler Hans Solo and his mate Chewbacca travel and fight through space on their Corellian light freighter, Millennium Falcon. Comparatively, in ‘Star Trek’, space explorer Captain Kirk and his crew, go on interstellar adventures travelling at faster-than-light speeds aboard starship USS Enterprise in places “where no man has gone before”. Even before all that, in BBC’s perennial show ‘Doctor Who’, renegade Time Lord from planet Gallifrey, simply known as “The Doctor”, travels through time and space to defend the Universe together with his companions in the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space).

In more recent years, following the birth of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a new interest sparked around space travel and exploration. Musk’s audacious plan involves sending the first humans to Mars as early as 2024, with the intension of colonising and terraforming Earth’s neighbouring planet, i.e. engineering its environment by deliberately modifying its climate as well as surface, thus making the planet hospitable to humans. Christopher Nolan depicts a similar idea in his film ‘Interstellar’, where a team of astronauts and scientists along with robots CASE and TARS, as part of NASA’s Project Endurance, embark on a voyage through a space wormhole –the passage to a distant galaxy near the black hole Gargantua– in order to identify a planet that can sustain human life, and ultimately establish a colony there, to ensure humanity’s survival.

Nevertheless, it was Ridley Scott’s ‘The Martian’ that took NASA’s Mars Exploration program one step further by imagining a series of manned exploratory missions to Mars. In the movie, marooned astronaut Mark Watney, of the Ares III mission to Mars, has to survive in the inhospitable red planet relying solely on his intelligence and creativity in order to signal to Earth that he is alive.

When it comes to space travel and space exploration, popular culture not only entertains but it has also helped to inspire, in times where inspiration was needed. It has reflected –and keeps reflecting– the ever-growing public interest in space, which motivates and drives the politics behind space exploration. That same interest has stimulated the imagination of scientists and engineers who made spaceflight possible and still continue to advance aerospace science and technology at a pace that could even turn Elon Musk’s vision of “making humans a multi-planetary species” into a reality, within our lifetimes. One thing is for certain, the future of space travel and exploration is an exciting one!

From Issue 17

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