Why is the first issue of Material about space?
Material 1 is about space because starting here reflects one of our central means of observation: to understand the whole, you have to start with the extreme. Peruse the borders. Mark your limits. Establish the frontier.
Often the best position from which to begin any analysis is as an outsider: that way you might explore a world you take for granted as if seeing it for the first time. Among those who have been to space, there’s a term for the experience of seeing the Earth rotate below you as an enormous orb in the black void: the overview effect. For Material, we want an inaugural focus on today’s space race to provoke a similar overview effect, zooming out the lens on human affairs to reveal the most macro of perspectives. To set the stage. To provide some even tentative scratches in the sand that can function as navigation points as we develop an “index for the future,” marking all the ways that humankind is changing, for better or for worse.
The next chapter in the story of human space exploration is being written at a rapid rate, and the protagonists are getting recast: with the termination of shuttle program in 2011, NASA is out, having dominated the game for over fifty years. Roughly speaking, that leaves Russia with its manned Soyuz craft, the European Space Agency, and the International Space Station. In the United States there’s a vacuum to be filled, while at the same time, technological advancements, digital and otherwise, are ensuring that starting today, you don’t need the backing of a global superpower to explore the cosmos.
Among those who have been to space, there’s a term for the experience of seeing the Earth rotate below you as an enormous orb in the black void: the overview effect. For Material, we want an inaugural focus on today’s space race to provoke a similar overview effect, zooming out the lens on human affairs to reveal the most macro of perspectives.
So we call this the era of Open Source Outer Space. The open source scene is dominated by two new major players, the big guys and the little guys. The big guys are your big corporations, like Space X and Virgin Galactic, fuelled by investors and the lure of potentially lucrative endeavors. The little guys are everyday joes like you and me, increasingly armed with private satellites, crowd-sourced planetary imaging, and projects like Mars One, a manned mission to Mars conceived as the ultimate reality-TV spectacle.
Space exploration also plays a supporting role in possibly the most urgent issue facing humankind and planet Earth today: man-made climate change. As evidence of its real and imminent effects continues to mount, we grow increasingly aware of our planet as a finite resource. At the same time, we must reflect on how recent pop culture narratives like Interstellar reflect a kind of escapist fantasy: Earth is fucked, this fantasy says, so rather than trying to fix what’s broken, why don’t we fly far, far away, because that is our destiny as humans, to explore? It’s a seductive and potentially hazardous perspective.
The exploration of outer space in the information age cuts both ways: the digital dissemination of the overview effect means that a potentially powerful sense of awareness can be distributed with greater scope than ever before, influencing decisions that humans make about our own survival. It also means that space has the potential to become another entry in our collective news feed: something to gawk at, something to admire for its novelty, to be digested in an abbreviated form before passed over in favor of the next new post.