Cover Story: Journeys to the Future
In the Old Days the Future Was Brighter
Interview with Alexander Geppert
Sometimes the future lies in the past. Historian Alexander Geppert talks about the role of utopias and nostalgia in space travel.
|Eternal vision: 40 years after
landing on the moon NASA
is still dreaming of the first
steps on Mars.
Foto: NASA/Pat Rawlings, SAIC
Kosmos: You study yesterday’s and today’s visions for the future. How have utopias changed?
Geppert: They are much more matter-of-fact than they used to be. In the past, the future was brighter, the world more utopia-friendly. Today, things get faster and faster, the future has always already arrived and so it’s not really a future at all anymore. At the same time, we still draw on a reservoir of cosmic visions, most of which are decades-old.
Kosmos: Such as?
Geppert: People living permanently in space colonies that orbit the earth; holidays travelling through the Sahara by atomic bus; first we’ll colonise the moon and then Mars: these were all popular utopias in the 1950s. Children growing up then assumed they would fly to school with propellers on their heads in the future, would become amateur astronauts regularly visiting the moon or even relocate to Mars altogether. Today, Mars is still one of the targets for manned space-flight but nobody seriously thinks that we shall actually live there in the foreseeable future, such as the next generation.
Kosmos: To what extent have utopias expedited technical developments?
Geppert: Utopias and futuristic technologies are contingent upon each other, just like science and fiction, which are not opposites, but complementary. To this very day, NASA is still working on manned spaceflight projects which were thought up in the Twenties and Thirties, long before their time. Back in the 1920s, people discussed large-scale designs to station enormous sun mirrors in space in order to control the world climate at will. Nowadays, projects like this are being seriously introduced into the current climate debate and sold as absolute novelties. Another, almost classic example is “Woman in the Moon“ …
|Idyllic scene in the space:
three decades ago, this
was how people imagined
a settlement in outer space.
Foto: NASA Ames Research Center
Kosmos: … the last silent film made by the German director Fritz Lang.
Geppert: For this story of a journey to the moon Lang consulted the rocket pioneer, Hermann Oberth, who had propounded the principles of manned spaceflight in a modest, 92-page monograph published in 1923, entitled: “Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen” (The Rocket into Planetary Space). Six years later, Fritz Lang’s film appeared and was the climax of a veritable rocket razzmatazz in the Weimar Republic, the so-called “Raketenrummel”. The film played a decisive role in popularising the conception of outer space in the interwar years and so was actually an important precondition for Oberth’s pupil, Wernher von Braun, to turn the vision of a moon rocket into reality years later. Incidentally, Fritz Lang is supposed to have invented the countdown for dramaturgical reasons specially for this film. I wonder whether NASA would have hit on the idea without him.
Kosmos: Meanwhile, the race for the moon is experiencing a renaissance. How do you explain this?
Geppert: On the one hand, there are ambitious newcomers, like China or recently India, who are responsible for completely new dynamics in the global game. But Europe also wants to enhance its prestige and at last embrace its role as the “third space power” after Russia and the USA. On the other hand, we can observe the emergence of something along the lines of a new planetary consciousness, as a result of globalisation and fear of a worldwide climate crisis. And thirdly, nostalgia plays a significant role.
|Vision of space travel 1950s
style: a space station for
research and as a base for
Foto: Klaus Bürgle
Geppert: Yes, a nostalgic look back to past dreams of the future, which were brighter, better, braver even. Perhaps we’ve lost something along the way that we could regain. The reactivation of NASA’s moon programme is a graphic example. In January 2004, George W. Bush announced a target: return to the moon by 2020, and then from there straight on to Mars. In near desperation NASA had to drum up long-retired engineers from the Apollo-era because they were the only ones with the necessary knowledge, temporarily lost, as well as the practical experience to get something like this going again after forty years.
Kosmos: Space travel is caught up in yesterday’s utopias and just treading water. Is that the sobering inference we have to draw?
Geppert: When it comes to manned spaceflight, you could see it that way. Old utopias are being worked through, gradually and laboriously, but they often prove only to be half as spectacular in reality as they were on the drawing board – if they are actually put into practice in the first place. The International Space Station is the most expensive civilian project in the history of humanity, but hardly anyone associates it with any utopian hopes for the future. However, when you think about unmanned spaceflight, many visions have come true.
Kosmos: Which ones are you thinking of?
Geppert: We know more about remote parts of the universe than ever before. Several hundred satellites orbit the earth, supporting our everyday lives, with global communications, weather forecasting, navigation and so on. The biggest limitation to space travel is man; at the same time, it’s impossible without him. Technical visions for the future still exist, but experience has made us more realistic about turning them into reality. Today, large-scale utopian designs for new forms of society or completely different forms of human coexistence don’t use them anymore – which is a loss in my opinion. The present day is fixated on the future but it is not utopia-friendly.
Interview: Georg Scholl
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