Space, the earth’s suburban office park

Ian Bogost argues that space exploration has become dull, just like a suburban office park:

It’s not so much that the space program is broken in the sense of inoperative. Space is alive and well, for the wealthy at least, where it’s become like the air and the land and the sea: a substrate for commerce, for generating even more wealth. Instead, the space program is broken in the sense of tamed, domesticated, housebroken. It happens to all frontiers: they get settled. How many nights can one man dance the skies? Better to rent out laughter-silvered wings by the hour so you can focus on your asteroid mining startup.

In the 1960s we went to the moon not because it was easy but because it was hard. In the 1980s we went to low Earth orbit because, you know, somebody got a grant to study polymers in zero-gravity, or because a high-price pharmaceutical could be more readily synthesized, or because a communications satellite had to be deployed, or because a space telescope had to be repaired. The Space Shuttle program strove to make space exploration repeatable and predictable, and it succeeded. It turned space into an office park. Now the tenants are filing in. Space: Earth’s suburbs. Office space available.

I don’t think this is a new argument: others have argued we need a new vision for space travel that involves looking for new frontiers. But the comparison to the suburbs is intriguing. The suggestion is that suburbs are fairly dull places themselves generally populated by wealthier residents where stuff happens (indeed, a majority of Americans live there) but it is rather routine and is done more out of habit than pushing beyond existing boundaries. This is not an uncommon image of the suburbs and it dates back to the early days of mass produced suburbs when critics worried about conformity, homogeneity, and quiet desperation.

Yet, the suburbs have continued to grow and perhaps more interestingly, they have changed in a number of ways in recent decades: new groups have moved to the suburbs (including more immigrants, minorities, and lower-class Americans), a variety of suburbs have come to serve a variety of functions from bedroom communities to center for office and industrial parks to entertainment and cultural hubs, residents, developers, and business leaders have adapted to a changing landscape with some new innovations. Putting this back in space terms, even if we don’t get much further than the moon or Mars in the coming years, can’t we still discover new and important things? Can’t some good come out of just-out-of-Earth’s atmosphere office parks?

One note: I would be interested to hear from Bogost about how new space exploration could be financed. There could indeed be some issues if exploration is limited more and more to wealthy individuals and corporations but what governments have the money to pay for this out of public funds?

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