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?

The world beneath Paris

A little more than a month ago, I commented on a story about exploring underground New York City. The latest issue of National Geographic has a similar story: underneath Paris is a complex system of tunnels, abandoned quarries, and catacombs.

Although I have not been to Paris, this article makes the catacomb tours sound fascinating. Perhaps other cities, like New York or Chicago, could put together underground tours to generate some extra income. While American cities wouldn’t have centuries of bodies beneath them, I would guess that there would be plenty of people interested in such a tour.

On the whole, this article about Paris makes the underground world seem whimsical and liberating. The article ends with the idea that people go underground to escape the restrictions and expectations of the above-ground world. Are there downsides to these places or the people who explore them? And does Paris have people living underground, like New York City and Las Vegas?

Walking the entire Amazon

A British man recently completed an impressive walk: the entire length of the Amazon. The journey took two and a half years and he is supposedly the first human to make the entire hike.

I am slightly amazed that there are still feats like this left to accomplish. Even as we often think of ourselves as very modern people, there are parts of the Earth that we still know little about or few people have ever seen.  The journey drew the attention of another famous explorer:

His feat earned the praise of no less an adventurer than Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a fellow Briton whom the Guinness Book of World Records describes as the “world’s greatest living explorer.”

“To do all this in more than 800 continuous days with just a backpack puts Stafford’s endeavor in the top league of expeditions past and present,” Fiennes wrote on Stafford’s website.

Remarkable – and it sounds like he had many interesting experiences along the way.