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Brave New World: Exploring Space in Popular Culture

The world was transforming rapidly in the nineties. For the first time, Space technology had reached as far as Jupiter. The 1995 Pixar classic ‘Toy Story’ introduced us to a world where Woody the Cowboy was fast being replaced by the mass production of Buzz Lightyears. Nations, including Canada, Japan, and, India were trying to make a mark in the space timeline that was, on the juncture, dominated by the States and Russia. However, this moment in time was certainly not the beginning of the space mania that had engulfed the world.

The fascination with the cosmos follows a trail of cultures, with Indian scriptures using the positioning of celestial objects to predict the future and Egyptian societies, finding correlations between the appearance of the Orion constellation and floods. There is something enigmatic about the possibilities of exploring an unknown frontier; perhaps it is the endless possibility that gives a voice to individual imagination that shapes the imaginative insight of an entire population. Way before ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ gave birth to a new genre of movies, exploring space in real and reel time, Arabian folk tales such as ‘The Adventures of Bulukiya’ anticipated elements of modern galactic science fiction, and theories of an alternate universe.

Credits: Jeremy Lips

In a way, science fiction and space exploration have travelled hand in hand, with one influencing the other every so often. For instance, Jules Verne’s novels, including ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ (1864) and ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ (1865) proved to be the inspiration for Russian scientists to publish the first serious work that displayed physical space exploration as a theoretically possible phenomenon. Similarly, the launch of the first artificial satellite in space coincided with the Golden Age of Science Fiction in literature in the 1940s and 50s, with several authors like Isaac Asimov and John W. Campbell writing sci-fi literature as a full-time career.

What is the reason for this obsession with space?

Man has always harboured the desire to conquer unknown frontiers throughout centuries, to solidify his power and position. This ‘conqueror complex’ has followed the global population throughout the years in the appearance of imperialism and colonialism. The sea and the space are the only two places yet, untouched by exploration, and it is, perhaps this urge to conquer the unknown, that has motivated expeditions beyond the globe.

The Space Race stands as a key example, with the USA and Russia battling it out for years to set foot on Moon and Mars, and Jupiter, before coming to a joint agreement with Europe, Japan, and Canada to set up the first multinational space station in 1998.

At present, however, space exploration is not as much about the Moon or Mars as it is about Earth. Resources on Earth are depleting swiftly due to factors like climate change and global warming. With life hanging by a thread on the blue planet, day by day, it has become the need of the hour to monitor any potential threats Earth may pose to itself while also looking for alternatives to sustain life.

With the involvement of private players within space exploration, significant developments in space technology can be seen in real-time. Companies like the Elon Musk-headed SpaceX, for instance, are working on colonizing Mars and making space travel achievable and affordable for humanity. While the United Nations have specific mandates about the “peaceful use” of outer space, such guidelines are so far nebulous vis-a-vis private actors. On one hand, this can be seen as a threat to space security, as space itself may prove to be the battleground for a potential World War.

However, one automatically views this as a golden incentive for the research and development in space technology, which by extension, opens up fields of space research and space engineering. Private expansion may also provide the necessary funds to facilitate research to examine alternative sites for the sustenance of life, making films like Passengers and Interstellar a tangible reality. Even though STEM and Art majors continue to exalt themselves over each other, the blending of application and imagination is the way forward to take leaps in light-years.

K.R. Swathi is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Maryam Hassan

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Written by K. R. Swathi

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