A Brief History of the Future: Reflections on the Death of Space Travel

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This lovely drawing was done by my friend Clare Boucher when I wrote this essay in 2009.

NASA will launch a mission in 2009 called Kepler to monitor nearly 200,000 stars for the shadows of planets the size of Earth. Let’s say we find dozens or hundreds of Earths, or even thousands, as some astronomers predict. What then?
—Robert Irion, National Geographic, Special Edition: ‘Space: The Once and Future Frontier’ October 2008

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What we owe to the future has never been so much in debate as it is now. So radically opposed to our age-old conventions of worship for our forebears, environmentalism of the past decade or so has steadfastly consisted of admonitions about “taxing future generations”, keeping the earth a liveable place for our children, and so on.

There is something inevitably religious about our beliefs about the future. But climate change, peak oil, and the spectre of a water crisis are for the first time beginning to challenge the fatalistic apathy with which we have always treated our planet. And the revelation of our dependence upon the earth could not come at a more inauspicious moment in history. Whereas the mythologies that have for centuries dominated our conceptions of the future had been derived from narratives of conquests and utopias, our slow abandonment of the project of extra-terrestrial colonisation demands a drastic reworking of the projected destination of humanity. The notion that the colonial endeavour of exploration and adventure that began in the 15th century would continue for ever – that we would go on to visit other planets, the inhabitants of which would be strange, intelligent, sexy, ugly, and evil beyond our wildest dreams – was dominant just a generation ago. The death of colonial mythology as the dominant trope of Western social narrative has been a relatively recent and sudden occurrence. Continue reading

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