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With billionaires and pop stars on the scene, will we be left watching the space race from our home?

In the 1960s, Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne, André Courrèges all embraced the space race, incorporating otherworldly motifs into their iconic designs. Throughout the mid-20th century, the fashion industry became enamoured with the space race’s competitive aura, encouraging creatives to think of the future in new ways. The eye-catching silhouettes and scintillating textures of the garments that took centre stage during this time were playful and demanding of attention. However, they also reflected the revolutionary spirit that underpinned the 1960s. According to CR Fashion Book, the fashion movement “signalled independent attitudes that were free of conformity.”

With almost the same fervour as the 1960s, extraterrestrial-inspired themes have once again permeated pop culture this past year, encouraging audiences to rethink earthly limits beyond the stars. The most prominent examples can be found in conventional and alternative endeavours alike—think 2021’s readaptation of the 1984 film Dune or Lil Nas X’s Montero album cover.

Speaking of stars, Doja Cat’s 2021 output shares a similar affinity with otherworldly themes. Her playful, intergalactic music video for ‘Need to Know’ immerses viewers into a number of vibrant settings ranging from a futuristic living room to a mystical club. Grimes, the pop queen of all things beyond Earth, even made a cameo in the video. While visually different, the singer’s video for ‘Kiss Me More’ which was released earlier this year similarly uses alien tropes to explore aspects of female sexuality. Both music videos make their mark in the expansive universe Doja Cat has created with her album Planet Her, and while they seem singular, they tap into something larger. This cosmos of collected cultural references to space reflect the 1960s and its creative attitude towards the galaxy as a medium through which alternative lifestyles and ways of thinking can be expressed freely.

Humanity’s idea of space has long been a welcome medium for escapist fantasies. But while Lil Nas X and Doja Cat employ its motifs to express glitzy sexual empowerment and gender fluidity, some of the world’s most influential voices use it for different reasons. Journalist Sam Wolfson explores this duality in his October 2021 piece for The Guardian titled Metaverse, Mars, meditation retreats: billionaires want to escape the world they ruined. “[Mark] Zuckerberg’s virtual world of play pretend is a way of escaping the destruction he’s wrought on the real one,” wrote Wolfson. While Meta has allowed hate and disinformation to be amplified on its platforms—particularly in the past year—its founder is focused on a pipe dream of the future in the midst of a PR crisis.

Though Zuckerberg’s tunnel vision and VR side hustle may not gain traction, Facebook’s rebranding to Meta points to a larger prevailing attitude towards alternate realities and other worlds present in our Western zeitgeist. Similar to Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the like, Zuckerberg has joined “a cadre of 21st-century robber barons […] looking to escape to other spheres of reality,” Wolfson continued. While the space-focused endeavours of these billionaires are real, they also exist in bubbles of fantasy. As Wolfson stated, it is “impressive that SpaceX and Blue Origin have achieved low-Earth orbit,” however, “these projects have more to do with providing a psychological salve to their owners than they do with the future of tech.”

The seemingly unlimited and untapped potential of space is but an attractive daydream for most of us dwellers down here. For instance, Hannah Rose Dalton and Steven Raj Bhaskaran, the duo behind Fecal Matter, bring the extraterrestrial to the everyday in their lifestyles. Pronounced foreheads, zippered garments, eye-catching makeup and contrasting textures are just a few of the ways they toy around with their self-expression through the interstellar language of space. When interviewed by Paper Magazine, the pair said that they hope their otherworldly pursuits encourage and “change the way people perceive themselves by presenting alternative versions of what is beautiful.”

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Similar to designers in the 1960s, contemporary creatives use space as a setting in which to express alternative ways of living and understanding humanity. However, for those with tentacular businesses depleting Earth’s resources, it acts as simply another place to conquer. On the untouched surface of Mars, they can easily replicate the many systems harming our current global society.

For more than three decades, Tim Jackson, a professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, has researched how vital and possible sustainable technology is when it comes to transforming worldwide economies to become better adapted to future scenarios. However, throughout his research, he has also come to understand that capitalism’s never-ending reach towards productivity “continually push[es] society towards materialistic goals, and undermine[s] those parts of the economy such as care, craft, and creativity which are essential to our quality of life.” Pointing to MIT’s report The Limits to Growth—which continues to be influential today despite being initially published in 1972—Jackson wrote that “economists have been fighting about whether it’s possible for the economy to expand forever” for more than five decades. In 2021, space (and Mars in particular) is the new frontier on which this argument is being played out.

On 12 July 2021, Musk tweeted that “those who attack space maybe don’t realize that space represents hope for so many people.” While that may be true, it also largely obscures the reality that space is inaccessible for the majority of the globe’s general population. As the pandemic dismantled the livelihoods of millions, Bezos’ billions got bigger. His personal wealth almost doubled in the past year and a half. This increase allowed him to invest more time and capital into Blue Origin, his aerospace company.

In the same week that he announced his adventures into Earth’s low orbit, “hundreds of people died from a record-shattering heat dome in Canada and the Pacific Northwest and the ocean caught on fire,” journalist Sim Kern reported in Salon. As intergalactic settings become playgrounds for the super-wealthy, it seems more likely that most of us will be watching their daydreams play out from a deteriorating home planet. However, thanks to the swell of space-inspired media and design recently, we can at least continue to enjoy escapist fantasies while it does so. Always look on the bright side of life, right?

Whose doomsday plan is better, Musk’s or Bezos’?

On Wednesday 4 November, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter to explain how the spaceflight firm’s latest launch would help humanity protect Earth against asteroids. The long-term goal of his project, however, is to build a self-sustaining city on Mars that would ensure humanity’s survival in case of a catastrophe on our home planet. “If we are able to make life self-sustaining on Mars, we will have passed one of the greatest filters,” Musk wrote. “That then sets us up to become interstellar.”

“The comments come after SpaceX launched NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). The mission launched on November 23 at 10:21 p.m. Pacific time from Space Launch Complex 4 East at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California,” wrote Inverse when reporting on the news.

Billed as “humanity’s first planetary defense test mission,” the goal of the mission is to note whether crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid could help change its course. The current target is the smaller of the Didymos binary asteroids, measuring 160 meters (524 feet) across. DART will strike the moonlet in September 2022, around 11 million kilometres from Earth at a speed of 6.6 kilometres per second.

For Musk, this mission showcases the fragile nature of life on Earth—if we don’t act fast, he believes humanity could run out of time. The business magnate’s plan is to transform humanity into a multi-planet species. It all starts with SpaceX’s Starship, a fully-reusable rocket currently under development in Texas. It’s capable of sending over 100 people or 100 tons to space at a time. SpaceX further aims to host the first orbital flight sometime in 2022.

From there, the company would be able to send the first humans to Mars at some point in the 2020s. This could be the first step toward establishing a full-size city of 1 million people on Mars by 2050. Musk’s goal is for the city to be self-sustaining, so even if regular supplies from Earth stopped one day, the city could function just fine. But that’s not all.

In one way or another, Musk aims to answer the million-dollar question: ‘Are we alone in the universe?’. Well, sort of. Enter the Great Filter, known as an answer to the Fermi Paradox. Coined by nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi, the paradox questions why we haven’t come across any evidence of extraterrestrial life if it really is so common in the universe. In other words, where are all the little green guys we oh-so-often hear about?

The concept of the Great Filter originates from Robin Hanson’s argument that the failure to find any extraterrestrial civilisations in the observable universe implies the possibility that something is wrong with one or more of the arguments from various scientific disciplines that the appearance of advanced intelligent life is probable. Either this ‘filter’ is still stopping us from exploring the stars, or we’ve finally moved past it—which means we might soon be able to encounter extraterrestrial life somewhere out there.

Musk suggests that one of the great filters—he believes we’re facing more than one—could be the inability to become multiplanetary. Moving past that hurdle would allow humanity to overcome one of the most significant barriers to achieving an advanced stage of development. Pretty exciting, right?

Sadly for him though—we’re still debating whether it would be something incredibly good or devastatingly bad for humanity as a whole—it looks like we probably won’t reach another star in Musk’s lifetime. That’s why, as of now, his biggest goal is to establish the Mars city, which could then pave the way for further advancements.

SpaceX designed Starship for full reusability and refuelling using in-space resource utilisation. Its liquid oxygen and methane fuel mean humans could refuel using Mars’ resources and either return to Earth or venture out further, establishing a planet-hopping network along the way.

Sure, the ship won’t take humanity to other stars any time soon, but Musk suggests that establishing a second home for humans would increase the chances of reaching other stars in the far future. It would mean that if a catastrophe wipes out humanity on Earth, work could continue on the Mars base or any other established settlements.

But he’s not the only one looking to save humanity. Jeff Bezos, Musk’s infamous arch-enemy, also has big plans in the making: to have us orbit Earth in giant space stations. In May 2019, he explained how humanity could live in orbiting space colonies similar to those envisioned by physicist Gerard K. O’Neill. The physicist claimed that these would be better than planetary surfaces because they enable real-time communication with Earth and it’s easier to return home.

With human energy use doubling every 25 years, Bezos believes that in around 200 years, humanity will need to cover the Earth in solar panels to meet its needs. And with no room for us on the planet, orbiting it instead sounds like the perfect solution. Expanding into space would ensure the survival of our species, potentially to a population of one trillion humans. It could support, Bezos said, “a thousand Mozarts, or a thousand Einsteins.”

Elon Musk versus Jeff Bezos

So, which idea is the best one? Who should you trust out of those two (slightly dreadful) options? In another article, Inverse asked space entrepreneur and consultant Rand Simberg to weigh the pros and cons of both propositions and share his opinion on which one represents a more attractive vision of the future of space.

Simberg argued that while Musk’s vision receives a lot of publicity, Bezos’ goal is “more expansive.” To put it simply, Earth is pretty good, so why not stay close to it? “This is the best planet in the Solar System,” he said. “The thing that Elon doesn’t seem to appreciate […] it’s not obvious he’s given a lot of thought about what you do when you get there.”

Musk likes to think that Mars could support a thriving economy but for Simberg, there’s a lot of unknowns around human physiology and partial gravity. Not enough research has been done into the long-term effects. “There’s a huge ethical issue right now with sending people to Mars to live… We don’t know if they can have healthy kids,” he told Inverse.

Funnily enough, when speaking about his vision at the SXSW 2018 conference, Musk explained that the first visitors to reach Earth 2.0 (Mars) would not be living luxuriously, “Like Shackleton’s ad for Antarctic explorers: difficult, dangerous, good chance you will die.” Oookay then.

In comparison, in the coming decades, a Bezos-spearheaded economy could start to thrive in low-Earth orbit. “We’re going to see large rotating space facilities, space hotels,” Simberg said. “We are going to see thousands of people going to space, visiting, living, working [and] playing in space. Barring some planetary catastrophe, I think that’s what we’re going to see.”

While having to pick between the plague and cholera is no easy task, it’s somewhat reassuring to hear what an expert like Simberg has to say on the matter. Long story short, compared to the unknown of expanding to other planets, nearby space stations could prove a more attractive option. There you have it—now we stay tuned for Musk to work on a comeback, on Twitter obviously.