The week of May 17, 2015

The final frontier

By Jesse Hicks

Ever since mankind looked to the skies, space has captured our imaginations. In the arrangement of the stars, we drew the forms of gods and goddesses; we used celestial motion to explain the actions of men and women here on Earth.

Today, space feels closer than ever before. We can watch a man fall to Earth from the edge of the atmosphere; Richard Branson promises space tourism will soon be possible (really). Meanwhile, advancing technology allows us to explore the cosmos as never before, whether that’s with billion-dollar projects funded by starry-eyed tech moguls or DIY satellites and spacecraft.

And maybe that closeness has taken some of the shine off “the final frontier,” made it feel a little pedestrian. There’s been a lot of talk about how to fire imaginations when it comes to space exploration, as our most daring explorers are no longer humans, but robots. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw asks how we’ve come to love our newest generation of space heroes, and what that love says about us.

Meanwhile, Earth-bound explorers are finding new inspiration in a video game that lets them build their own space-faring contraptions; Kerbal Space Program has proven so popular, Cynthia McKelvey writes, that even NASA wants to play along.

Yet we’ve already sent so much stuff into space that the atmosphere’s in danger of becoming a spinning ring of deadly junk, as Aaron Sankin explains, and that’s a real problem—because our global telecommunications system depends on our connections to space. We’ve so cluttered the void that now scientists need new ways to pick up our litter.

It’s not surprising, this contradiction: That we would be idealize space as the ultimate, boundless frontier, then manage to turn an important part of it into a whirling junk heap. That’s a very human tradition. And space—a spur for our greatest dreams and ambitions, a dump for our used-up past—is becoming very human place.

Photo via NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)/J. Hester, P. Scowen (Arizona State U.) (PD)