When a stellar bomb is triggered, very little will happen at first. And then a spark will pop into existence, and it will hang for an instant, hovering in space, and then, it will split into two, and those will split again, and again, and again. Detonation beyond all imagining—the big bang on a small scale. A new star born out of a dying one. I think it will be beautiful. No, I'm not scared.
There are six people in space right now.
The recent dismantling of the NASA Space Shuttle program in 2011 and the subsequent gutting of any beyond-low-orbit mission programs came mere months before the announcement that the Kepler observatory, launched in 2009, had observed and cataloged more than two thousand “candidate” exoplanets, of which more than 130 have been confirmed as potentially capable of supporting life, and have offered a window on the universe that suggests more than 100 billion Earth-range exoplanets may exist in the Milky Way (thirty thousand or so of which might be closer to home—within a thousand light-years).
Humanity has never gone farther than the moon.
In any history of flight, there's the montage of the various contraptions that never quite made it out of testing; the bikes with wings that bounce comically through a rocky countryside, the gliders equipped with no power but the man strapped into them, the well-meaning falters that precede the real thing. Now, they make up a few seconds of a story about what happened once someone got it right. Then, it must have been a series of long-term hopes and crushing disappointments, in which the retirement of the ruined glider felt like the last best hope at gaining altitude. These days are a critical divide as to whether the reaches of space are an object of curiosity, or an object of transit.
Either as an answer to this conundrum or despairing of one, there have been a spate of recent movies in which the dangers of space travel are second only to their rewards. These movies seek to acknowledge what we know (space is slow, space is as unstable an atmosphere as whatever you're trying to escape, space will kill you), and yet they carry with them the languid framing of milky planets in a view screen, or a carpet of stars, or the rising major chords that assure the viewer that science has become a religious experience; these are films that want us to remember why space is important, and why we need to take the risk more often.
Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, what does your life actually matter?
The perils of space have been well-documented in film since the earliest days of getting audiences to sit still for more than fifteen minutes at a time. (Voyage danes La Lune, released in 1902, was already enchanted with the idea of space as a treacherous landscape: the moon is just teeming with insectoid aliens who want our heroes off the orbiting body pronto.) In 1929, when Fritz Lang released Frau im Mond, travel itself had already become a source of drama—including a remarkable countdown sequence that involved the pressures of launch on the human body, discussion of escape velocity, a multi-stage launch, and the practicalities of weightlessness. Those same practicalities were also as fragile as any other machinery, and made malfunctions and dwindling resources a palpable threat; most of the third act is a standoff as to who will remain behind on the moon, as there's not enough air for all travelers to return safely. In the end, the stalwart hero and the brave heroine remain behind together, facing their doom as the rocket disappears into the darkness.
Yet this moment comes and goes relatively quickly, an ending with which they, and the audience, must be content; it's a briskness reflected throughout the skillfully layered adventure. The most lingering scene in the movie is when the crew gathers at the window, in which hovers the whole round Earth, a familiar sight now but then something only imagined; together, they watch the sun limn the edge of the world, just beginning to rise. Most of that crew will never return, but this brief scene quietly lays out why that's a minor consideration: this is a view it's worth giving your life to see.
The Hubble telescope is broken. It was already broken when it launched in 1990, and NASA discovered that the glass for the lens had been improperly ground, and was off by a little more than two thousand nanometers; many of its initial operations were put on hold until 1993, when a team of astronauts conducted a fix-it mission. Being the first of its kind, its purpose was somewhat twofold; both to gather all the information possible for the most powerful optical equipment ever to point at the sky, and to determine what to do better the next time. (Its planned replacement, the James Webb telescope, was on the drawing board as early as 1996.) Still, it carried thirteen instruments, and has gathered staggering amounts of astronomical data for research—including a handful of amateur projects that were allowed telescope hours in the early years of its launch. Hubble has mapped the known universe through thirteen billion years to a point only 480 million years after the Big Bang.
Despite several rounds of repairs and upgrades, things are beginning to fall apart. The electronics for its Advanced Camera for Surveys died in 2006; its gyroscopes died out one by one before a final round of fixes during its last servicing mission in 2009. Originally, its endgame involved retrieval by a space shuttle, but since the retirement of the last Space Shuttle, NASA has developed a separate retrieval system that will be able to rendezvous with the Hubble, download any necessary data, and provide additional power for whatever endgame awaits it.
In the meantime, the Hubble circles the Earth in orbit at a sensitive altitude that decays with gravitational pull, falling very slowly toward the sea.
As common knowledge grew of what space travel involved, and the more feasible a trip to the moon actually became, the more the science of space found its way into the vocabulary of film. In the 1950s, surreal melodrama This Island Earth still acknowledged the necessity of adjusting to different atmospheric densities; the year a man set foot on the moon, cinemas saw 2001, which took complaisance with interstellar technology with one hand and gave transcendence with the other, and Marooned, a thriller that laid out a worst-case scenario for the dozens of disasters that could cripple a space mission and kill its participants. After the moon landing, giddy with the giant leap for mankind, the movies flooded with alien contact and planets far, far away: many of them were a new generation of spacefaring adventurers; many were survival stories, metaphors, and conspiracy thrillers; many were cautionary tales (here there be dragons).
In 2013, Europa Report takes a similarly practical approach, in part because of its firmly near-future setting. Its destination is Jupiter’s moon of Europa (practically next door, cosmically speaking); its goals are modest (perform a series of basic tests on its ice surface and in the water below to collect environmental data); its cinema science nods at the real (the habitation pod rotates, creating gravity through centrifugal force). Yet though it's undoubtedly within the space-monster genre that's home to many an Alien, the horror here is an undercurrent to something more optimistic.
The dangers inherent in space travel strike them even before they reach Europa, as they lose a crewman after his suit becomes contaminated. After the remaining crew reach the Jovian moon, the drill suffers impact with what they assume is an underwater ice formation, and during the heated argument that follows, one of the team biologists argues that their lives are all expendable in the pursuit of knowledge. To prove it, she goes out to the surface to manually retrieve samples from the highly-irradiated surface, already a death sentence; the shadowy being that swallows her is simply speeding up a known outcome. But despite the crew's panic, the samples remain a priority until the last of their chances at safe departure vanishes. Even then, as the last members of the crew prep for a takeoff they know will never come, they're as upset by the ostensible failure of the mission as by the loss of its crew, and in the film’s final moments as the ship sinks (water levels and music rising in tandem), the pilot opens the ship’s doors, hoping to record evidence of life even at the last.
In a tearful interview after the fact, the CEO of Europa Ventures declares the mission a success; the camera registered a bio-luminescent sea creature, in the frame before it drowned.
"Never" does not exist for the human mind . . . only "Not yet."
—Frau im Mond
The Cassini spacecraft looks slightly like a contraption wrangled from the wreckage of a flying bike; a collection of instruments strapped to a dish, a boom like a salvaged crossbar. Launched in 1997, it's been studying Saturn and its environs since 2004. One of the moons of particular interest became Enceladus, which featured plumes of ice that indicated geological activity, but also contained enough water to warrant further study. Cassini returned for nineteen closer flybys between 2010 and 2012. It was confirmed, upon analyzing the data, that Cassini experienced tiny tugs when flying over the southern poles, the pull of gravity increasing, hinting at denser liquid water underneath the lighter ice; on April 3, 2014, NASA published the results and explained the implications of a watery ocean.
Cassini has discovered one of the greatest extraterrestrial possibilities for life currently known, because its orbit decayed for a little while as it fell very slowly toward the sea. (The other is Europa.)
In 2009’s Sunshine, Danny Boyle posited a future in which a solar Macguffin forces a multinational crew from a frozen Earth to take the Icarus II to the interior of the solar system, on a trip to restart the sun. Though the looming history of the doomed Icarus I (and the questionable decision to name any flying transport after a mythological figure who crashed and perished) creates outside suspense, and its third act momentarily descends into a ham-handed monster flick, the majority of the mission’s perils come from the practicalities of stellar travel: oxygen, shielding, computations, fuel, and the inevitable fracturing relationships of its crew as gold-toned mistakes turn into fires, explode one by one, and build in impossibility until the mission is beyond repair.
Yet even as their problems quickly turn insurmountable and death becomes certain, the mission’s purpose is absolute and they don't run short of volunteers to get their ship to the necessary drop to wake up the sun; the coda frames a snowy morning that gets suddenly, stingingly bright. But there's a purpose closer to home, even for the ones who are doomed, as physicist Capa stands suspended in the first moments of the nuclear reaction about to engulf him. Fatal but necessary; horrific and everything he dreamed.
(But that's not even the scene on which the movie lingers longest; that scene's the one in which the crew gathers in silence, to watch through the window as Mercury makes a transit across the sun; a small and futile eclipse no one can look away from.)
Six people are in space right now, locked in orbit on the International Space Station, testing the practicalities of life off-planet. They're from three different countries, in a space station built through cooperation of five space agencies. Considering the implications of this ongoing phenomenon, the ISS receives little press coverage. (It appeared briefly before being obliterated in Gravity, a casualty of orbital traffic, perhaps its most high-profile mention in the last three years.) The list of their missions is available on the NASA page for the curious; some of their current roster of duties includes maneuvering existing experiments into a pod that can return to Earth for more in-depth study.
However, this generation of astronauts has social media on their side; several who have clocked time in the ISS have Twitter accounts, passing a much more informal commentary to a worldwide audience. Col. Douglas Wheelock, who has participated in two space missions, is one of the most famous faces of ISS habitation; his Twitter followers number in the six figures and he's often called on for interviews about what it's like to live in space. In 2011, he returned to active military duty, leaving NASA behind for the foreseeable future.
On April 6 of this year, he posted a photograph alongside a Tweet that begins, "Seemed silly then...the dream to fly." It's a snapshot taken from within the International Space Station; framed in a round window, the Earth, with the sun just beginning to rise.