A half-century ago, historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin writing in his book The Image, took note of and characterized a societal trend that he found disturbing. Genuine accomplishment was being gradually replaced by what he termed the “pseudo-event,” something seemingly real but in actual fact, an occurrence representing no significant accomplishment or any real milestone. According to Boorstin, a pseudo-event has four characteristics:
- It is not spontaneous, but planned.
- Its principal purpose is to be reported and thus, it is arranged for the convenience of the media.
- Its relation to any underlying reality is ambiguous; parts of the event may somehow relate to genuine accomplishment, but that relation is either uncertain or unknown.
- It is intended as a self-fulfilling prophecy – it is important because its promoters proclaim it to be so.
Boorstin was concerned with both the increasing triviality of cultural and political discourse, and with the rise of the cult of celebrity in America. A classic example of the latter at the time The Image was published was the career of Zsa Zsa Gabor, a minor Hollywood starlet whose main claims to fame were being married nine times and appearing on television talk shows to brainlessly chat in a Hungarian accent. Yet when pressed, most people who had heard of her could not say exactly why she was famous. She was simply famous for being famous. For younger readers who know nothing about Zsa Zsa, think of Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, or Snooki.
Recently, I’ve been struck by how closely Boorstin’s concept of the pseudo-event describes the current sorry state of our civil space program. Specifically, the program is more notable for what it purports to be (or for what it says it intends to become) rather than for what it is actually doing. For as long as I can remember, the alleged “ultimate destination” for people in space has been Mars. The agency endlessly talks about it, even when they are specifically told not to. Enshrined in agency lore is the belief that every space activity must ultimately contribute to the attainment of Mars. If we talk about going somewhere else, such as an L-point or NEO, it is always in preparation for (ultimately) a human Mars mission.
The NASA human Mars mission is the archetypical pseudo-event for space. With the Vision for Space Exploration, the mission of using the Moon to learn how to live and work on another world was specifically laid out in the founding announcement of the program. But as far as NASA was concerned, getting to Mars was the only reason we were going to the Moon. Thus a lunar return morphed into a touch the Moon and go to Mars event thus becoming, yet again, another too expensive and summarily axed move beyond LEO.
NASA has become a master of the space pseudo-event. The announcement of a new mission or objective becomes the event. We’re not really going to an asteroid – we’re just announcing that we’re going to an asteroid. We don’t actually have to design the machines and build the equipment to do a mission – we’re on a flexible path. We’ll simply have endless committee meetings and produce PowerPoint shows and high-quality CGI graphic animations of people visiting distant space destinations. The absence of flight hardware doesn’t mean anything – we are developing technology to be able to do it “eventually.” The media has become the message.
While this modus operandi certainly applies to NASA and many of its programs, it equally (and in some ways, more so) applies to many “New Space” companies, whose announcements of spectacular new vehicles, missions and programs continue on a monthly basis. Recently, we have been regaled with tales of suborbital tourism on a routine basis, unlimited wealth extracted from near-Earth asteroids, national pride trips to and from the Moon for a variety of countries, and giant vacation resorts in Earth orbit where one can play weightless Olympic games. Not only are we told that these wonders will soon appear but that they will be affordable for the vast majority of people. No longer will space be the exclusive domain of government engineers and scientists – “Space-access power to the people!” is the clarion call to the uninformed.
In this sense, New Space is following in the footsteps of its governmental predecessor, only without having previously experienced the latter’s older record of actual accomplishment. From a whole new set of providers, we now have pseudo-missions instead of real missions. Instead of a space agency promising (but not delivering) expensive stunt missions by a few astronauts to exotic destinations, New Space is promising (and not delivering) cheap, meaningful and lasting space accomplishments for all. Talk about a paradigm shift….
The net effect of the advent of a space pseudo-program is to make the average citizen (who thinks little about space on a daily basis but is broadly supportive of it) believe we are progressing in space, when in fact nothing is being accomplished except that some people are making a career out of pretending that we are accomplishing something. We have a national space agency that doesn’t know where it is going or what it is doing. Critical national spaceflight assets and facilities carefully built over several generations are being lost – decaying from neglect, being inexpertly mothballed or sold off. A trained and dedicated technical workforce is disappearing like a vapor, as if it had never existed. New Space companies cheer and proclaim the advent of a new era in spaceflight, but their launch manifests don’t begin to match the pace and predictability of their press releases. Their endless demands to re-direct shrinking NASA funds to them belies their proclamation of being either “new” or “commercial.”
One of the most astonishing aspects of the space pseudo-program is how few seem to recognize its advent. Shell-shocked by a continuous flood of misinformation, the public tends not to analyze news stories in detail, accepting them as the straightforward relation of new facts even though that function of the news media has long since become obsolete and is now more akin to cheerleading for their “team.” New media (and this most certainly includes Internet journalism) eagerly regurgitates press releases and presents them as reality to the public, thereby hiding (willingly or otherwise) the essential hollowness of the U.S. space program.
Got a wild idea for a space mission? You say you want to build a vacation resort on Jupiter? Hold a press conference and you’ll have instant credibility as a space “entrepreneur.” As for any skeptics in the audience – just ignore them or label them dinosaurs, old space fossils, cold-war warriors, senile, or shills for government space “pork.” Got a difficult question for the space entrepreneur? There’s the exit. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
The Moon landings are renowned for the fact that many believe they never happened. What a remarkable development for American spaceflight – we once had a real space program that some thought was faked; now we have a fake space program that many believe is real.