Tesla’s “Starman” or 2001’s “Star Child”—Which One Should Guide Our Species Into Space?

The Tesla “Starman,” image donated to public domain by SpaceX, 2018.

Since the founding of SpaceX in 2002, Elon Musk has been viewed in popular culture as a space “visionary”—one of the billionaire pioneers to lead humanity off the planet by colonizing Mars in the 21st century. To stamp his futuristic status, Musk and his partner Grimes (the pop singer) have given their baby boy a futuristic name: X Æ A-12. That’s kinda cool and fine with me. Of course, “Elon Musk” is a cool name and so is “Tesla,” surely more futuristic than Toyota “Prius” and Nissan “Leaf.” But, is Musk really the “cool dude of the future,” especially when it comes to venturing into space? It’s more than ironic that the first thing SpaceX launched beyond Earth and into the solar system was a Tesla car piloted by the “Starman”—a dummy. Prophetic?

Table designed by Barry Vacker, 2020.

As best I can tell, the Starman’s eyes are locked on the rearview mirror, gazing upon a future that is past, a tomorrow that should remain as yesterday. To terraform Mars, Musk has long proposed that we launch thousands of nuclear weapons to heat the planet, melt the ice caps, and release C02, all supposedly to trigger a runaway greenhouse effect to make Mars habitable. Recent NASA studies say it’s not possible to terraform Mars with anything close to today’s technologies. Yet, Musk remains slick as teflon, still revered by legions of fanboys and fangirls. As shown in the tweet below, at least 40K of Musk’s followers love the idea of nuking Mars.

Nuke Mars T-shirt; Elon Musk tweet. Twitter post is in the public domain.

The Starman is in distinct contrast to the “Star Child” who appeared at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece of science-fiction and space philosophy. The conclusion of 2001 is open-ended, with the last monolith and the gaze of the Star Child combining to suggest that space exploration gives us the chance to create a new philosophy and destiny for the human species. Why not pick up where 2001 left off? After all, we are almost twenty years past the year “2001.”

Elon Musk is a charismatic salesman of “the future.” After all, Musk has 34 million Twitter followers and thousands quickly signed up for the Mars One colonization plan. But is this an enlightened future being sold to the world? The central question this essay poses is: why can’t art, science, and ecology be our messengers to space, the highmarks of enlightenment for our civilization?

Even though NASA says it can’t happen with today’s technology, we can pretend it might be possible to terraform Mars enough to fully colonize the Red Planet. Let’s contrast two possible models (outlined above) and see which is more enlightened and forward-thinking.

The Mirror of Gaze

“When faced with a totally new situation we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.” — Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan’s quote summarizes today’s so-called futurism, trapped in rearview mirror visions. Into which mirror should we cast our gaze? Is it the rearview mirror of nuclear destruction, followed by resource exploitation and pollution on celestial bodies. Is it the mirrors which always reflect human narcissism, nationalist competition, technological fetishism, and tribal warfare?

Or should we embrace the mirrors of the world’s telescopes, especially the Hubble Space Telescope and forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope? The most profound media technology of all-time, telescopes reveal humans to be a single species on a tiny planet in a vast and majestic universe—populated with two trillion galaxies stretching across 100 billion light years. Telescopes show the human species can be brainy, curious, and truly creative, so why not embrace the obvious message? We should leave this planet as a united and cooperative species, with humility and respect for the beautiful worlds we will visit, explore, and admire.

The Hobby-Eberle Telescope, the world’s 4th largest optical telescope; photo Barry Vacker (2019). Selfie of author at right. The HET is one of several large telescopes at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of far west Texas. Operated by the University of Texas at Austin. Photos by Barry Vacker, 2020.

The Biggest Launch

So far, SpaceX’s biggest launch has been the Tesla piloted by the Starman, supposedly a testament to the cool space future that awaits humanity. Or maybe the Tesla Starman is merely a stellar work of Pop Art or the greatest car ad of all time. Or is the Tesla Starman another example of consumption and pollution, now being extended into space by our cosmic narcissism? After all, space junk already rings our planet.

The Starman is symbolic of the dominant space philosophies. We’re all dressed up and ready to go, but we’re on autopilot, with cruise control speeding us backward to the 19th and 20th-century industrial consumer model. We are trapped in the gaze of the rearview mirror, all being celebrated in the tweets of the 21st-century media spectacle.

Since 2001: A Space Odyssey, NASA and other space agencies have long begun following the Star Child into the cosmic voids by launching the Hubble telescope, along with other telescopes in space and the ever-larger telescopes on Earth. So far, the biggest telescope launch has been the Hubble, soon to be followed by the James Webb telescope. The philosophical significance of these telescopes dwarfs anything that will ever be achieved by terraforming Mars. That’s because telescopes have transformed our entire view of the universe and our place in it. We don’t need to terraform Mars, we need to transform our worldviews on Earth—before we go anywhere off this planet.

If we think of telescopes as eyes, then it is clear our eyes are growing exponentially larger, with much more powerful visions. Telescopes have revealed a vast and majestic universe, an expanding universe in which we are the center of nothing and might be utterly insignificant. In a universe of trillions of galaxies, our non-centrality is the starting point for leaving Earth, as a species both tiny and brainy—showing respect and admiration for the celestial bodies we visit. Why not embrace a new and larger philosophy for what we see with our telescopes, as they guide us into a 21st century understanding of the universe?

Century of Vision

Elon Musk’s view that we terraform Mars reflects the 19th century vision of industrialization and massive pollution that swept across America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. His hopes for nuking the Red Planet reflects some of the nuclear utopianism of the mid-20th century and militancy of the Cold War, before Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Planet of the Apes (1968) showed the absurdity of nuclear war and the likely outcome—a planet of humans ruled by warrior apes!

In contrast, 2001: A Space Odyssey hurled audiences into the 21st century. After all, the 1968 film was set in the year “2001.” The Hubble telescope and the terrestrial telescopes propelled us deep into the 21st century universe. The European Extremely Large Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope will move us even further forward into the cosmos. Why not keep moving in the same direction?

The Giant Magellan Telescope; Barry Vacker’s photo of images from an educational public display at the McDonald Observatory (2019); images used with permission. The GMT is under contruction at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

Plan for Mars

Elon Musk champions terraforming and the Mars One colonization of the Red Planet. What follows is the inevitable industrialization and destruction of ancient landscapes. What else could nuking it do? And then take it, terraform it, and then begin industrialization. This reflects the “robber baron” and “Manifest Destiny” models of America, begun 175 years ago, which pillaged and polluted the natural environment after the U.S. government stole the lands from the Native Americans.

The lands were handed over to the capitalist and Christian colonizers—supposedly to expand free markets and religious freedom. Such “progress” was seen as central to America’s “Manifest Destiny,” as symbolized in the painting below—which was reproduced far and wide in magzines of the late 19th century.

“American Progress” by John Gast (1872). Painting in the public domain, Library of Congress.

As shown in American Progress, the lands were seen as “there for the taking”—with bears, buffaloes, and Native Americans fleeing into the dark, fleeing the “sunrise” of farming and industrialization. What followed were endless broken treaties and the near-total annihilation of Native Americans by the U.S. government. These are historical facts. It didn’t have to be that way, but it was. Of course, there are no Native Martians on Mars, but that’s beside the point.

With plans like nuking and terraforming Mars, we are sending into space the very things that cause horror and warfare on Planet Earth—resource exploitation, industrial pollution, nationalist rivalry, economic greed, and eventual military conflict. That’s why Musk’s vision is little more than Manifest Destiny on Mars. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Why not follow the “National Parks” model? The national parks and wilderness areas were created to protect the remaining beautiful and sublime landscapes of America from complete destruction due to 19th and 20th century “Manifest Destiny.”

The “Value” of Mars

There are two different ways we can “value” Mars: 1] industrial-consumer-narcissistic values or 2] aesthetic-scientific-species values.

1] Industrial-Consumer-Narcissistic

The industrialization model leads directly to the consumer society, where everything of value is based in material objects for consumption and images for entertainment. Absent a different model, Mars colonization will echo what’s happened on Earth, where human narcissism reigns supreme.

As for colonizing the Red Planet, let’s not merely think of some cool “biosphere” with brave human explorers, as first prototyped at Biosphere 2 in Arizona and celebrated in the 2015 film, The Martian.

Biosphere 2. Photo: Barry Vacker, 2016.

Let’s consider what inevitably comes later under the industrial-consumer model. After the Conestoga wagons and railroads in American Progress, came the factories, highways, suburban sprawl, and Hollywood and Disneyland — the consumer-entertainment dreamworlds rising amid massive pollution and destruction of landscapes. Then came the internet in the early 1990s, a new and untouched world, which some thinkers thought would be an electronic utopia for human consciousness — until the rest of humanity arrived and colonized it. Absent a counter to the rearview mirror model, it’ll be the same with Mars. As with Earth and the internet, China and Russia will have their territories on the Red Planet. Maybe India and Japan, too.

Any resource or product brought back to Earth for consumption will not make life better on Earth. It will only end up in a landfill.

The National Park and Wilderness economy is massive in the desert southwest of America; L: Looking east near Desert View Watchtower at the Grand Canyon; R: Author selfie at the South Rim; photos Barry Vacker, 2020.

2] Wilderness Mars, Museums, Observatories

Fortunately, there is another model we could follow — where we think and act as a single species. That Mars has untouched landscapes does not mean it is “empty” and valueless, ready for us to “fill it” with our baggage. Mars is already “full” — as it is, a planet filled with extraordinary beauty and sublimity. That’s its most profound and enlightened value, along with the scientific discoveries we might make. As with the Grand Canyon, we don’t need to fill Mars with anything. Let’s visit it, study it, admire it, and protect it.

Following the National Park and Wilderness models, why not protect Mars (and the moon) as “Celestial Wildernesses” for visits by artists, scientists, thinkers, and space tourists? That’s what is implied in the moon scenes in 2001. Similarly, let’s set aside tiny fractional parts of Mars and the moon for scientific study and habitation, but leave the remaining parts untouched for aesthetic appreciation — just as we do with national parks and wilderness areas.

The idea of protecting Mars as a site for aesthetics and science may seem naïve or impractical— until we consider that on Earth we have already created a huge tourist economy based on the aesthetics of nature, vastness, and the sublime. That’s the ultimate basis for all the national parks in the America and around the world. In 2018, over 20 million people visited the national parks in the desert southwest of America. It’s a massive multibillion dollar industry.

Earthlings go to national parks and wilderness areas for a variety of reasons, but they mostly center on seeking and experiencing some combination of the following:

• Natural beauty

• Amazing experiences of sublimity and immensity: forests, mountains, oceans, deserts, and canyons made possible by eons of biological, geological, and celestial evolution

• Solitude and remoteness away from civilization

• Ancient landscapes and ecosystems untouched by humans (or at least mostly untouched).

Left: View into Mexico from the South Rim Trail (12 miles round trip), Big Bend National Park, Texas, Photo: Barry Vacker, 2014. Right: Barry Vacker at South Rim; photo by Gail Bower, 2014; used with permission.

Let’s imagine that the aesthetic-science model ensures that all but .001% of Mars is completely set aside for ecological protection, available only for scientific study, philosophical inquiry, and aesthetic appreciation. Given that Mars has about 55 million square miles of surface area, .001% would still leave 550 square miles for minimal human development scattered among select spots on Mars.

These areas would be set aside for human usage and habitation, such as biospheres, astronomical observatories, museums (with artifacts from the planet), art galleries (with artwork based on the planet or cosmos), outdoor art installations, and sites for space tourism (hotels, camp sites, and hiking trails). How amazing would it be to hike along the Valles Marineris canyon, which stretches almost 4000 kilometers and has depths that reach almost 10 kilometers? Space hotels can orbit Mars, while the rest of the Red Planet would remain untouched.

Imagine visiting great artworks, museums, or observatories on Mars (or the moon), with celestial artworks and science exhibits that tell the story of our cosmic origins and neighborhood? If this seems impossible, it is not, because we already have these symbols of enlightenment and ecology on Earth. That’s why I link to think of this as the 2001 and Carl Sagan model—born in 2001, but detailed in Sagan’s Cosmos, the epic documentary series from1980.

Star Trek?

Upon the founding of the U.S. Space Force, Elon Musk tweeted: “Starfleet begins.” This is absurd. When has America or the Pentagon ever followed the Prime Directive of Star Trek? Is Musk is somehow unaware of what is happening on Earth or is he just a cheerleader for the military-industrial complex because he needs their space contracts?

“Starfleet” begins only when humans unite as a single, cooperative species, who venture off Earth in pursuit of knowledge and wonder. As Captain Kirk says in the famed opening to the Star Trek episodes: “Its continuing mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilization, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Unfortunately, the Star Trek movies rarely obey this coda.

Existential Stance

Elon Musk is popular precisely because he has no real new vision and appeals directly to the narcissistic narratives that dominate our planet — plunder, pollute, brag incessantly, and remake the world in our own image.

Starlink Light Pollution

Elon Musk’s “Starlink” program is launching 1500 communication satellites (silver and highly reflective of light) around Earth. Sure, the satellites will give humans ever more bandwidth to tweet, spy, stream Netflix, and upload Tik Tok videos. But the satellites reflect light downwards and make it very difficult for optical telescopes to view the night sky, effecting yet another form of light pollution. How come Musk did not anticipate this problem if he is such a space visionary? Rather than a link to the stars, Starlink is much more a mirror reflecting humanity back to itself — the latest stage in terraforming Earth into iPlanet.

The Challenge of “2001”

It seems ironic that the Tesla Starman was launched in 2018, the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey—a towering work of art and philosophy, offering a vision of hope and meaning in a majestic and awe-inspiring universe. As suggested by 2001, we are an evolutionary species capable of great things. We evolved from apes to artists to astronauts, from simians to scientists and space farers. Inspired and seduced by the black monolith, we created a technological civilization capable of exploring the stars and seeking to understand its origins and destiny via art, science, and philosophy.

We face the paradox and challenge of our greatest achievement — we have discovered a vast and ancient universe in which we are insignificant and possibly meaningless. In addition to Hubble, NASA’s other greatest achievement — the Apollo moon landings—must be accounted for in any new space philosophy. We live in a universe with untold numbers of stars, planets, black holes, possible advanced civilizations, and vast stretches of emptiness. How can our philosophies ignore this?

The Sublime and Radical Wonder

It is the aesthetics of the sublime that lie at the heart of the human experience of nature and the universe—whether we are hiking the Grand Canyon or gazing through the eyes of the Hubble telescope. When confronting such vastness, there is a tension between our reason and percepts. Our percepts are overwhelmed, but we can still order the totality of the experience into emotional and rational sensibilities—felt at the same time.

In the sublime moment, we have the simultaneous sense of awe and wonder, the vast and majestic, the connection of the infinitesimal (us) with the infinite (nature, the universe, vast landscapes, etc). It is the radical wonder of the sublime that connects our origins and destiny to nature and the universe from which we evolved. Any 21st century space philosophy needs this as as a starting point—as it’s existential stance. After all, 2001 fills us with these kinds of sublime experiences, which is why it is an aesthetic masterpiece and should guide us into space.

The Ultimate Purpose

Rather than pillage and plunder, why not pursue radical wonder in the aesthetics and science. NASA and the world’s scientists have continued exploring the cosmos and regularly blow our minds with images from the Hubble telescope and status updates about Voyager outside the solar system. But, instead of uniting as a species and protecting the planet (the only sane options following Apollo and Hubble), humans have continued the tribal warfare and full-on consumer society. The legacies of Apollo and Hubble deserve better. So will all the new giant telescopes.

Sign inside Spaceport America, location for Virgin Galactic test flights, New Mexico. Photo: Barry Vacker, 2016.

The Next Space Human

If we follow the Elon Musk and “Space Force” model, we will be space warriors and conquerers. Star Trek already provided the warning. We will be the society of “Khan,” the genetically enhanced barbarian who rules through force and domination. As best I can tell, that is the unwitting model for the U.S. Space Force, with all its advanced technology and nationalist bravado. The same goes for China and Russia, too.

As for artists, scientists, thinkers, and tourists, we can only hope that Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic philosophy evolves in the enlightened direction. Here’s a philosophical passage from “Why We Go” at the Virgin Galactic website:

Virgin Galactic recognizes that the answers to many of the challenges we face in sustaining life on our beautiful but fragile planet, lie in making better use of space.

Sending people to space has not only expanded our understanding of science, but taught us amazing things about human ingenuity, physiology and psychology.

From space, we are able to look with a new perspective both outward and back. From space, the borders that are fought over on Earth are arbitrary lines. From space it is clear that there is much more that unites than divides us.

There is little that compares to the sense of awe that takes hold as we raise our eyes to the night sky.

Spaceport America; Sculpture: “Genesis” by Otto Rigan (2019). Photos: Barry Vacker, 2016.

The Hollywood Vision

Russia, China, and the U.S. are busy militarizing space in anticipation of battling in real star wars. Sadly, for me, the Star Trek narrative is comatose on Planet Earth, while Star Wars reigns supreme at the box office and in reality. As for Mars One, it will likely end up imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall (1990), which depicts Mars as a corporate controlled strip-mining site, Wild West party planet, and virtual-reality tourism fantasy.

Other than the awe-inspiring space telescopes, we are nowhere close to the vision of 2001. For all its good intentions, the International Space Station is far from the sleek space station in 2001.

Extinction Event?

Musk is right, we do need a “Plan B” for humanity. But, nuking Mars is not the start. We should begin by cleaning up our own planet and ending all the senseless tribalism and warfare. The Corona pandemic shows we need to quit overtaking nature on our planet, not that we need to colonize a new planet.

For the next century or so, we face a far greater risk of self-destruction via nukes, pollution, and climate disruption than we do by a meteor or super-volcano beneath Yellowstone. The idea that we need a “Planet B” in case we have f*cked up Earth so bad we can’t live on it — well, that’s the Interstellar scenario, but that film is a warning, not an action plan!

Musk: Simulacrum of the Space Future

In conclusion, Elon Musk is not the human to lead Earthlings into space, not if we are the enlightened species we claim to be. Nuking and terraforming Mars is just more narcissism, powered by human vanity and a megalomaniacal vision. Like most high-tech billionaires, Elon Musk has absorbed the surrounding intellectual culture—good and bad—and cleverly capitalized on a few technological trends to become fabulously wealthy. Nevertheless, Musk offers a rearview mirror future, a yesterday masquerading as tomorrow.

As philosopher Jean Baudrillard explained, we live in the era of the simulacrum, where the copy has replaced the original in our mediated culture—a world of signs and symbols, clones and copies, fakes and facades. Perhaps more poetically, the mediated maps have overtaken the territories they were supposed to represent. On these maps, we see celebrities playing presidents, talk show hosts posing as philosophers, and 19th century visions pretending to be 21st century visions. Just as the U.S. Space Force is a simulacrum of Star Trek, Musk is the simulacrum of the future, the copy of yesterdays past that look like the new tomorrows to come, but are not.

[Note: The day after this essay was published, Marina Koren documented Musk’s reactionary and wildly off-the-mark tweets about the Corona pandemic. A Musk tweet predicted “probably close to zero new cases in US too by end of April.” There were more tweets equally absurd. See, “The Cult of Elon is Cracking,” The Atlantic. Koren’s analysis only reinforces the critique presented here: Elon is the simulacrum of the future.]

A New Space Philosophy to Counter “Nihilism”

Elon Musk is one symptom of a much deeper problem. In the wake of 2001 and Hubble, our art, philosophy, and culture have been unable to develop a hopeful and meaningful narrative for our species in the universe we have discovered—the universe in which are not significant and not central. Yet, we humans are made of stardust and stand as one small way the universe is aware of itself. That alone justifies our existence and begins our way out of fears of nihilism, but gives us zero cosmic right to terraform a planet in our image. Radical wonder, not conquer and plunder, that must be our coda.

A new space philosophy could emerge. But, building and realizing a new philosophy is a complex long-term project beyond the scope of any one person and needs the contributions of countless people: artists, scientists, philosophers, technologists, and everyday lovers of space exploration. Inspired by Sagan, 2001, the monolith, and the Star Child, I have taken a few steps forward by presenting a new space philosophy based in science, ecology, aesthetics, and planetary cooperation. Many of these key concepts are presented in “Explosion of Awareness” in Medium.

In the end, the Star Child should lead us off the planet. As we move forward from here, let’s pursue radical wonder and become the enlightened species we claim to be. As stated on the back cover of my 2017 space philosophy book, Specter of the Monolith:

“It’s no wonder we don’t have the sleek space station from 2001 — we have yet to escape from the Planet of the Apes.”

We still have time.

Back cover of my book; photo: Barry Vacker, 2020.

Theorist of big spaces and big ideas. Writer and mixed-media artist. Existentialist w/o the angst. PhD: Univ of Texas at Austin.

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