Nineteen seventy. A great year for music, and a sad year, too. The death of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin.* Many of the great acts were kicked off their record labels and would struggle to find new publishers.**
The great psychedelic band, Jefferson Airplane was breaking up, but before it did, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick put together a new band, named Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship (which would change its lineup before finalizing as the Jefferson Starship a few years later). They released a science fiction-counterculture concept album called Blows Against the Empire in 1970. It would go on to be nominated for a Hugo Award in 1971.
It was the voice of our dreams. Wikipedia tells us of the album:
Side Two is an integrated suite of songs which opens with “Sunrise”, Grace Slick’s allegory describing the breaking dawn the couple was awaiting, while also symbolizing the dawn of an Utopian civilization, freed from conservative mores and violent influences. “Sunrise” leads directly into “Hijack,” in which the revolutionaries storm the transport to the orbiting starship and head off into space, boarding the ship by the end of “Hijack” and leaving orbit in “Home.” As the story progresses with “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite,” hopes and misgivings are revealed. After the ship’s engines and systems are readied in “X-M,” “Starship” relates a mutiny fought for control of the ship, to determine whether to surrender and return or to continue. Eventually the idealists win control and the ship is flung by gravity sling-shot around the sun and out of the solar system.
By Kantner’s admission, the underlying premise of the narrative was derived in part from the works of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, particularly the novel Methuselah’s Children. Kantner went so far as to write to Heinlein to obtain permission to use his ideas. Heinlein wrote back that over the years, many people had used his ideas but Paul was the first one to ask for permission, which he granted. Blows was the first rock album to ever be nominated for a Hugo Award, in 1971 in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation. In voting, the album garnered the second most votes for the award, losing to “No Award”, which received the most votes.
The lyrics of Hijack the Starship start with:
You know – a starship circlin’ in the sky -
It ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be buildin’ it up in the air, ever since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty
and HIJACK THE STARSHIP
Carry 7,000 people past the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru
the cities of the universe.
A starship in orbit by 1990? Living in space, colonies on the planets. Exploring the universe. What dreamers we were. Today the music seems naive, even sadly optimistic. Unrealistic. Fantasy.
But it was a powerful dream.
It wasn’t just the dream of an acid-befuddled group of hippies, either. Many of us believed that, by now, we would be living on the planets, if not headed towards the stars. We’ve been dreaming of this, imagining our lives in space, since the Victorian era.
I recall the hopes and the imagination that space travel sparked. I stood in my backyard, in 1957, watching the tiny light of the first satellite, Sputnik 1, drift across the sky. I wanted to be an astronaut, to travel up there into space. To be among the first lunar colonists. Star Trek gave us a future to believe in and we glued ourselves to TV sets to watch.
Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant 1968 film, 2001, A Space Odyssey, portrayed it so clearly, so realistically. The greatness of the vision wasn’t its scifi premise, but rather the almost pedestrian way it portrayed the normality of space colonization and travel.
American activist and astrophysicist Gerard O’Neill wrote a roadmap text for space colonization in 1976, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. I remember the excitement with which his book was received. It could work. We had the vision. The L-5 Society was formed to promote these ideas and figure out how best to implement them. This was our future: to expand beyond our borders into space.
We could, as John Magee wrote in his poem, “slip the surly bonds of earth” and tread “the high untrespassed sanctity of space.”***
All we needed was the political will.
Which no one had. Not for very long, anyway.
Oh, it had been there, during the Cold War, driven by fear, ambition, national security, competition, patriotism, pride and, yes, a genuine interest in space exploration. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, America lost the reason to compete, to challenge itself to be the best and the most farsighted. It became, instead, inward-looking, navel-gazing, increasingly xenophobic, and isolationist. They didn’t feel the pressure to prove they were number one against a wily opponent. So they ceased to be.
US presidents carried the vision, but Congress never shared it. President George Bush Sr. proposed the Space Exploration Initiative that called for the construction of a space station, permanent presence on the moon and a manned mission to Mars over the next 20 to 30 years. Congress balked at the $500 billion price tag, and the initiative died in the planning stages. Subsequent plans by presidents were often brave and bold, but never got support from an increasingly anti-science, parsimonious Congress.
The American pro-space movement had its heyday in the decade before 1985, after which it slowly receded from popular imagination as the space race itself did. The nation that had put men on the moon slowly lost its nerve, its interest. By 2006, it could not even put a human into low-earth orbit.
Weaponization and commercialization of space were the talking points from the mid-1980s on; utilitarian, pedestrian dreams.
The L-5 Society merged with the National Space Society in 1978. The NSS continues to wave the flag for space colonization, albeit with what seems a more political and social agenda in mind:
A goal of NSS is the creation of a free, spacefaring civilization with people living and working in space. We believe in democracy to build and operate space settlements, whether in space, on the Moon, on Mars, or even on planets around other stars.
You can read their roadmap to space here or download the PDF version here. It’s a comprehensive plan, but to me it lacks the verse, the bold vision that makes you hold your breath in wonder, that O’Neill and his collaborators had. It seems more bureaucratic.
Perhaps that’s how we have to approach it, these days, in an era when anti-science Republican politicians have taken over the all-important House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to enforce their own personal fundamentalist faith-based agenda.
As Popular Science put it recently:
Of the many and varied things going wrong in Washington today, the frontal assault on science is one of the most alarming. Sequestration will be a blip compared to the setback that could result if Congress makes science–the peer-reviewed, community-checked, fact-based realm of science–all about politics.
Their myopic vision is not space, not human colonization of the planets, no exploration and the brave new future, but rather to push creationism into school curricula, to deny climate change, to further repress women’s rights, ban abortions and make Christian school prayer mandatory. No science there. No bold future, just fundamentalist, religious rule. No wonder these anti-science politicians are often called the American Taliban.
Space colonization isn’t the only futuristic dream we gave up. In the introduction to his book, Where’s My Jetpack, author Daniel Wilson wrote,
The future is now. And we are not impressed. The future was supposed to be a fully automated, atomic-powered, germ-free Utopia, a place where a grown man could wear a velvet spandex unitard and not be laughed at. Our beloved scientist may be building the future, but some key pieces are missing. Where are the ray guns, the flying cars, and the hoverboards that we expected? We can’t wait another minute for the future to arrive. The time has come to hold the Golden Age of science fiction accountable for its fantastic promises.
Orbital hotels, robot servants, space elevators, teleportation, smart houses, moving sidewalks, flying cars, underwater hotels, and ray guns are all among the science fiction future we dreamt of, and never materialized. Techno-utopia, as Wilson tells us somewhat wistfully, never arrived.
Hijack the starship? Impossible, without one being readied, with the dream long dissipated. Instead perhaps we need to hijack the anti-science agenda from the fundamentalists and get back the vision, get back the greatness and the passion that once drove us to seek our destiny among the stars. Let’s re-open O’Neill’s book and start reading it again, and maybe regain our sense of wonder.
* Soon to be followed by many others dying in the 1970s, including Gene Vincent, Duane Allman, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, Bobby Darin, Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, Keith Moon, Minnie Riperton, and Marc Bolan.
** Wikipedia: By 1969 the MGM and Verve record labels had been losing money for several years. A new president, Mike Curb, was hired. Curb decided to purge the labels of their many controversial and unprofitable acts. The drug or hippie-related bands were released from MGM, and the Velvet Underground was on his list, along with Eric Burdon and the Animals and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. Nonetheless MGM insisted on retaining ownership of all master tapes of their recordings.
*** From Wikipedia, ”High Flight:”
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.