One of the primary anxieties of late modern life is modernity’s gamble, the wager that the long-term dangers of a technology-intensive society will be avoided by continued progress. And, as with any wager, it is driven not only by calculations of probability but also by an unrelenting desire to beat the odds There is perhaps no better representation of the anxiety that has attended modernity’s gamble than the dialectical tension animated by the iconic photographs of the tragic explosions of the Hindenburg and the Challenger: the first a dark, gothic, dystopian warning against the excesses of technological hubris, the second a bright and forward moving, utopian celebration of the heroic frontier spirit.
I was reminded of modernity’s gamble when I came across the above photograph of the recent public unveiling of the “VSS Enterprise,” named in honor of U.S. and British naval vessels, as well the “Starship Enterprise” of Star Trek fame. The VSS Enterprise is the first commercial passenger spacecraft that will offer 300 paying customers a two and one half hour suborbital space ride—including five minutes of weightlessness—for the modest sum of $200,000 each.
The first thing to recall when considering the Hindenburg and Challenger explosions is that the events leading up to the tragic moment in each case were orchestrated as media spectacles. And note that here too, the “unveiling,” which takes place in the Mojave dessert and in the dead of night, accompanied by “dreamlike purple lights” and “an ethereal soundtrack,” is heavily attended by the media dutifully recording the event. But the comparison does not stop here, for as with both the Hindenburg and the Challenger, the development of the VSS Enterprise has been beset with one technological delay after another, as well as with tragic injuries and three deaths following equipment failures and explosions. We can only assume that more will follow. And yet, the fetishistic desire to conquer the heavens never seems to die, a point driven home by the billionaire Richard Branson who noted, “Isn’t that the sexiest space ship ever?”
These similarities notwithstanding, it should be recalled as well that both the Hindenburg and Challenger were statist enterprises driven by a martial spirit and distinct militaristic goals—the Hindenburg underwritten by Hitler’s Nazi Germany and an interest in exploiting the advantages of air warfare, and the Challenger a manifestation of the U.S.’s involvement in the Cold War “space race”—while the VSS Enterprise is an entrepreneurial, free market enterprise. This difference, it seems, is worth remarking upon, for while one might imagine militaristic functions as part of a “rational” public policy agenda, the current enterprise seems driven by the same hubris that led Icarus to fly too close to the sun, and one can only assume that the current “enterprise” will have a similar ending. How else to account for such space tourists as Natasha Pavlovich, a native of Serbia who bought her ticket “on credit” because she wants to “bring pride to her native country.” In short, the fetishized, ritualistic thrill of modernity’s gamble comes in many guises, and the desire to “beat the house” is an unyielding addiciton for indivduals and states alike, regardless of how tragically fated its failure it might be.
It is little wonder, then, that agencies like NASA stay in business and that the citizenry is willing to support them with public dollars. Or that the media is always there to play its part. Yogi Berra had it right.
Photo Credit: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images