We used to look up at space in wonder, and now we just want to use it to make a buck

The commercialisation of space marks an expansion of Earth's problems into the cosmos

Photograph of Steven Spielberg (1946-) an American director, producer, and screenwriter, during the filming of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Dated 20th Century. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

When William Shatner went into space in October last year, there was a global frisson of excitement. At the age of 90, the star of the long-running sci-fi series Star Trek had actually gone into space, making him the oldest person ever to do so. The fiction we grew up with, just over half a century later, was becoming fact right before our eyes.

Space travel has long been a preoccupation of human beings. A True Story, by Lucian De Samosata, the 2nd-century Greek satirist, is the earliest known work of fiction to include travel to outer space and alien lifeforms. The 1902 French feature Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A trip to the moon) by Georges Melies was the first film to show lunar travel.

William Shatner as Captain James T Kirk, attends a photo opportunity in 1988 for the film "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier". The performer who breathed life into Kirk, at age 90, boarded Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin NS-18 last year. AP

As technology has developed, and our species' relationship with outer space has moved from fantasy and imagination to reality, our attitudes towards space have also shifted. Shatner’s trip was a showcase of how close we are to commercial space travel. But his role in Star Trek as captain of a wondrous, exploratory, non-profit mission into the cosmos sits seemingly at odds with the billionaires – one of whom sponsored Shatner's trip – who are in the new space race.

This contradiction highlights how our sense of awe for what is beyond our atmosphere is at risk of being consumed by the old vices of imperialism and capitalism. What once left us humbled and gobsmacked by its boundless unknown and was treated with great respect has now become another avenue for commercial benefit, a possible escape from the results of our own profligacy on earth and an arena in which we can continue with the same destructive behaviour.

This shift is particularly evident as we compare the big blockbuster film of the holiday period, Don’t Look Up, and Steven Spielberg's 1982 classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

E.T. marks its fortieth anniversary this year ,which makes it a poignant and important moment to look at how our ideas have changed – where excitement still lies, but also where danger lurks.

In the film, a young boy, Elliot, befriends an extra-terrestrial who has been left behind on Earth by his peers who came to the planet to gather botanical samples. Stranded alone, all E.T. wants to do is "go home". The film was shot from the perspective of the boy in an intimate setting, unfolding a drama of friendship, family and belonging that has tugged on our heartstrings for four decades. There is a strong empathy between Eliot and the alien, who has a magical healing power. E.T. comes to our world lost and lonely, and we teach it to be human, in the process discover the wonder of ourselves.

We must avoid arrogance about human beings' supposed dominance of space

Today, Don’t Look Up shows us how our attitudes towards space have gone from a collective innocent wonder to something more arrogant and materialistic.

The film, by director Adam MacKay, is about a group of astronomers who try to warn the world that a giant comet is going to destroy the Earth in an "extinction-level event". It is an expose of how politics, media and commercial interests trigger the end of our planet; it is widely seen as a commentary on our reaction to climate change. But it also tells us something about our attitudes towards space. As the comet hurtles towards Earth, a handful of ultra-wealthy individuals boards a spaceship to a new destination in space. They land on a planet 22,740 years later, assuming space is theirs for the taking – having destroyed one planet, it’s time to head to the next one.

As the main characters that have remained on Earth gather for a last supper before the comet smashes into the planet, Leonardo DiCaprio’s astronomer asks poignantly: “We really did have everything, didn’t we?”

Hazza al Mansouri (left) Sultan Al Neyadi ahead of a journey to the International Space Station.

Like the countdown in Don’t Look Up, we still have time to change things. The excitement of space and our respect for it still exists. Our collective childhood excitement was reignited when astronauts were recruited from around the world for travel to Mars. I challenge you not to feel a thrill when you read UAE astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri’s description of his training. The epic scale of space that lies before us still has the power to excite.

But as the credits to Star Trek remind us, if we want to "boldly go where no man has gone before", we need to recapture the wonder, awe and respect for space that was embodied in the relationship of Eliot and his extra-terrestrial friend. What we must avoid at all costs is one growing strand of entitlement and arrogance about human beings' supposed dominance of space. Humanity is only just emerging from brutal centuries of imperialism and colonisation of earth. It would be a tragedy to repeat its mistakes in space.

Published: January 7th 2022, 2:00 PM
Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National