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«BARRY VACKER Copyright, 2016 SPECTER OF THE MONOLITH Nihilism, the Sublime, and Human Destiny in Space — From Apollo and Hubble, to 2001, Star ...»

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Copyright, 2016


Nihilism, the Sublime, and Human Destiny in Space —

From Apollo and Hubble, to 2001, Star Trek, and Interstellar

(Yeah, it’s a wordy subtitle, that’s what is needed for search engines)



1. Earthrise and 2001

2. Specter of the Monolith

3. Moonwalking Into the Future

4. About This Book



1. NASA’s Ultimate Challenge

2. Pre-Copernican Centrality and Cosmic Narcissism

3. Cosmic Nihilism and the Sublime Cosmic sublime

4. The Apollo Moment “One giant leap” Contemplating our place in the cosmos on TV United in the celebration of human achievement

5. The Earth “Selfie” The two versions of Earthrise

6. Confronting Nihilism with Genesis The “expanse of nothing” Acceleration and reversal

7. Apollo: What Happened?

Space spores The moon landings were not faked Multiple meanings of Apollo

8. Voyager and Hubble Pale Blue Dot Message of hope Voyager, Hollywood, and the meaning of life The Hubble Deep Field images Looking and launching into the cosmos

9. JFK’s “Moon Speech”: Humanity’s “New Knowledge of the Universe” Time for a status update The psychological effects of awe We are the center of nothing

10. When are we going to grow up?


1. A Philosophical Launch?

2. The Final Frontier

3. Star Trek Star Trek simulacra Starship NSA Top Gun for tomorrow The terror of the cosmic sublime Star Trek: What can we hope for?

4. Planet of the Apes Space age to Stone Age The emptiness of the cosmic sublime A scientist, a patriot, and an existentialist Cosmic nihilism Human devolution “Something better than man” Planet of the Apes: What can we hope for?

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey Stone Age to space age (“The Dawn of Man”) From simians to space voyagers What of Pan American, Hilton Hotel, and Howard Johnson’s?

Discovery One (“Jupiter Mission: 18 Months Later”) The cosmic sublime (“Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite”) No exit Meanings of the monolith 2001: What can we hope for?

6. Gravity Repairing and upgrading the Hubble Space junk and zombie satellites “Life in space is impossible” The void of the cosmic sublime Gravity: What can we hope for?

7. Interstellar Contrasting civilizations: 2001, Star Trek, and Interstellar Cultural reversal and civilizational collapse Space spores The quantum data Gargantua The Tesseract Destiny in the voids Love and evolution Voyage into the cosmic sublime Interstellar: What can we hope for?

8. The Martian Humans can be creative, competent, and cooperative “Fuck You Mars” Crucifix on Mars The desert voids The Martian: What can we hope for?

9. Space Films: What Can We Hope For?

10. “Momentary Microbes” and “Spasmodic Smiles”



1. From 2001 to the Planet of the Apes

2. Two “Moonwalkers”: Neil Armstrong and Michael Jackson

3. Elvis: Aloha From Space

4. Future Shock: The Premature Arrival of the Future “Space Oddity” “In the Year 2525” The Late, Great Planet Earth

5. Spirits in the Sky

6. From 2001 to Moonraker “Rocket Man” Ziggy Stardust “Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive.” Space age conspiracy atop the Space Needle The species that fell to Earth Faking a mission to Mars Space suits to leisure suits Houston: From astronauts to urban cowboys Max Rockatansky Monsters and space apocalypses

7. Star Wars, Space Shuttles, and Space Stations May the faith be with you Orbits of hope

8. After the Year 2000 The better angels of our nature?

Cosmos on TV: 1980 and 2014 Top TV moments: From Apollo 11 to September 11 Countdown at Ground Zero Back to the Planet of the Apes “It’s a madhouse!”

9. Cosmic Centrality 1: The “Dual System of Astronomy” Cosmic doublethink Why doesn’t the Creator photo-bomb the Hubble images?

The Creator and the Hubble telescope cannot have existed before the universe

10. Cosmic Centrality 2: The Dual System of Technology Cosmic media vs. social media Technological extensions and reversals The 24/7 media spectacle Space age meets the face age Selfies as electronic spores

11. Cosmic Centrality 3: The Dual System of Existence Glittering metropolises populated with tribal consumers Production and desires Apollo marks the end of an era Attention and engagement Living in the world of WALL-E Apollo’s universal truths vs. media culture’s transient enthusiasms

12. Stephen Hawking: “Philosophy is Dead”

13. Challenges for Philosophy, Secular Culture, and 21st Century Space Age


1. The New Space Age

2. Space Narratives

3. Where Have We Gone?

4. Extending Consciousness Into Space: Across 100 Billion Light Years The big bang Stars and planets Dark matter and dark energy An accelerating universe Possible cosmic destinies “We are star stuff”

5. Sending Bodies into Space: “Millions of People Living and Working in Space”

• Should the moon be strip-mined?

• Should Mars be nuked or terraformed?

• Should Mars be colonized by rival nations and religions?

• Should we extend weapons and warfare into space?

• Should extraterrestrials be converted to humanity’s theologies?

Are these space narratives sane?

6. Space Exploration: Spending Money and Making Money Money spent on war NASA’s budget and Apple’s profits Twenty-trillion-dollar checks Space consumption: Disneylunar, X Games Moon, and Real Housewives of Mars What happened with the most recent virgin territory colonized by humans?

7. The “Ancient Astronaut” Theory Where’s the black monolith?

Where are the “Chariots of the Gods?” Humanity’s alien advisors

8. The Extraterrestrial Philosopher Earthlings vs. extraterrestrials “Klaatu, barada, nikto”

9. A Sane 21st Century Space Narrative Scientific discovery Ecology in space Protecting Mars and the moons as celestial parks and wilderness areas Parks, wilderness, and space tourism The dark sky movement Virgin Galactic and the sublime Spaceport America Land art on the moon and Mars Cooperation in space

10. Philosophy in Space: Who Speaks for the Human Species?

Anti-enlightenment in space Is enlightenment in space possible?

Justifying our existence and right to explore space

11. We are Space Voyagers Toward a cosmic civilization A philosophical launch


–  –  –

1. Earthrise and 2001 It’s 2016. We are almost fifty orbits of the sun since 1968, the year Apollo 8 and Stanley Kubrick gave us the two key existential icons of the 20th-century space age — Earthrise and the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, respectively. Via these two images, we’re presented with the ultimate philosophical challenges facing humans in the quest to explore space and find meaning for our existence in a vast and expanding universe.

The Apollo 8 astronauts were the first humans to escape the gravity of Earth. As they orbited the moon, they turned their cameras back toward Earth and took the most beautiful and important selfie ever.1 By showing Earth against the blackness of the cosmic void, Apollo 8 provided the human species with its first view of its true existential condition, namely that we inhabit a tiny planet floating alone in a colossal universe.

Across the decades, Apollo 8’s journey around the moon has proven more prophetic and influential than Apollo 11’s landing on the moon, where Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module and stated: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Apollo 8’s prophetic influence comes from the fact that when confronted with Earth in the cosmic void and the specter of human meaninglessness, the astronauts resorted to reading from the Bible’s Genesis to a global TV audience reaching one billion people. Five decades later, Genesis and stories of all-powerful Creators still reign as the dominant narratives we turn to for explaining humanity’s origins and destiny in the universe. In contrast, the overall secular meaning of Apollo 11’s moonwalk and Armstrong’s phrase have yet to generate any serious challenge to the theologies that inspire most of the people on planet Earth.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey ranks as the greatest space film and one of the most philosophically profound films of all time. 2001 depicts a past and future in which humans have evolved from apes to astronauts via science and technology along with an assist from a mysterious black monolith. With stunning cinematography and special effects, 2001 taps into the sublime majesty of the cosmos along with the marvels of science and technology. At the same moment in history, NASA and Kubrick both “directed” space odysseys that expressed the highest trajectories of the space age, when humanity first ventured into the cosmos beyond planet Earth. However, neither NASA nor Kubrick provided the philosophical meaning for these discoveries and achievements.

Though the monolith is famed for inspiring the apes to invent technology and evolve into space farers, the monolith and 2001 also pose the question of what we humans will become as we venture into a magnificent cosmos in which are not central, not significant, and maybe not alone. Now that we’ve touched the monolith, what will we evolve into as artists, thinkers, inventors, and creators of a spare-faring civilization? 2001 and the monolith provide starting points for our philosophical evolution, moments when we are challenged to face three key questions about our existence as advanced simians and space voyagers: Where are we going, what does it mean, and what can we hope for?

2. “A Rope Over an Abyss” In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (the book that inspired Richard Strauss to write the symphony Also Sprach Zarathustra [1896], which was later used by Kubrick in 2001), Friedrich Nietzsche speculated that since humans are the superior species that evolved from apes, there might be an equally greater species that would evolve from humans — what he termed the “Ubermensch” or “Superman.”2 Nietzsche wrote how “man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss.”3 So what comes next?

What will emerge in the next stage of human evolution?

That’s the question Kubrick poses at the end of 2001, with the Star-Child appearing against the blackness of the cosmos, Earth literally rising in his gaze. As a space-faring species, what will humans make of themselves in an awe-inspiring universe with unlimited possibility? That’s where the monolith has profound metaphorical meaning.

Tall, sleek, and black, the monolith is an icon of awe and the cosmic void, yet it’s also a towering blank slate for us to write a new philosophy for the future of the human species.

We are a species with much promise, the very species that touched the black monolith in 2001. We are simians that emerged from Africa’s savannas and evolved into humans, apes who became astronauts, spear throwers who became space farers. In our midst emerged artists and philosophers who wondered about our place in the cosmos, and scientists and technologists who have extended our consciousness into space and across the universe to offer remarkable new perspectives on our origins and destiny. We are a brainy and brave species that looked up to the starry skies with our telescopes and said, “What the hell! Let’s go for it!” So we launched Apollo to the moon, orbited the International Space Station around the planet, and pointed the Hubble Space Telescope to the edge of the universe.

The Apollo missions, 2001, and the original Star Trek TV series blasted us into a sublime future with the opportunity to build a unified planetary civilization, but we rejected it because we were unwilling to accept that we are a single species inhabiting a watery rock orbiting a flaming ball of hydrogen in a limitless universe. Apollo and Hubble forced us to confront cosmic nihilism, or the fact that there is no obvious meaning to human existence in a godless universe. Via Apollo, we’ve walked on the 4.5 billion-yearold moon, and via the Hubble Space Telescope, we’ve peered across 13.7 billion years of space-time — and there is not a Creator in sight. As Nietzsche famously said long before Apollo and Hubble: “God is dead.”4 But most everyone can’t accept it. Apollo’s photos of Earth from space and the Hubble Deep Field images have obliterated the rationales supporting the dominant narratives (theology, nationalism, and tribalism) we use to explain our origins, meaning, and destiny. Yet our species remains in utter denial.

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