olitical theorist Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe a German bureaucracy that applied bookkeeping practices to the extermination of millions. If the act suggested monsters, the reality offered actuaries. Banality’s most recent victim may be space exploration, once the all-encompassing final frontier but now limited to ephemeral excitement when probes land on spiky and desolate comets bearing peevishly long Russian names. At first glance the comet itself looked like a forest of malignant elbows that could have done without visitors. Then again, moons, planets and comets rarely get much of a say.
Man has for centuries imagined the heavens as a vast place packed with glowing appendages possibly populated by alien species up to no good. The telescope was merged into moviemaking followed by unmanned probes and a manned moon landing. Later came the dancing planetarium of digital technology that over three decades transformed generally benign craters, rings and gasses into fantastic visual conjectures that intended to run roughshod over affluent humanity’s chief affliction, boredom. Mission accomplished.
Unfortunately, the more mundane truth, at least so far, is that film-accessorized celestial bodies are generally more rousing than observed planets and galaxies themselves — unless you’re content to revel in the awing whirls of distant color snapped by the Hubble telescope (equal but opposite to the awe produced by death camp mounds).
The moon, long a source of vivid fiction, all but vanished from the inspirational landscape after being trooped on several times by earnest if largely monosyllabic white men. It was, most agreed, barren, boring, and apparently creature-free (far more beautiful was seeing the earth from the moon, but that wasn’t the intended meal ticket). Its breathtaking virginity erased, it ceased to interest — a dilemma faced by planets and women alike. In a word, the elusive moon became any other girl.
Leaps in photo technology haven’t helped, making it repeatedly clear that planets are, well, planets, very remote, occasionally cute, but ultimately monotonous. If you’re after intimations of the great unknown you have no choice but to speculate instead on black holes and the sinuous accretion of gasses that formulate the primal colors on which the mesmerized eye depends for candy, movies too. Galaxies are the supermodels of telescope universe, their catwalk swirls inspiring all manner of Hollywood adventure stories. Vain and photogenic Saturn does the same, its noxious robes in tow (Uranus seems to come from the wrong side of the tracks).
That said, the euro-comet is more the blue-collar norm: no place to park an HD TV and raise a family (let alone ride a pony). True, the mere act of getting there briefly outstrips the banal — imagine your refrigerator dispatched on a 10-year mission into deep space. But refrigerator appreciation usually last a day or two, especially if the battery-impaired probe goes into standby mode (it has) and the visual treats vanish (man, like dog, nips up for more until the hand is empty, after which he lies down).
The well-established Grand Canyon-esque nature of space ironically accounts for limitations in the urge to see it (that and money concerns, of course). Tourists usually visit the Grand Canyon once, after which they rely on pictures and memories. Some prefer taking the now-sophisticated online tour and don’t visit at all.
By seeing more — and humans see a great deal more than they ever have — the exploration impulse dwindles. Unmanned craft are now charged with the galactic Grand Tour, photographing all manner of jagged sights — Venus, Mars, Jupiter, asteroids, comets — leaving the unglamorous details to scientists and aficionados. Virtual imaging can extrapolate, embellish and embroider the rest. They are now the three E’s of visual myth. No craft has yet managed to come close to matching the walk-of-fame space entertainment concocted by the old school likes of Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull, who thanks to “2001: A Space Odyssey” got a speculative jump on Hubble by adding Johan Strauss.
We’re bored until we’re not, a tendency Holocaust horrors underscored by forcing the enlightened side of the species to see what seemed objectively impossible. Humanity at its worst, provided. In the case of space, the human imagination (rife with angular mother ships, throbbing wormholes and insect-royalty aliens) still remains an imaginative step ahead of anything actual images suggest. Thus refrigerator landings on malignant elbow comets become little more than precursors to digital amplifications when the next space movie rolls around.
The greatest wait of course, and apparently the only one that matters (human vanity again), is for other life — a signal, a message, or any one of the many well-rehearsed versions of extraterrestrial shorthand. The problem with satisfying this legitimate craving is that some things — unlike death, taxes and downloads — don’t (and worse still won’t) come to their dreamers. They simply sit there until the dreamer, a Magellan or a Columbus, decides that seeing really isn’t the same as believing and opts to take a walk on the wild side