From The Movies, Lessons On Privatizing Outer Space

Jul 8, 2011
Originally published on July 20, 2011 3:52 pm

During the space race in the 1960s, only governments had deep enough pockets to send humans into orbit. Now, with many of the world's governments in hock up to their eyeballs and NASA's space shuttle going into retirement, commercial ventures are poised to pick up where the shuttle leaves off.

If they do, what will outer space look like? Happily, Hollywood has boldly gone where no company has gone before. When I was a kid, back before the first space shuttle went into orbit, I knew exactly what outer space was going to be like because I'd seen it at the movies. It was just like Earth, only weightless.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, to get to a space station, characters flew Pan Am (if you're under 30, ask your parents), and once they'd arrived there, apart from curved walls and floors, everything was familiar. You could check into a Hilton, chow down at Howard Johnson's, even check up on youngsters back home by calling them from a Bell Telephone Picturephone booth.

Hotels in the sky seemed less likely by the time NASA first launched the space shuttle Columbia in 1981. By then, Silent Running had shown us a future in which corporate spaceships were essentially lifeboats from a planet so wrecked, the Earth's few remaining plants had to be shepherded to safety in outer space. American Airline space freighters took them there in geodesic domes, in hopes that they would someday be able to return. Great plan, except that after a while, the airline wanted its freighters back.

A company putting profit first? How could that be?

Actually, greedy space corporations became a Hollywood staple. In the Alien movies, which first hit screens in 1979, the Weyland-Yutani corporation really wants one of those diabolical aliens, and doesn't want to hear about consequences because — well, in space, no one can hear you sacrificing humanity for profit.

That same year — and remember, this is all still before NASA had put a shuttle into orbit — James Bond was tracking down a hijacked space shuttle in Moonraker and discovering that the guy who'd had it hijacked was the industrialist who had made it: the dastardly head of the Drax corporation.

As a rule, if you like the notion of privatizing outer space, you'd probably want to steer clear of the multiplex, where starships run by federations and republics tend to be good, and corporate starships not so much. The Buy n Large Megacorp in WALL-E, for instance, evacuated Earth because it had turned the planet into a trash heap. Or Lunar Industries in the film Moon, exploiting workers and furiously economizing while reaping huge profits. Not to mention the RDA Mining Corporation in Avatar, determined to get its hands on a precious interplanetary resource by military means.

There's more, including corporate bad guys rationing Martian air in Total Recall, but who needs to zoom into outer space to know the profit motive can lead to greed? It has been, after all, the not-for-profit status of NASA's shuttle that's kept it above the fray since its maiden voyage. And in retirement? Well, Hollywood's not even giving the vessel a chance to cool its jets. In the film Another Earth, opening in just two weeks, a fictional shuttle will be owned not by NASA but by a space tourism company. Seems pretty benign. Guess we'll see.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Our film critic Bob Mondello knows because Hollywood has already boldly gone where no company has gone before.

BOB MONDELLO: When I was a kid, years before the first space shuttle went into orbit, I knew what outer space was going to be like. I'd seen it at the movies. It was just like Earth, only weightless.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: In "2001: A Space Odyssey," to get to a space station, characters flew Pan Am - if you're under 30, ask your parents - and once they'd arrived there, apart from curved walls and floors, everything was familiar. You could check into a Hilton, chow down at Howard Johnson's, even check up on the youngsters back home by calling them from a Bell Telephone Picturephone booth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY")

WILLIAM SYLVESTER: (as Dr. Heywood R. Floyd) Hello.

VIVIAN KUBRICK: (as Squirt - Dr. Floyd's Daughter) Hello.

SYLVESTER: (as Dr. Heywood R. Floyd) How are you, squirt?

KUBRICK: (as Squirt - Dr. Floyd's Daughter) All right.

SYLVESTER: (as Dr. Heywood R. Floyd) What are you doing?

KUBRICK: (as Squirt - Dr. Floyd's Daughter) Playing.

MONDELLO: Phone booths in the sky seemed less likely by the time NASA had flown the first real shuttle mission in 1981. By then, "Silent Running" had shown us a future in which corporate spaceships were essentially lifeboats from a planet so wrecked, the Earth's few remaining plants had to be shepherded to safety in outer space. American Airline space freighters took them there in geodesic domes in hopes that they would someday be able to return.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SILENT RUNNING")

ROY ENGEL: (as Anderson) Until that day, may God bless these gardens.

MONDELLO: Great plan, except that after a while, the airline wanted its freighters back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SILENT RUNNING")

ENGEL: (as Anderson) We have just received orders to abandon and nuclear destruct all the forests, and return our ships to commercial service.

MONDELLO: Actually, greedy space corporations became a Hollywood staple. In the "Alien" movies, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation really wants one of those diabolical aliens and doesn't want to hear about consequences.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALIEN")

SIGOURNEY WEAVER: (as Ripley) We set down there on company orders to get this thing, which destroyed my crew and your expensive ship.

PAUL MAXWELL: (as Van Leuwin) Thank you, Officer Ripley. That will be all.

WEAVER: (as Ripley) Please, you're not listening to me.

MONDELLO: In space, no one can hear you sacrificing humanity for profit.

NASA: the evil head of the Drax Corporation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MOONRAKER")

ROGER MOORE: (as James Bond) That's where the Moonraker shuttle is made?

LOIS CHILES: (s Dr. Holly Goodhead): That's right.

MOORE: (as James Bond) I'd heard that Hugo Drax is obsessed with the conquest of space. Now I can believe it.

MONDELLO: The Buy n Large megacorp in "WALL-E," for instance, evacuating Earth because it had turned the planet into a trash heap.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL-E")

L S: (as character) Too much garbage in your face? There's plenty of space out in space. BnL StarLiners leaving each day. We'll clean up the mess while you're away.

MONDELLO: Then, there was Lunar Industries in the film "Moon," economizing while reaping huge profits.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MOON")

SAM ROCKWELL: (as Sam Bell) GERTY, have you heard anything new about anyone fixing Lunar-Sat?

KEVIN SPACEY: (as GERTY) No, Sam. What I understand is it's fairly low on the company's priority list right now.

MONDELLO: And, of course, the RDA Mining Corporation in "Avatar," trying to get its hands on a precious resource by military means.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AVATAR")

SAM WORTHINGTON: (as Jake Sully) Back on Earth, these guys were Army dogs, Marines fighting for freedom. But out here, they're just hired guns, taking the money, working for the company.

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.