16 November 2013

American Science Fiction Inflection Point: The Challenger Explosion

The Discovery Channel is heavily promoting a cable television documentary to begin airing tonight on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that took place January 28, 1986. The day ranks among the handful of inflection points in the American psyche, right up there with the JFK assassination and 9/11.

At the time, the prevailing American vision of the near future included the idea of its citizens enjoying the spoils of the "space age," as thematically characterized by Disneyland's Tomorrowland (before it was revamped with a Jules Verne / Buck Rogers retro-style), and to a lesser extent, Arthur C. Clarke's landmark 1969 film, "2001: A Space Odyssey," and even The Jetsons cartoon series. Promises for what life in the U.S. would be like in 21st century America was especially emboldened by the momentous Apollo lunar landings and the advanced technology of the space shuttle fleet.

That optimistic, ambitious, and seemingly inevitable vision of the future was literally and figurative shattered the day the Challenger spectacularly exploded up high in that sunny Florida sky, and on millions of televisions around the world for the remainder of that day. Our collective expectations for the future was never to recover. 

The Challenger disaster not only killed seven brave astronauts, including the first teacher to be launched towards space, and halted the aerospace industry and the planet's largest national space agency, it also brought about a decline of space-travel as the dominant theme in science fiction. Another victim was a sense of optimism in America's future in science fiction.

Precedent setting films such as Terminator 2 and The Matrix ushered in newly dominant themes of oppressive artificial intelligence, imprisoning virtual reality, ubiquitous militarization, and a crumbling, dismal dystopia. Dreams of the future began to reflect the rising enthusiasm for computer technology and the concurrent fears of society in dramatic decline.

More recent shifts in science fiction towards global epidemic terrors, environmental chaos, and zombie apocalypses, are marks of a continuing trend in America's changing fears, first sparked by the televised fiery explosion of the space shuttle Challenger nearly 28 years ago.