It’s Not About the Spaceship

Technology, innovation and how the world's biggest thinkers take things beyond the vessel.

As SXSWi wrapped up, I keep coming back to one thought:

It’s not about the spaceship.

That’s what I was thinking as I sat in one of the Austin Convention Center’s larger ballrooms on Monday afternoon listening to Dr. Mae Jemison talk about the 100 Year Starship—a federally funded, private venture to achieve interstellar space travel within the next 100 years. Or, as Trekkie hero and fellow panelist LeVar Burton put it, Dr. Jemison just got permission to build the Enterprise.

It’s not about the spaceship.

You know, the one that will take us to another star, another solar system and maybe even “Earth 2.0” as Jill Tarter, the real-life inspiration for Jodie Foster’s character in Contact, called it.

It’s not about the spaceship.

The one that will require incredible investments of time, energy and resources. Our most brilliant thinkers, political geniuses who can move mountains and tax dollars, and innovations to innovations that haven’t even been innovated yet. And, oh yeah, gobs and gobs of money—a whole spaceship full of it. For what, to go to space? But…

It’s not about the spaceship.

That’s what Dr. Jemison keeps telling me. That brilliant, brilliant woman.

The greatest rewards of interstellar travel, she says, will be felt here at home. It’s written right into the vision of the 100YSS that she recites involuntarily as if she’s already been to a hundred panels just like this one: “An inclusive, audacious journey transforms life here on Earth and beyond.”

Think about it, she says. The kind of technologies and innovations that will be necessary to transport and sustain humans and maybe even cows (we have to eat, right?) to another solar system that’s at minimum several light years away have clear applications to life on Earth.

We know this because we’ve already seen it. NASA practically mints patents. And not just for diapers or Tang. But for water filters and satellites and insulin pumps. With innovations to the fields of communication and miniaturization and health care, we feel the effects of space travel in our everyday lives even if most of us are unaware of how.

Still I question. If it’s not about the spaceship, why build the spaceship in the first place? Why not seek these secondary benefits directly?

Because, Dr. Jemison says, even though it’s not about the spaceship, we still need the spaceship. The spaceship is real and tangible in a sort of imaginary, aspirational way. It’s a goal. A big, scary, impossibly ridiculous goal that makes you giddy just thinking about it. Makes you ask, “What if?” Makes you want to think and work and do the kind of things you would have never, ever done if you hadn’t first thought, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool to build a spaceship?”

Dr. Jemison doesn’t really say these things. But she keeps referencing a “Grand Challenge” and I think I know what she means.

It’s not about the spaceship.

It’s not about space travel or NASA either. Not about science or innovation or making the world a better place or any of that stuff. It’s about Grand Challenges, really. Whatever that means to you.

For agency professionals in attendance like myself, it means daring to do impossible things for our clients, challenging them and ourselves with breakthrough concepts.

And, more generally, for lovers of the human experience, it means doing more of whatever inspires you. Write a novel. Speak a new language. Learn to code. Because along the way, I’m told, you’ll learn a heck-of-a-lot of things you wouldn’t have imagined learning in the first place.

As I attended other events at SXSW, I continued to hear Dr. Jemison’s words.

It’s not about the spaceship.

As Dr. Astro Teller of Google X spoke about crazy ideas he called “moonshots” and asked us to consider what it is we would do if we knew ahead of time that we would not fail, I thought:

It’s not about the spaceship.

As Michael Inman, creator of The Oatmeal talked about quitting his job as a dentist’s web designer to be an Internet cartoonist and discovering his own creative process along the way, I thought:

It’s not about the spaceship.

As Bruce Sterling delivered the closing remarks and ranted, quite humorously and yet unsettlingly, about the impermanence of human existence, I thought:

It’s not about the spaceship.

And as you read this, I hope you realize, I hope you think:

It’s not about the spaceship.

By Brandon Curl