Sarah Brightman has a cold. This wouldn’t ordinarily be news. When I start to sneeze, no reporters rush to cover my trip to the local pharmacy. But Brightman, the enormously popular British soprano, is currently in Russia, where she is supposed to begin preparation for her trip this fall to the International Space Station. She plans to become the first professional singer in outer space.
Her cold is news because it has set back the nine-month training schedule.
Last spring’s announcement that Brightman would be paying some $52 million for her round-trip ticket aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft occasioned a degree of incredulity from those who thought her money could better be spent elsewhere. “This particular vanity project surely has to rank as one of the great exercises in outrageous spending by a celebrity,” huffed one critic. Others insisted that the whole thing was a publicity stunt. Brightman herself insists that going into space has been her dream since she was a child.
Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I side entirely with Brightman — and not only because it’s her money. Space exploration is important. We’re losing touch with the cosmos, with the Great Out There on which people have gazed in awe since prehistoric times. Once upon a time the space program was our glory. The “because it’s there” quality of the race to low-Earth orbit and then to the moon suggested a boundless optimism about the range of human possibility.
Alas, we’ve become a pessimistic species. Our imaginations seem to be growing smaller. Dreaming great dreams about possible futures seems to excite us less than imposing our favorite regulations on the unhappy present. Some observers worry that as we turn inward, human curiosity itself is dying. So maybe it’s silly to hope that a new generation might find itself enthralled by the possibility of exploring whatever is out there.
But let’s hope not. A fresh wave of public excitement is exactly what will be needed to take humanity to Mars and beyond. Will putting a singer into space begin to rekindle enthusiasm for a grand human future of the sort people imagined back in the 1950s and 1960s? Will we once again dream bigger dreams? I don’t know. The best answer I can give is that maybe we’ll be taking one very small step. If Brightman is willing to contribute her own money toward that possibility, let’s hope she gets well soon.
For a while there was the prospect of a space-singer-race — Lady Gaga announced a while back that she would perform from outer space in 2015 — but that is now highly unlikely.
Stephen L. Carter, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of law at Yale University.