Space is having a bit of a moment right now. Aaron Paul is fanboying over SpaceX on late night shows. Ariana Grande released a song called “NASA” and frequently sends the agency heart emojis on Twitter. The members of One Direction suited up in astronaut attire for their “Drag Me Down” music video, which they shot on-location at Johnson Space Center. Hell, everyone from Katy Perry and Angelina Jolie to Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber already bought their tickets to suborbital space.
Stars, planets, and the thought of exploring them has taken a leading role in everything from film and apparel to internet and celebrity culture. But why, and why now?
“I think we’re all striving to be as nerdy as possible. And I love it. I think it's absolutely fascinating,”
In recent years, all things nerdy have transcended the niche to become pop culture cool, sparked by a combination of cultural shifts that transformed our attitudes about tech and science. Access to technology and information skyrocketed, and emphasis on STEM is growing every day. Techies are today’s rock stars — SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos included. And for average people, traveling to space feels like a near reality for the first time. This all manifested in a few especially notable showings (like hit TV shows and a chart-topping song) of tech, science, and space in popular culture, which bolstered society’s new space obsession even further.
As a social media specialist for NASA, Emily Furfaro has seen this space craze play out online. Her job largely revolves around monitoring conversations about space, and she’s seen tremendous growth in both the agency and space overall as a topic of mainstream conversation.
“Just in the four years since I started working at NASA, I’ve definitely seen an increase in people talking about space in a pop culture way as opposed to a more scientific way,” she said.
This is true among celebrities in particular. Via the NASA Twitter account, Furfaro’s interacted with Chris Evans, Steph Curry, Chrissy Teigen, One Direction, and Ariana Grande, to name a few.
Grande thrust NASA into the spotlight with an eponymous song earlier this year, but the singer has lovingly tweeted about the agency since at least 2011. Now she’s tweeting with — or more accurately, fangirling over — Buzz Aldrin, too. And all of this is unfolding in front of her 64 million followers, who have been quick to jump on the space train.
“My younger cousin just went to her concert and saw so many NASA shirts there,” Furfaro said. To top it off, the stage on several stops of Grande’s recent tour was shaped like a rocket ship.
Even before Grande increased demand, retailers including Target, Forever 21, H&M, Urban Outfitters, TopShop, JCPenny, and PacSun all recently began selling NASA apparel. With so many fast fashion stores simultaneously promoting NASA, space instantly found a youthful audience excited to embrace it.
The extremely online younger generations are a major force in the space pop culture explosion, as they are with most trends. Whenever NASA interacts with a celebrity, the replies are full of young fans excitedly commenting about space. In one instance, when Furfaro was tweeting with One Direction, several commenters crankily replied asking why the esteemed space agency would be tweeting about a boy band. But there were even more replies from One Direction fans, saying “wow, this is so cool. They went to NASA!”
Another factor fueling our new affinity for the stars is the growing on-screen presence of tech, science, and space. In just the last few years, Hollywood unleashed “Interstellar,” “Gravity,” “Avengers,” “The Martian,” and “Hidden Figures,” as well as new “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” movies. And on TV, two of the most widely-watched shows of the decade feature space plot lines and nerds as main characters.
“‘The Big Bang Theory’ is a prime example of geeks being celebrated,” said Noam Cohen, a tech columnist and author of “The Know It Alls.” “And Alex, the middle daughter on ‘Modern Family,’ goes to Caltech. And there’s this feeling that those are the best of us. A feeling that the most powerful minds are in science.”
Even off screen, it’s the nerds who are shaping our popular culture. Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs are controversial modern figures, but there is no denying that they had or have all the fame, money, and power in the world.
They occupy a space we used to reserve for rockstars, and they got there by being really,famously smart.
“These are the kind of larger-than-life figures we have today,” Cohen said. “These are the people who have the most money and who we want to idolize and emulate.”
One person in particular is doing the heavy lifting, especially when it comes to space: Elon Musk.
This is the guy who “smoked” weed live on Joe Rogan’s podcast, sold flamethrowers just for fun, and shot his own Tesla into space on his own rocket. He runs several cutting-edge companies dispersed across diverse industries and still manages to connect with the popular culture.
When asked why space is suddenly popular, Paul answered without hesitation, “it's because people like Elon Musk are moving the needle.”
Paul describes Musk as a visionary and “easily one of the most important entrepreneurs on the planet. I'm just excited to be alive during the same time as him and to be able to witness such a huge feat.”
“I remember watching the livestream and when it landed upright, I jumped. I jumped off my couch,” Paul said when recalling the first time SpaceX landed a Falcon 9 rocket. “And I just felt like I was witnessing our version of the moon landing. I was just screaming. I was so excited.”
Celebrities and billionaires play a significant role, but there are deeper reasons for our renewed passion for space.
The internet has made tech and space accessible, digestible, and entertaining. Social media forces scientists to communicate their work in more interesting ways and in 140 characters or less. And in today’s news cycle, any small discovery can be meme’d and spread across the globe almost instantly (as happened with April’s black hole photo, for example). With more than 25 million Facebook followers, I Fucking Love Science is one of the most popular online sources for science news and brings an obvious edge to the field. TedTalks gave everyone a front row seat to lectures from top scientists, and there’s even a bustling space scene on YouTube.
“You had to be really motivated to find this information back in the day. There'd be like one book that had it all, and now it's right in front of you,” Cohen said.
There’s also more interest in tech and science because of how many opportunities these subjects unlock in today’s society. With the emergence of technologies like artificial intelligence and IoT, we’re in the midst of a new technological revolution. STEM education and careers are taking off as the most lucrative, stable, and interesting options for the present and future.
And when it comes to space, the opportunities have never felt more promising. In the past, we all knew that only a select group of elite astronauts would realize the dream of blasting off into the stars, but now privatized space exploration makes it feel like any of us might get the chance — and in the near future.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has long been planning his own trip to space. He’s also sold several $250,000 tickets for others (celebrities included) to follow suit. Jeff Bezos is talking about an intergalactic society complete with custom-built Earth-like habitats, and Musk unveiled plans to send humans to the moon by 2023 and to Mars by 2024.
“We as a species have seen technology slowly go in the direction we always pictured. Ya know, flying cars, space travel, and whatnot.”
“But now we're actually seeing all that start to happen," said Paul. "And it feels like it's happening at a much quicker pace. So now the conversation with space feels like much more of a reality than maybe it once was.”