“Visions of the Future” poster collection and space exploration

Jonathan Logan

S&E Editor


For two years, I had never set foot in the bottom floor of the physics department’s building (turns out that is where we keep the shrink ray machine). The faculty put up all of the senior/junior thesis posters down there. But, lining an entire wall in the main hallway is a full collection of the jointly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Jet Propulsion Lab’s (NASA-JPL’s) Visions of the Future poster series.

One afternoon, I spent the better part of ten minutes studying each one, comparing them to visions I have filed away from reading sci-fi novels and watching television shows like The Expanse. Pacing down the hallway, I noticed two things:

  1.   I would give up my earth-bound life to stand on Europa for one day as Jupiter engulfed my field of view.
  2. Where’s the Moon poster?

The goals of space exploration are being overrun by a sentiment of escape — a sentiment I had just fallen victim to in a matter of ten minutes as I closed my eyes and saw Jupiter swing overhead. Heavy space tourism themes characterize each individual poster, hinting at the sentiment of escape.

NASA and JPL have taken us to the Moon — and, yeah that’s about it. Amusingly, the Moon does not even have its own poster in the collection. The collection instead focuses only on the places we as humans have not been to: Mars, Venus, Europa, or anywhere that is not the one other place humans have actually set foot. They even have a poster for one of the recently discovered TRAPPIST exoplanets some 40 light-years away. Something as simple as the lack of a Luna-themed poster is indicative of a much more worrying phenomenon.

Here is some background on the creation of the Visions of the Future poster series:

A creative team of visual strategists at JPL, known as “The Studio,” created the poster series, which is titled “Visions of the Future.” Nine artists, designers and illustrators were involved in designing the 14 posters, which are the result of many brainstorming sessions with JPL scientists, engineers and expert communicators.

The design is supposed to mimic those of the national parks posters created by the Works Progress Administration. Joby Harris, the illustrator, said that they wanted to make the planets and moons seem like far-off destinations.

I am not trying to minimize the scientific and technological advancements NASA and JPL have made on behalf of the world. However, the Visions of the Future posters offer a glimpse into the mindset our storied space agency has with respect to space exploration now. Their mindset is escapist and disconnected from the history they claim to build upon as we “return to the Moon by 2024.”

Where is the poster of the Apollo 11 crew standing on the Moon or an illustration of a moon cafe called Aldrin Coffee (you’d get a real Buzz)?

The poster of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, depicts a group of space tourists on an underwater viewing platform watching something that says to me the creators of the poster drew more inspiration from Europa Report than they did the actual Galilean moon. A giant space octopus hotel is more sensationalist than it is scientist.

However, space is really difficult. Viewing the potentially terraform-able planets and moons as “destinations” like the national parks implies that “The Studio” and the experts they consulted think of what they do as enabling the rest of us to take a space vacation.

The glaring oversight of or wanton disregard for our own Apollo era missions to the Moon only confirm the sort of been there, done that mindset we have towards landing on our own Moon. Getting back to the Moon won’t be easy, but it will probably still be the first tourist destination beyond low-earth orbit.

Perhaps the only way to convince the general public that space exploration is worth their time and money is by confronting them with sensational illustrations of who we want to be. For now, the poster series is representative of the idealism we, and now JPL, stuff the space turkey with. The simple fact that they focus on tourism is evidence that space is some sort of escape; when in reality space would be the scariest, hardest vacation you might never return from.

Yet, I still look forward to the day when we can write: “out of office, experiencing the charm of gravity assists.”

The clear and obvious tourism themes that characterize every single one of the posters indicate that our space agencies subconsciously view venturing out into space as an escape from Earth. Not to mention the oversight or wanton disregard for the only place we’ve set foot on: our own Moon.

If we allow the tourist destination themes present in these posters to permeate our thinking, we run the risk of not just forgetting our pale blue dot, but of going to space for the wrong reasons. There is nothing wrong with imagining worlds unknown, but there is something very wrong with wanting to escape to what can only be imagined.