John Harris: There's no magic left when Posh and Becks can pay to go to the moon

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The late 1970s may have been the dystopic era of strikes, power-cuts and social breakdown, but while living in all that uncollected rubbish, some of us were looking at the stars. It helped if, like me, you were some distance from adolescence: I made it to double figures in 1980, and at that point I was still in the midst of a long fixation with all the mystery and wonder of outer space.

There were two aspects of my cosmic dreams: the allegedly imminent possibility of easy and affordable space travel, which would doubtless arrive just as soon as the government had got inflation and the TGWU sorted out; and the global interest in unidentified flying objects, assumed to be the augurs of contact with distant civilisations. It did not take long for one to entwine with the other: I could quite easily cherry-pick bits of Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (ditto) and Moonraker (1979), and conceive that I would be cheaply ferried across whole galaxies, pausing for endless encounters with aliens, before safely returning home to the Cheshire suburbs.

The array of "life in the future" books that I amassed claimed that most of this would be possible by the opening years of the 21st century. And though it rather pains me to admit it, I have quietly kept the dream alive. My faith in such trifles as parliamentary socialism and the linear progress of rock music may have been severely tested, but I still have no trouble imagining the fictions of alien-contact films turning into fact.

This week, events conspired to bring the curtain down on just about all of that. First came the supposedly triumphant return of the space shuttle Discovery, testament to the fact that, far from creating a new generation of celestial conquistadors, the world's only superpower is still having a job sending its astronauts on safe return journeys. Give or take the odd upgrade, moreover, Discovery is a 21-year-old craft, which rather casts doubt on Nasa claims of a "new beginning" - the reality suggests a scenario akin to the future of motoring being pinned on an old Ford Escort.

Days later, there came news that superficially served to restore some of those old space dreams, but actually turned out to squash them yet further. An American company called Space Adventures announced that, having already propelled two cosmic holidaymakers into orbit, it was hoping to launch trips to the far side of the Moon by 2009. Within its plans, there lurked a very modern twist. Back in the 1970s, when the rise of the free market had yet to reshape our lives, the archetypes of imagined space tourism seemed to reflect what remained of post-war egalitarianism: massed crowds of astro-trippers, drawn from every corner of the world, with the usual dispensations for the infirm and unemployed. But no: one billet retour to the Moon will apparently cost £55m.

To cap it all, those of us who remain stuck on Earth can no longer hope that if we can't make it into space, some of the universe's other occupants might visit us. In isolation, the evidence might seem rather arbitrary, but according to reports in a handful of newspapers, aliens may have all but lost interest in us. Last year saw the closure of a once-thriving British journal called UFO Magazine. Cumbria - apparently such a popular extraterrestrial stop-off that 60 UFO sightings were reported in 2003 - has seen no encounters whatsoever this year, and there are similarly grim tidings from Scandinavia and the Midwestern US. Even one Dennis Plunkett, founder of something called the British Flying Saucer Bureau, has been heard to comment that "there's not a lot happening at the moment".

Back in my epoch, as the house-lights flickered on and off, I would watch the skies, imagining that any fast-moving light was either a craft from the distant reaches of space, or an earthly ship containing a crowd of multinational emissaries, on their way to some undiscovered constellation. Within a few years, it seems, it's more likely to be Posh, Becks, Roman Abramovich and the Sultan of Brunei, en route to the same bit of rock that Neil Armstrong visited the year I was born. As any self-respecting, star-gazing nine- year-old would doubtless complain, what kind of a future is that?