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Per Luxuria Ad Astra: The History and Future of Ritzy Fictional Spaceships

From Fhloston Paradise to Elysium, what fictional luxury spacecraft say about real world issues.

by Becky Ferreira
Sep 30 2016, 12:00pm

Spaceship concept. Image: Les Bossinas (Cortez III Service Corp)

The Latin phrase per asperaad astra, meaning "through hardships to the stars," has become a kind of unofficial shorthand for human efforts to explore and eventually colonize space. Aside from its lyrical ring, the axiom owes much of its popularity to the oft-repeated refrain that "space is hard," and that people courageous enough to venture off the planet can expect to experience all manner of discomfort, from cramped quarters to dizzying g-forces, and sometimes even injury or death.

But for centuries, many speculative fiction writers have bucked this trend by envisioning plush spaceships decked out with opulent furnishings to support the extravagant lifestyles of elite passengers. This vision of spaceflight—let's call it per luxuria ad astra—has yielded some of the most memorable fictional spacecraft in popular culture, from the campy starliner Fhloston Paradise in The Fifth Element to the mollycoddling generation ship Axiom from WALL-E.

Welcome to Fhloston Paradise" clip.

But is luxury spaceflight a realistic dream that humans should pursue, or a delusional fantasy nurtured by underappreciation of the comforts of a planet as dope as Earth? To find out, let's embark on a brief tour of the "Starship Luxurious" trope in science fiction history, to root out the underlying philosophies that have given it such mass appeal over the centuries.

Almost as soon as spaceship concepts begin to show up with some regularity in science fiction, writers felt the impulse to pimp them out. For instance, take the 1727 Swiftian satire A Voyage to Cacklogallinia, written under the pseudonym Captain Samuel Brunt. The story describes a trip to the Moon in a spacefaring palanquin borne by enormous sentient chickens (naturally).

Illustration showing the fowl-powered palanquin. Image: Project Gutenberg

"The only Talk now in Town was our designed Journey to the Moon, for which a great many of the swiftest Flyers were inlifted with Promises of great Reward. Palanquins were made sharp at each End, to cut the Air; the warmest Mantles and Hoods were made for the Bearers, and the Projector's and my Palanquin were close, and lined with Down. A Company was erected, Shares sold of the Treasure we were to bring back; and happy was he who could first subscribe."

The passage pays some lip service to the presumed discomforts associated with space travel—cold temperatures, for instance. But more importantly, it casually dismisses those hardships using existing luxury concepts like palanquins, vehicles that have long been signifiers of affluence and high status.

Brunt's tale hints not only at the luxury experience of spaceflight, but also at luxury markets that might be catalyzed by spaceflight. The "Treasure" the narrator plans to bring back from the Moon was no doubt inspired by the valuable items being funneled back to Europe from around the world during the 1700s. Pricey goods from farflung destinations were dispersed by increasingly sophisticated seafaring vessels, which stimulated the hefty European hunger for colonial wealth. Space fiction stories from this era often reflect these mercantile dynamics.

It's not surprising, then, that whoever Brunt really was, he was not alone in his thinking. Many other 18th century writers spelled out various capitalist justifications for space exploration in their own works. According to Ron Miller's The Dream Machines, the German astronomer Eberhard Christian Kindermann, born in 1715, suggested that "flights to Jupiter could be made in order to bring back exotic plants, in the same way that 'monkeys and peacocks from Asia' were being brought to Europe."

Setting aside the innocence it takes to deem the introduction of Jovian invasive species to Earth as a great business opportunity, these early writings demonstrate that fictional spaceships could be viewed as both lucrative purveyors of luxury goods, as well as big ticket items unto themselves.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Edward Everett Hale's story story The Brick Moon, which was serialized in Atlantic Monthly from 1869 to 1870. One of the earliest depictions of a fully fledged space station, the tale follows the unintentional launch of a spherical brick satellite, 200 feet in diameter, while people are onboard.

Early in the story, Hale goes to great lengths to describe how expensive this satellite was to build, and how difficult it was to secure the funds to greenlight it. He also mentions that the artificial moon's living spaces are "much more comfortable" than the cabins surrounding its launchpad on Earth, which explains why the satellite was inhabited during its surprise trip to space. Basically, the faux-moon was so plush that people started squatting in it.

As soon as the station is identified in orbit, the narrator becomes almost envious of the accidental astronauts and their new lifestyle beyond the skies. "They had three acres of surface, and there were but thirty-seven of them," Hale writes. "Not so much crowded as people are in Roxbury, not nearly so much as in Boston; and, besides, these people are living underground, and have the whole of their surface for their exercise."

While the genetic diversity issues presented by an isolated population of 37 people are not explored, the story idealizes the experience of living in space as some weird off-Earth riff on a pastoral wonderland. In fact, the narrator draws explicit comparisons between the environments of the Brick Moon and the Earth: "I knew that at half-past ten they would pass into the inevitable eclipse which struck them every night at this period of their orbit, and must, I thought, be a luxury to them, as recalling old memories of night when they were on this world."

This sentence represents an interesting paradigm shift in the history of plush fictional spacecraft, because it correlates "luxury" directly to "Earthlike." Later spaceship concepts would take this link and run with it, offering a variety of lush simulated Earth environments in space, from the botanical wonders of Cloud 9 in Battlestar Galactica to the ritzy Mayflower colony ship that peaces out on Mega-City One in the Judge Dredd franchise.

The Brick Moon subverts a few other traditional space fiction tropes as well, especially because the titular spacecraft is a human-made object that is treated like a permanent home, and not merely a temporary stopgap between planetary worlds. In contrast to astronauts traveling to other natural bodies to cart back luxury items, the people of the Brick Moon request comfort goods to be sent to them from Earth.

This results in another botched launch in which most of the pricey cargo burns up in the atmosphere. The only surviving items are "two croquet balls and a china horse" that arrive on the station intact, and a bunch of crap that gets caught in the orbit of the Brick Moon.

"They had five volumes of the 'Congressional Globe' whirling round like bats within a hundred feet of their heads," Hale writes. "Another body, which I am afraid was 'The Ingham Papers,' flew a little higher, not quite so heavy. Then there was an absurd procession of the woolly sheep, a china cow, a pair of india-rubbers, a lobster Haliburton had chosen to send, a wooden lion, the wax doll, a Salter's balance, the 'New York Observer,' the bow and arrows, a Nuremberg nanny-goat, Rose's watering-pot, and the magnetic fishes, which gravely circled round and round them slowly and made the petty zodiac of their petty world."

Illustration from The Brick Moon. Image: Edward Everett Hale

Hale doesn't mention whether the livestock orbiting the satellite are dead, but in any case, it's entertaining that the moon's inhabitants would be able to literally count sheep in their skies. It's also a poignant image: The first humans in space gazing up at an arched ribbon of expensive items orbiting just out of their reach. This metaphorically rich tableau indicates the ongoing maturation of the luxury spaceship trope through its successive incarnations.

To that point, the rising popularity of opulent ocean-liners like the ill-fated Titanic at the turn of the 20th century further cemented the idea that dangerous frontiers like the seas could be braved in relative comfort and class. The imaginative implications of these vessels for space travel was certainly not lost on science fiction creators.

Massive luxury starliners laden with pampered passengers started cropping up more often in fiction. These include the lunar tourism ship Meteor envisioned by Washington Gladden in 1880 or the Buck Rogers concept of a "Cruise Ship to the Stars." Author Michael Flynn recently took the Titanic analogy to its darker conclusion with his novel The Wreck of the River of Stars, about the deteriorating remains of a leisure spaceship.

Today, the Starship Luxurious trope has evolved to convey several themes and ambiences, some of which are directly counter to its origins as a standin for European exploitation of global resources. For instance, the 2013 film Elysium uses the titular super-wealthy orbital enclave to critique the same capitalist ideas that first gave rise to luxury spaceships, particularly the polarizing effects of income inequality.

In Pixar's WALL-E, the Axiom starliner built by Buy n Large corporation offers a more light-hearted commentary on consumerism. In exchange for instant gratifications and endless coddling by the ship's mostly robotic staff, the Axiom's passengers are hoodwinked into shedding many basic concepts and skills, including walking. Though their descent into intellectual, emotional, and physical laziness is mostly played for laughs, the notion that material overindulgence can lead to a loss of humanity is central to the film's message.

"Culture on the Axiom."

There are countless other examples of the trope, from the sleek fleet of starships depicted in the Star Trek franchise, to the plush quarters of the Shepard character in Mass Effect, to Douglas Adams' Milliways, a transdimensional five-star restaurant at the end of the universe. But will this longstanding dream of luxury spaceflight ever come to fruition in the real world?

Contemporary human spaceflight is, after all, decidedly not luxurious, as one look inside the International Space Station aptly demonstrates. Given the exorbitant cost of sending people and supplies into space, astronauts have to be extremely thrifty with their resources, which results in major sacrifices in comfort during their time off the planet.

Likewise, the first space tourists have been more akin to wilderness adventurers willing to brave the outer elements than vacationers looking for a little rest and relaxation. It seems that for the near future, at least, space is still a challenging frontier open only to the boldest among us, and not a carefree playground for wealthy tourists.

But as to the far future: Who knows? There is certainly no shortage of speculative design concepts for spacecraft engineers to play with, and the cost of sending humans to space may drastically decrease over the coming decades, perhaps even by five million percent, if SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has his way.

Concept art for SpaceX's Interplanetary Transport System. Image: SpaceX

On Tuesday, Musk unveiled his new concept for an Interplanetary Transport System that he claimed would include "zero G games," "movies," and "a restaurant" for use by a population of about 100 passengers. This could be one small step towards the first luxury starliners, or it could be the latest in a long line of similarly proposed spacecraft that will likely never make it off the drawing board, let alone the launchpad. Only time will tell.

Luxury Week is a series about our evolving views of what constitutes luxury. Follow along here.

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