Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei’s documentary Space Tourists is about rich Americans who are privatizing the former Soviet Union’s much-vaunted outer space program, which in the 1950s launched Sputnik and the space race. Today, due to the collapse of the USSR, the industry that put the first creatures and human into the cosmos has largely been reduced to providing Yankee billionaires with an extraterrestrial playground – for, of course, a fee: $20 million per launch. (Apparently the ability to defy gravity also makes one lightheaded, while it lightens these capitalists’ wallets.)
Space Tourists takes us to the Baikonur Cosmodrome at Star City, Kazakhstan, where the proud, secretive Soviet space program had long been hidden away from prying Western eyes. We see the kitschy cosmic art and faded glory of this now partially deserted metropolis in the middle of nowhere in Central Asia. In addition to following the exploits of American moneybags who can afford to blow big bucks to be blown out into space, Space Tourists also shows us Kazakh “garbage collectors” who reclaim, recycle and sell the heavy metal of the rockets that fall back to Earth in Kazakhstan’s vast deserts.
Frei’s thoughtful but disturbing doc is, among other things, a rumination on how money ruins everything. The once noble space program that aimed at interstellar exploration is now largely a private preserve of profiteering. Just as the end of the Cold War meant that U.S. imperialism was no longer restrained by a countervailing force, the defeat of the Soviet Union has also signaled a major decline in man’s quest for the stars.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and end of the Cold War, instead of the promised “peace dividend,” we got the Gulf War and more of America’s endless wars, unchecked by the East Bloc. What happened to the USSR’s space program is a metaphor for capitalism’s triumph over a form of socialism, as the anything-for-a-buck ethos of space buckaroos invades the pristine realm of science.
Archival footage in Space Tourists shows the animals Moscow first launched into outer space before Yuri Gagarin began manned space flights in 1961. This made me think that the mystifying ending of the 1968 sci fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey may have actually been Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s rendering of the universe as seen through a monkey’s eyes. Be that as it may, Space Tourists reveals another type of space chimps, wannabe astronauts with far too much money and time on their paws, as well as the Kazakh garbage men who pick up after them in order to pawn their rocket refuse for a handful of rubles.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”