For the final song on their delightfully buoyant and mordant 1996 album This is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, Pacific Northwest indie rock band Modest Mouse penned an even more cynical response to David Bowie’s already nihilistic ode to interstellar flight, “Space Oddity” The song imagines the life of a lonely female passenger on a flight to some distant lunar satellite, lost in post-gravitational anomie (“She’s the only rocketeer in the whole damn place/They gave her a mirror so she could talk to her face.”) Dreading the endless blankness of her voyage as much as the senseless achievement of reaching its destination, the unnamed woman wishes she could just read a dime-store novel and return home. It is titled, poignantly, “Space Travel is Boring.”
We recently visited the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, NASA’s literal launch pad for the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle. Since there are currently no rockets going up, Space Florida’s Shuttle Landing Facility did us the favor and allowed us to use the 3.5-mile-long runway built for the Shuttle — literally, the longest stretch of underutilized, perfectly straight, perfectly paved roadway in the world — for a series of automotive maneuvers. Our vehicle of choice was the $293,300 2018 Bentley Continental Supersports. This was decidedly not boring.
The Supersports never lets up. Our co-pilot, a professional Bentley race driver, called out our speeds in twenty and then ten mile-per-hour increments once we passed 100. By the time he said the safe word, about two miles in, indicating our need to ease off the gas, we had crested 190. The car had just shifted gears and would have kept tugging. The pros, who overran the boundary, made it to 198.
At this speed, the most profound sensation is one of absolute, skull-sucking terror. Inputs must be as miniscule as Lloyd Christmas’ IQ, crosswinds feel like a croquet drive from Thor’s hammer, and the actual physical horizon approaches with apocalyptic surety. Make the slightest mistake, and you will go careening ass-over-tits-over-eyeballs-out-of-sockets-over-brains-and-blood-splattering-everywhere into the mangrove swamp runoff channels that line the runway, where plentiful alligators will feast on the remains of your charred and broken corpse until your orthodontic surgeon will not be able to identify an incisor.
Of course, activities like these are a performance, a simulacrum. They represent a fantasy of the kind of experiences that an owner of a car like this could potentially have — if, for example, they bought NASA at the Government de-accessioning yard sale we’re likely to soon witness. But they’re also a means for discovery of how people react under intense pressure, how engineering is capable of overcoming superhuman challenges, and what may or may not happen once we transcend the fervent boundaries of the known. Kind of like venturing into space.