If anyone can restore proper awe to the notion of space travel, Buzz Aldrin can. At 87, Aldrin, who made history in 1969 when he set foot on the moon, has hung on to his plain-as-folk charm and easy, infectious enthusiasm.
Those attractions may well factor into pop culture’s resurrected romance with the pioneering astronaut, who raised his profile in recent years with guest spots on shows including “The Simpsons” and “Dancing With the Stars,” and an appearance at the Summer Olympics in Rio last year. In November, Aldrin led the annual Veterans Day parade in New York City, serving as grand marshal.
Unstoppable, it seems, he recently embarked on yet another life chapter: Last winter, he strode the runway of the menswear designer Nick Graham, showing off a silver foil jacket with distinctly aerodynamic loft. So it may have been only a matter of time before Aldrin made the leap to a mainstream brand.
This fall, Sprayground, a youth-oriented streetwear label, enlisted this all-American hero to give a shoutout to its wares. And, improbable though it may seem, Aldrin, an outspoken proponent of travel to Mars, attached his name, and his myth, to a “Mission to Mars” fashion capsule collection of coats, duffels, backpacks and the rugged like.
“Buzz was the man who gave us a taste of space in the ‘60s,” said David Ben-David, Sprayground’s founder and chief executive. “We thought it would be cool to see where his head’s at now.”
Aldrin, a space evangelist preaching the gospel of interplanetary travel through his Space Share Foundation, said he had little practical input into the products’ design. Their value, he maintained, is less in pushing the wares than in promoting a vision.
“The idea of flying around in space, even though it seems a little far out, certainly catches young people’s attention,” he said in a telephone interview. “Especially when you jazz it up by carrying a briefcase that lights up in your hands.”
This quirky rag-trade partnership resonates for sure in the popular culture, which is celebrating its own astral moment. The notion of space travel appears to be exerting a new hold on people’s imaginations, seducing with the promise of a fresh start on unsullied terrain.
“Everything streams from the zeitgeist,” said Daniel H. Wilson, a robotics engineer and the author of science fiction novels including “A Clockwork Dynasty” and “Robogenesis.” In the world of sci-fi publishing, he said, there has been tendency to forsake gloom-and-doom scenarios in favor of more exhilaratingly upbeat fare. The objective, it seems, is to revive the optimism of the late 1960s, when the promise of adventure and discovery — and the reality of a lunar landing — spawned a generalized blue-sky optimism.
That mood contrasts mightily with the one of the moment. In a currently divisive, often chaotic sociopolitical climate, “space exploration offers a vision of escape that’s really appealing,” Wilson said. “If reality is dystopia, why shouldn’t our dreams turn utopic?”
It’s a concept that seems to have wings. And it goes some way toward explaining why a novel like “Artemis,” an account of life on a lunar colony by Andy Weir (the author of “The Martian”), quickly entered The New York Times best-seller list. Or how “Star Wars: the Last Jedi,” which arrived in theaters Dec. 14, came to be one of this year’s most anticipated releases.
Interstellar travel has proved at least as intoxicating in the rarefied realms of art and style. Late last year, sculptor Tom Sachs installed an interplanetary launch station at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, complete with space-suited astronauts and a plywood mock spaceship destined for a simulated mission to the moon. Elements of Sachs’ DIY project were highlighted in an auction of space artifacts last summer at Sotheby’s.
Fashion is celebrating its own return to the galaxies. Past expeditions included those of Karl Lagerfeld, Rick Owens and Christophe Decarnin of Balmain, who nearly a decade ago cast a wistful backward glance at the swashbuckling universe of space-traveling superheroes, a universe earlier explored by André Courrèges, Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin.
Somehow their vision persists. This year, Alessandro Michele of Gucci introduced fall 2017 advertising images of UFOs and beam-me-up-Scottie teleportation platforms. Lagerfeld, in his fall show, offered the spectacle of a simulated rocket launch to highlight a collection of sparkle tights, dresses and cap-toe boots, and a silver Mylar space blanket.
Last spring, Stuart Vevers of Coach, no laggard in this latest fashion space race, unveiled a retro-futuristic capsule collection of NASA-themed handbags, light jackets and sweatshirts. “The collection is very nostalgic,” Vevers said at the time. “There’s something about the time of the space program that just gives this feeling of possibility.” His cosmic references, he said, “are symbolic of a moment of ultimate American optimism and togetherness.”
A similarly alluring idea of space travel informs “Expedition: Fashion From the Extreme,” a Fashion Institute of Technology exhibition of survival and space gear running through January, including an image of the storied 1967 Cardin Cosmocorps collection of vibrantly colored bodysuits and shift dresses, ideal for a voyage on the Starship Enterprise. Much the same vision captivated the people at Burton Snowboards, who outfitted the U.S. Olympics snowboard team in aluminum-coated uniforms meant to evoke NASA’s glory years.
But the appeal of the cosmos isn’t all nostalgia. At least if you believe the battery of entrepreneurs intent on boldly going where few have gone before. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, who aims to ship colonists to Mars in a decade, said he plans to send two tourists on a flight around the moon as early as next year.
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, has reached deep into his pockets to finance his rocket company, Blue Origin. And Robert D. Richards, chief executive of Moon Express, has conceived a business plan intended, he said, “to expand Earth’s economic sphere to the moon and beyond.”
Aldrin, who predicts settlements on Mars by 2040, has loftier aims, some founded on his indelible recollections. "You’ll always remember the times when you launch and when you’re in a coasting condition — zero gravity,” he said. “There is the view of other spacecraft that you’re close to, and, of course, the landing, touching down on soil that in hundreds of thousands of years has been ground to a little fine dust.
“You can’t find anything like that here on Earth. It is exciting to see something that is so absolutely unreproducible.”
He hopes to inspire a youthful generation, “obsessed,” in his phrase, with “the short-term payoff,” to participate in a larger, more ennobling scheme. While not technically suited for space exploration, his backpacks and solar-panel flight jackets serve a metaphorical function, he said, to remind wearers that they are but fragments in a whole, “members of a team, part of something bigger than themselves.”
Ben-David of Sprayground wants to share in that dream. But for now, he said: “My goal is to make the ultimate backpack. And the ultimate backpack is a jetpack.”