The old stories were wrong.
It turns out that most aspects of the exploration of far-flung space would never be glamorous, would never be anything but drudgery. Rockets could travel faster than light, but not in an exciting, beam-me-up kind of way–just in the kind of way that would turn a century-long voyage into a decade-long voyage. Which is a huge improvement, but still pretty useless if your species has the attention span of a sentient gnat. In short, Humanity had rather less taste for adventure then was assumed by the spacefaring pulps of the 1930s.
And when they did launch, the ships were not sent by some combined work of the species, some action by a wise, benevolent, unified World Government. The globe continued to be, if anything, an ever more deeply fragmented place, with individual sovereignty finding ever more dreary reasons to squabble.
It was individual corporations which eventually thrust humankind towards the Stars. One day someone had a viral hit with a commercial showing an old school spacecraft. Sales soared. And bang! An advertising war began, with products vying to see who could top yesterday’s most virally ridiculous idea with tomorrow’s. Some Bright Young marketing exec realized that there was only one ironic joke about spaceflight which would defeat every other ironic joke on the subject: namely, actually sending ships into space.
Turns it it wasn’t that expensive. There were a lot of used space shuttles lying around, and governments were willing to unload them cheap as anything. The big, outmoded vehicles had to be modified a bit with current technology, but in the end, perhaps a dozen ships went forth to somewhat far away destinations. The meager crews of said vessels were quickly flash frozen in a one-time stasis process which would make the journey out fairly simple.
It was brilliant! There is still something in the launch of a spaceship which touches the human heart on a level not easily understood, much less put into words. Humanity had a taste of the Sublime, and, since you can’t really bottle that, they looked for the closest purchasable equivalents. How much soda was sold that day! How much of the latest iteration of currently popular technology! An entire fast food chain went from 4th to 2nd in worldwide sales, an effect which lasted almost six months, until people realized that all their meal items were constructed out of cardboard.
As for what was happening inside the ships? It was rather less boisterous. The crews themselves were deep introverts, the kind of people who wished they could get away from Humanity for a couple of decades to build model airplanes or read books. All they asked was Solitude, and a paycheck. Many of them didn’t even bother to watch Earth disappearing behind them–it was being recorded, after all, and they could check it out later.
There were big, big plans for bringing the spaceships back. Sure, it would take a long time, but just think of how hard you could channel into the collective zeitgeist by heralding the return of humans from farther away than anyone has ever traveled before. The emotional response would be off the charts. Sales for that quarter would go way, way up, and that meant bonuses all around.
Unfortunately, stockholders and Boards of Directors are fickle, particularly when it comes to hiring ad agencies. Long before they could start implementing the second phase of the campaign, the old agencies were fired, and the first thing the new ones did was was to adopt the traditional course of explaining that everything their predecessors had done was wrong, wrong, apocalyptically wrong, and it was a good thing that the new hires were brought in before it was too late. The next big hit was a tribe of cybernetically-sentient monkeys who went to war over particular brands of tacos. The show was riveting.
Oh, the friends and relatives of the cosmonauts were told that every effort would be made to bring them back….just not quite yet. In the meantime, could those left behind pause for a couple of photographs and perhaps a quick and poignant word? Maybe a brave smile or two for the cameras?
Meanwhile, far away, there were entire worlds that were inhabited by almost nobody–each ruled by a single, utterly joyful master. While Earth was caught up in eternal noise and eternal bickering, these particularly happy homo sapiens strode worlds which belonged to them alone, living out their greatest joys.
They’d been abandoned by their species.
It was the nicest thing their fellow humans ever done for them.