Thursday, November 6, 2014

Will Interstellar inspire a new space race?

Like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Christopher Nolan’s epic unashamedly celebrates travelling to the stars as the next logical step in our evolution. Perhaps, after years of cynicism, we’re ready to be inspired by space exploration again

Stanley Kubrick was right about most things but when it came to 2001: A Space Odyssey, he got it hopelessly wrong. We’re now 13 years on from that particular date, so where’s our future? Instead of Pan Am flights to the moon we’ve got the faltering efforts of Virgin Galactic, which suffered another setback with the crash of its test plane last week. Instead of elegant space stations resembling modernist furniture showrooms, we have got the cramped tin cans of the International Space Station. And forget survey missions to Jupiter, Nasa doesn’t even have a space shuttle any more. As it is, we are not even on track for the dystopian future of Blade Runner, unless we can knock together some off-world colonies in the next five years. Charlton Heston’s Soylent Green is definitely still on, however, being set in 2022 (spoiler alert: we end up having to eat each other).

From a space enthusiast’s point of view, there is nothing more depressing than the fact that 2001 does not look particularly dated. If you had told those 1960s star children we would be no further out of Earth’s orbit nearly half a century later you’d have been laughed out of the cinema, and many of those people, Americans in particular, have never forgiven their governments for not fulfilling their promises. Political and economic pressures and conspicuous accidents, such as the Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters, have clipped Nasa’s wings considerably, and the multitude of Earthbound problems have put interplanetary exploration on the back burner.

But in terms of a big, public plea for rebooting space travel, Interstellar is the answer to space camp’s prayers. Whatever its merits as a movie, there is little ambiguity as to which side of the argument Christopher Nolan is on. This is a near-future where the Earth is dying, the crops are failing, and humanity is headed down the Soylent Green route. Nasa is practically an underground movement, and the official line on space travel is that the moon landings were faked (presumably by Stanley Kubrick) as propaganda to bankrupt the Soviets. “If we don’t want a repeat of the waste and excess of the 20th century then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it,” a schoolteacher explains to Matthew McConaughey’s incredulous ex-test pilot. That’s basically the argument against space exploration in a nutshell.

Interstellar spends the next couple of hours setting out why she is wrong, invoking space travel as not just the only alternative to the Soylent Green scenario but the logical next step in humankind’s technological and evolutionary destiny. This used to be the norm in space movies. Post-second world war, Hollywood was practically the propaganda arm of the space race. Movies have been going to space right from the start, of course. George Méliès went to the Moon in 1902 with his silent Le Voyage Dans la Lune, and it only took 15 minutes (Christopher Nolan could learn something there). By the 1950s, American science-fiction was filled with uplifting stories of space exploration.

Interstellar belongs to what you could call the strain of “hard” science-fiction, which began with vaguely science-based films such as George Pal’s Destination Moon and Conquest of Space and continued post-Kubrick with the likes of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (telling the true, heroic story of Nasa’s early years) and Contact. To qualify as serious sci-fi, you basically need a respected author or scientist on board. Interstellar has theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as “scientific consultant”, just as Contact had Carl Sagan. George Pal borrowed from illustrator Chesley Bonestell and the writings of Robert Heinlein and ex-Nazi rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun. Kubrick went one better and subcontracted Nasa scientists Frederick Ordway III and Harry Lange, both of whom had worked with Von Braun for real, not to mention Arthur C Clarke. Equally important, arguably, were softer, straight-up space fantasies: Star Trek, Barbarella, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Star Wars (yes, it’s set in the past but nobody can seriously argue it was not a product of mid-20th century space fever). Space would be exciting, unpredictable, even fun, these movies told us. Yes, it was dangerous too, but humans would rise to the challenges. Besides, it didn’t matter – we were in space! The hunger for stories of strange lands and heroic deeds is nothing new – Kubrick didn’t just pluck the word “Odyssey” out of the air – but for most of the late 20th century, space was very much the place.

Having raised our expectations in the last century, though, the movies seem intent on lowering them in this one. Apocalypse movies are more the rage for special effects blockbusters these days, and when we do see a space-set future, it rarely looks inviting. In Moon and Oblivion, for example, extraterrestrial life is a desolate, lonely, inhuman existence of virtual slave labour and inauthentic pleasures – even inauthentic humans. Alien worlds are generally hostile and spaceships are basically powder kegs of human dysfunction, as in Last Days on Mars, Prometheus and Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium at least did better on its dates – putting off its class-divided dystopia until 2154. Even a family movie such as Wall-E reduced humankind to plump, pampered space tourists on a never-ending post-apocalyptic cruise. Come to think of it, Interstellar’s space adventures are not exactly a laugh-riot either: the alien planets are generally cold and lifeless and there is’s not a modernist armchair in sight.

The simultaneous high and low point came with last year’s big space movie: Gravity. High in terms of its pioneering special effects and spectacular, crystal-clear images – truly, this was a giant leap for space-movie visuals; but low in terms of its prospects for human progress. Forget boldly going where no man (or woman) had been before, Sandra Bullock was lucky just to get back from low Earth orbit in one piece. Even the movie’s title smacks of curtailed ambitions. Bullock’s heroine was not so much an Odysseus as an Icarus, and Gravity pitched her plight as some sort of spiritual/evolutionary rebirth whereby humanity comes back down to Earth and stops dreaming of the stars.

That’s clearly not going to happen in the real world. “Whenever I give a talk on Mars exploration, the main question I get is: ‘How come we’re not doing this?’” says Dr Robert Zubrin, physicist, rocket engineer and long-time space advocate. “There really is a feeling almost of betrayal – that the elites have dropped the ball, that we’re not doing the kind of thing America ought to be doing. We’re not acting like a nation of pioneers.”

In 1996. Zubrin wrote an influential book called The Case for Mars, arguing for exploration and settlement of the red planet. He has worked continually towards that goal ever since, now as president of the Mars Society, which does everything from space research to political campaigning. Zubrin was also, incidentally, the technical consultant on Brian de Palma’s “serious” sci-fi movie Mission to Mars in 2000, “but they didn’t listen to me very much”, he says. He is not convinced there has been a decent movie about space exploration since 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he saw when he was 16.

Like many people, Zubrin reasons that Mars is the obvious next outpost for humanity: it is relatively close, and sufficiently Earth-like. The benefits of going there are numerous: the scientific knowledge, the technological challenge, the potential for establishing a new branch of civilisation, and above all, the engagement of humankind in some kind of progressive, collective purpose, rather than a future scrapping over dwindling resources here on earth. The outlay would be minimal compared to the benefits, he says. “The US doubled the number of scientists and engineers it produced in the 1960s and 70s at every level, from high school to PhDs, because of the Apollo missions. Not all those people ended up doing space like me, the rest of them went off and created Silicon Valley. Intellectual capital is the basis of the wealth of society, not resources.”

Nasa actually had a plan to head for Mars right after the Moon landings, with an arrival date of 1981, but the Nixon administration reset America’s space priorities and they have never reached Kennedy-era heights again. In 2004 George W Bush was applauded for pledging to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 (thus taking twice as long as the Apollo missions). The Obama administration scrapped Bush’s vision and replaced it with a new plan in 2010, calling for a crewed asteroid mission by 2025 and a Mars orbit mission by the mid-2030s. Zubrin, for one, remains sceptical: “Any plan for doing something 10 years beyond now is baloney.”

Significantly, though, Obama’s space vision welcomes private space contractors, and it’s here that the real progress is likely to originate. Not Virgin Galactic – which is broadly dismissed as an extravagant sideshow – but companies such as SpaceX, which already has the Nasa contract to ferry cargo and, from next year, humans to the International Space Station. SpaceX also has a movie-star CEO in the form of billionaire South African tech entrepreneur Elon Musk – co-founder of PayPal and Tesla electric cars, and considered by many to be the real-life template for Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man character. Musk even had a cameo in Iron Man 2, which used his SpaceX laboratories as a location. Musk also has plans for Mars. He’s developing a Mars transporter capable of taking 100 people at a time there by the mid-2020s, with a view to establish a self-sustaining Mars colony of 80,000 people. It’s developing into a Mars race. Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp is also in the running with his Mars One project, which aims to send its first human to Mars in 2024. “When I thought of this idea 20 years ago, I expected that Nasa would be the one sending people to Mars and I’m not an American national,” says Lansdorp, “so if I’m going there I’m going to have to do it myself.” Despite the fact that Mars One is only offering a one-way ticket, its initial recruitment call received over 200,000 applications from around the world. They’re currently in the process of whittling that down.

Mars One is not developing the technology itself, it is relying on established space companies. Some have cast doubt on the company’s figures, including its projected cost of $6bn (a recent estimate of Nasa plan costed it at $80bn to $100bn). A recent feasibility assessment by MIT judged Mars One’s calculations to be flawed, and predicted that the first Mars One settler would suffocate within 68 days. Lansdorp rejects the accusation, saying he would rather trust his experienced experts than some research students. “Of course it’s risky,” he says. “No real exploration has ever been without risk. People climbing Mount Everest have a 2.5% chance of dying – about the same as astronauts. Climbing K2, it’s 25%. Our risk is somewhere in between.”

One innovation Lansdorp has come up with is the business model. He intends to finance Mars One by selling the global TV rights. “The Olympic Games and the Fifa World Cup make about $4bn in broadcast and sponsorship,” Lansdorp points out. “That’s roughly the same as the cost of our mission.” And who wouldn’t tune in to watch the first Mars landing? “This is one of the most exciting things that will ever happen on the planet – or the solar system, I should say.”

Meanwhile, there’s an awful lot of space coming to the big screen in the intervening decade – or how ever long this will take. Just as the appetite for space travel is still there, so the hunger for space stories have returned. As well as Interstellar, the runaway success of Guardians of the Galaxy turned heads onto that earlier this year. And James Cameron – another frustrated space pioneer – proved it amply with Avatar a few years back. There’s plenty more coming down the pipeline: Guardians sequels, the new cycle of Star Wars movies, three Avatar sequels, another Star Trek, and Ridley Scott is making a Mars movie. If any of these Mars plans come true, we might not need serious sci-fi movies like Interstellar any more; we could simply watch the real thing. Whether that will look like a Kubrick movie or a Space Idol-style reality show is anybody’s guess, but it sounds better than Soylent Green.