“It’s wonderful what a kid can do with an Erector Set”

Reading Across the Airless Wilds by Earl Swift for the Times, 7 August 2021

There’s something about the moon that encourages, not just romance, not just fancy, but also a certain silliness. It was there in spades at the conference organised by the American Rocket Society in Manhattan in 1961. Time Magazine delighted in this “astonishing exhibition of the phony and the competent, the trivial and the magnificent.” (“It’s wonderful what a kid can do with an Erector Set”, one visiting engineer remarked.)

But the designs on show thefre were hardly any more bizarre than those put forward by the great minds of the era. The German rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth wrote an entire book advocating a moon car that could, if necessary, pogo-stick about the satellite. When Howard Seifert, the American Rocket Society’s president, advocated abandoning the car and preserving the pogo stick — well, Siefert’s “platform” might not have made it to the top of NASA’s favoured designs for a moon vehicle, but it was taken seriously.

Earl Swift is not above a bit of fun and wonder, but the main job of Across the Airless Wilds (a forbiddingly po-faced title for such an enjoyable book) is to explain how the oddness of the place — barren, airless, and boasting just one-sixth Earth’s gravity — tended to favour some very odd design solutions. True, NASA’s lunar rover, which actually flew on the last three Apollo missions, looks relatively normal, like a car (or at any rate, a go-kart). But this was really to do with weight constraints, budgets and historical accidents; a future in which the moon is explored by pogo-stick is still not quite out of the running.

For all its many rabbit-holes, this is a clear and compelling story about three men: Sam Romano, boss of General Motors’s lunar program, his visionary off-road specialist Mieczyslaw Gregory Bekker (Greg to his American friends) and Greg’s invaluable engineer Ferenc (Frank) Pavlics. These three were toying with the possibility of moon vehicles a full two years before the US boasted any astronauts, and the problems they confronted were not trivial. Until Bekker came along, tyres, wheels and tracks for different surfaces were developed more or less through informed trial and error. It was Bekker who treated off-roading as an intellectual puzzle as rigorous as the effort to establish the relationship between a ship’s hull and water, or a plane’s wing and the air it rides.

Not that rigour could gain much toe-hold in the early days of lunar design, since no-one could be sure what the consistency of the moon’s surface actually was. It was probably no dustier than an Earthbound desert, but there was always the nagging possibility that a spacecraft and its crew, landing on a convenient lunar plain, might vanish into some ghastly talcum quicksand.

On 3 February 1966 the Soviet probe Luna 9 put paid to that idea, settling, firmly and without incident, onto the Ocean of Storms. Though their plans for a manned mission had been abandoned, the Soviets were no bit player. Four years later it was an eight-wheel Soviet robot, Lunokhod-17, that first drove across the moon’s surface. Seven feet long and four feet tall, it upstaged NASA’s rovers nicely, with its months and miles of journey time, 25 soil samples and literally thousands of photographs.

Meanwhile NASA was having to re-imagine its Lunar Roving Vehicle any number of times, as it sought to wring every possible ounce of value from a programme that was being slashed by Congress a good year before Neil Armstrong even set foot on the Moon.

Conceived when it was assumed Apollo would be the first chapter in a long campaign of exploration and settlement, the LRV was being shrunk and squeezed and simplified to fit through an ever-tightening window of opportunity. This is the historical meat of Swift’s book, and he handles the technical, institutional and commercial complexities of the effort with a dramatist’s eye.

Apollo was supposed to pave the way for two-rocket missions. When they vanished from the schedule, the rover’s future hung in doubt. Without a second Saturn to carry cargo, any rover bound for the moon would have to be carried on the same lunar module that carried the crew. No-one knew if this was even possible.

There was, however, one wedge-shaped cavity still free between the descent stage’s legs: an awkward triangle “about the size and shape of a pup tent standing on its end.” So it was that the LRV, tht once boasted six wheels and a pressurised cabin, ended up the machine a Brompton folding bike wants to be when it grows up.

Ironically, it was NASA’s dwindling prospects post-Apollo that convinced its managers to origami something into that tiny space, just a shade over seventeen months prior to launch. Why not wring as much value out of Apollo’s last missions as possible?

The result was a triumph, though it maybe didn’t look like one. Its seats were basically deckchairs. It had neither roof, nor body. There was no steering wheel, just a T-bar the astronaut lent on. It weighed no more than one fully kitted-out astronaut, and its electric motors ground out just one horsepower. On the flat, it reached barely ten miles an hour.

But it was superbly designed for the moon, where a turn at 6MPH had it fishtailing like a speedboat, even as it bore more than twice its weight around an area the size of Manhattan.

In a market already oversaturated with books celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo in 2019 (many of them very good indeed) Swift finds his niche. He’s not narrow: there’s plenty of familiar context here, including a powerful sketch of the former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. He’s not especially folksy, or willfully eccentric: the lunar rover was a key element in the Apollo program, and he wants it taken seriously. Swift finds his place by much more ingenious means — by up-ending the Apollo narrative entirely (he would say he was turning it right-side up) so that every earlier American venture into space was preparation for the last three trips to the moon.

He sets out his stall early, drawing a striking contrast between the travails of Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard Jr and Edgar Mitchell — slugging half a mile up the the wall of the wrong crater, dragging a cart — with the vehicular hijinks of Apollo 15’s Dave Scott and Jim Irwin, crossing a mile of hummocky, cratered terrain rimmed on two sides by mountains the size of Everest, to a spectacular gorge, then following its edge to the foot of a huge mountain, then driving up its side.

Detailed, thrilling accounts of the two subsequent Rover-equipped Apollo missions, Apollo 16 in the Descartes highlands and Apollo 17 in the Taurus-Littrow Valley, carry the pointed message that the viewing public began to tune out of Apollo just as the science, the tech, and the adventure had gotten started.

Swift conveys the baffling, unreadable lunar landscape very well, but Across the Airless Wilds is above all a human story, and a triumphant one at that, about NASA’s most-loved machine. “Everybody you meet will tell you he worked on the rover,” remarks Eugene Cowart, Boeing’s chief engineer on the project. “You can’t find anybody who didn’t work on this thing.”

Nothing to do except try not to die

Moving to Mars for New Scientist, 18 October 2019

Step into Moving to Mars, an exhibition of Mars mission and colony design at London’s Design Museum, and you are confronted, immediately, with some very good reasons not to move there. Minatory glowing wall texts announce that Mars was not made for you; that there is no life and precious little water; that, clad in a space suit, you will never touch, taste or smell the planet you now call “home”. As Lisa Grossman wrote for New Scientist a couple of years ago, “What’s different about Mars is that there is nothing to do there except try not to die.”

It’s an odd beginning for such an up-beat and celebratory show, but it provides some valuable dark ground against which the rest of the show can sparkle — a show that is, as its chief curator Justin McGuirk remarks, “not about Mars; this is an exhibition about people.”

Next up: a quick yet lucid dash through what the science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson calls “the history of Mars in the human mind”. A Babylonian clay tablet and a Greek vase speak to our early cosmological ideas about the planets; a poster for the film Total Recall (the good one, from 1990), reminds us of Mars’s psychological menace.

The bulk of the show focuses on our current plans for the red planet. There are real space suits and models of real rovers, maquettes of 3D-printed Martian settlements and prototypes of Mars-appropriate clothing and furniture. Mission architectures and engineering sketches line the walls. Real hammers meant for the International Space Station (hollow, and loaded with ball bearings to increase their utility in zero-gravity) are wall-mounted beside a nifty low-gravity table that has yet to leave, and may indeed never leave, Earth. This, of course, is the great strength of approaching science through design: reality and speculation can be given equal visual weight, drawing us into an informed conversation about what it is we actually want from the future. Some readers may remember a tremendous touring exhibition, Hello Robot in 2017, which did much the same for robotics and artificial intelligence.

Half way round the show, I relaxed in a fully realised Martian living pod by the international design firm Hassell and their engineering partners Eckersley O’Callaghan. They’d assembled this as part of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge — the agency’s programme to develop habitat ideas for deep space exploration — and it combines economy, recycling, efficiency and comfort in surprising ways. Xavier De Kestelier, Hassell’s head of design technology and innovation, was on hand to show me around, and was particularly proud of the chairs here, which are are made of recycled packaging: “The more you eat, the more you sit!”

So much for the promise of Martian living. The profound limitations of that life were brought home to me a working hydroponic system by Growstack. Its trays of delicious cress and lettuce reminded me, rather sharply, that for all the hype, we are still a very long way from being able to feed ourselves away from our home world. We’re still at the point, indeed, where a single sunflower and a single zinnia, blossoming aboard the ISS — the former in 2012, the latter in 2016 — still make headlines.

The Growstack exhibit and other materials about Martian horticulture also marked an important cultural shift, away from the strategic, militarised thinking that characterised early space exploration in the Cold War, and towards more humane, more practical questions about how one lives an ordinary life in such extraordinary, and extraordinarily limited, environments.

It’s no surprise that the Russian were thinking seriously about these questions long before the rest of us, and it was good to see Russian space cultures given their due in this impressively international show. All through the 19th century, researchers for the Tsarist government tried to develop agriculture in mostly frozen and largely infertile Siberia. Well into the Soviet era, soil scientists undertook extreme expeditions over vast distances in pursuit of insane agricultural speculations. It shows up in their popular culture. “Hold on, geologist,” ran one pop song of 1951, “hold out, geologist, you are brother of the wind and sun!” And then there are the films of Pavel Vladimirovich Klushantsev, born 1910 in St Petersburg.

Klushantsev’s documentary Road to the Stars (1957), a meticulous, scientifically accurate vision to the physics, engineering, ergonomics of space travel, was followed seven years later by Moon (1965), describing the exploration, mining, settlement and domestication of a new land. Both films feature succulent gardens glistening under space domes, and workers eager to tend them, and bowls full of peaches beside every workstation, offering a little, literal taste of home.

I was delighted to see here a screen showing *Mars* (1968), a much less celebrated effort — Klushantsev’s saturated, multicoloured vision of man on the Red Planet. It’s the film with the dog in the spacesuit: an image people who’ve never heard of this director treasure for its kitsch value. It’s the film that earned him a telegram which read: “Due to the low quality of your work, we hereby inform you that we are terminating your contract with the studio.”

So much for the Soviet imagination.

But other cultures, each with their own deep, historical motivations, have since stepped up with plans to settle Mars. My favourites projects originate in the Middle East, where subterranean irrigation canals were greening the desert a full millennium before the astronomer Percival Lowell thought he spotted similar structures on Mars. (The underground networks called khettaras in Morocco irrigated much of its northern oasis region right up until the early 1970s, when government policies began to favour dam construction.)

Having raised major cities in one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth — and this in less than a generation — we should hardly be surprised that the rulers of the United Arab Emirates believe it’s feasible to establish a human settlement on Mars by 2117. A development hub, “Mars Scientific City”, is scheduled to open in Dubai in the next three to four years, and will feature a laboratory that will simulate the red planet’s terrain and harsh environment. It will be, I suppose, a sort of extension of the 520-day Mars 500 simulation that in 2011 sent six volunteers on a round trip to the Red Planet without stepping out of the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

The playfulness of “Martian thinking” is quite properly reflected in this playful and family-orientated exhibition. The point, made very well here, is that this play, this freedom from strictures and established lines of thought, is essential to good design. Space forces you to work from first principles. It forces you to think about mass, and transport, and utility, and reusability. And I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that Eleanor Watson, the assistant curator on this show, has been chosen to curate this year’s Global Grad Show, which in November will be bringing the most innovative new design thinking to Dubai — a city which, in contending with its own set of environmental extremes, often feels half way to Mars already.

As I was leaving Moving to Mars I was drawn up short by what looked like some cycling gear. Anna Talvi, a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, has constructed her flesh-hugging clothing to act as a sort of “wearable gym” to counter the muscle wasting and bone loss caused by living in low gravity. She has also tried to tackle the serious psychological challenges of space exploration, by permeating her fabrics with comforting scents. Her X.Earth perfumed gloves “will bring you back to your Earth-memory place at the speed of thought”, with the the smell of freshly cut grass, say, or the smell of your favourite horse.

Those gloves, even more than that hydroponically grown lettuce, brought home to me the sheer hideousness of space exploration. It’s no accident that this year’s most ambitious science fiction movies, Aniara and Ad Astra, have both focused on the impossible mental and spiritual toll we’d suffer, were we ever to swap our home planet for a life of manufactured monotony.

There’s a new realism creeping into our ideas of living off-world, along with a resurgence of optimism and possibility. And this is good. We need light and shade as we plan our next great adventure. How else can we ever hope to become Martian?

From a hot desert to a cold one

On 27 September 2019, Hazza Al Mansouri became the first Emirati to go to space. For the National in Dubai, podcast host Suhail Rather rang around for opinions on the UAE space programme and where it’s headed. With a human colony on Mars planned for 2117 and a probe headed for the red planet next year, we chatted about what Hazza’s mission means for the local population.

Normal fish and stubby dinosaurs

Reading Imagined Life by James Trefil and Michael Summers for New Scientist, 20 September 2019

If you can imagine a world that is consistent with the laws of physics,” say physicist James Trefil and planetary scientist Michael Summers, “then there’s a good chance that it exists somewhere in our galaxy.”

The universe is dark, empty, and expanding, true. But the few parts of it that are populated by matter at all, are full of planets. Embarrassingly so: interstellar space itself is littered with hard-to-spot rogue worlds, ejected early on in their solar system’s history, and these worlds may outnumber orbiting planets by a factor of two to one. (Not everyone agrees: some experts reckon rogues may out-number orbital worlds 1000 to one. One of the reasons the little green men have yet to sail up to the White House, is that they keep hitting space shoals.)

Can we conclude, then, that this cluttered galaxy is full of life? The surprising (and frustrating) truth is that we genuinely have no idea. And while Trefil and Summers are obviously primed to receive with open arms any visitors who happen by, they do a splendid job, in this, their second slim volume together of explaining just how tentative and speculative our thoughts about exobiology actually are, and why.

Exoplanets came out in 2013; Imagined Life is a sort of sequel and is, if possible, even more accessible. In just 14 pages, the authors outline the physical laws constraining the universe. Then they rattle through the various ways we can define life, and why spotting life on distant worlds is so difficult (“For just about every molecule that we could identify [through spectroscopy] as a potential biomarker of life on an exoplanet, there is a nonbiological production mechanism.”). They list the most likely types of environment on which life may have evolved, from water worlds to Mega Earths (expect “normal fish… and stubby dinosaurs”), from tidally locked planets to wildly exotic (but by no means unlikely) superconducting rogues. And we haven’t even reached the meat of this tiny book yet – a tour, planet by imaginary planet, of the possibilities for life, intelligence, and civilisation in our and other galaxies.

Most strange worlds are far too strange for life, and the more one learns about chemistry, the more sober one’s speculations become. Water is common in the universe, and carbon not hard to find, and this is as well, given the relative uselessness of their nearest equivalents (benzene and silicon, say). The authors argue enthusiastically for the possibilities of life that’s “really not like us”, but they have a hard time making it stick. Carbon-based life is pretty various, of course, but even here there may be unexepected limits on what’s possible. Given that, out of 140 amino acids, only 22 have been recruited in nature, it may be that mechanisms of inheritance converge on a surprisingly narrow set of possibilities.

The trick to finding life in odd places, we discover, is to look not out, but in, and through. “Scientists are beginning to abandon the idea that life has to evolve and persist on the surface of planets” the authors write, laying the groundwork for their description of an aquatic alien civilisation for whom a mission to the ocean surface “would be no stranger to them than a mission to Mars is to us.”

I’m not sure I buy the authors’ stock assumption that life most likely breeds intelligence most likely breeds technology. Nothing in biology , or human history, suggests as much. Humans in their current iteration may be far odder than we imagine. But what the hell: Imagined Life reminds me of those books I grew up with, full of artists’ impressions of the teeming oceans of Venus. Only now, the science is better; the writing is better; and the possibiliities, being more focused, are altogether more intoxicating.

“Chuck one over here, Candy Man!”


Watching Ad Astra for New Scientist, 18 September 2019

It is 2033. Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is told that his father Clifford, the decorated space explorer, may still be alive, decades after he and the crew of his last mission fell silent in orbit around Neptune.

Clifford’s Lima mission was sent to the outer edges of the heliosphere – the region of the sun’s gravitational influence – the better to scan the galaxy’s exoplanets for intelligent life. Now the Lima’s station’s antimatter generator is triggering electrical storms on distant Earth, and all life in the solar system is threatened.

McBride sets off on a secret mission to Mars. Once there, he is handed a microphone. He reads out a message to his dad. When he finishes speaking, he and the sound engineers pause, as if awaiting an instant reply from Clifford, the message’s intended recipient, somewhere in orbit around Neptune. What?

Eventually a reply is received (ten days later, presumably, given that Mars and Neptune are on average more than four billion kilometres apart). No-one wants to tell McBride what his dad said except the woman responsible for the Mars base (the wonderful Ruth Negga, looking troubled here, as well she might). The truths she shares about Roy’s father convince the audience, if not Roy himself, that the authorities are quite right to fear Clifford, quite right to seek a way to neutralise him, and quite right in their efforts to park his unwitting son well out of the way.

But Roy, at great risk to himself, and with actions that will cost several lives, is determined on a course for Neptune, and a meeting with his dad.

Ad Astra is a psychodrama about solipsistic fathers and abandoned sons, conducted in large part through monologues and close-ups of Brad Pitt’s face. And this is as well, since Pitt’s performance is easily the most coherent and thrilling element in a film that is neither.

Not, to be fair, that Ad Astra ever aspired to be exciting in any straightforward way. Pirates and space monkeys aside (yes, you read that right) Ad Astra is a serious, slow-burn piece about our desire to explore the world, and our desire to make meaning and connection, and how these contrary imperatives tear us apart in the vastness of the cosmic vacuum.

It ought to have worked.

The fact that it’s serious should have worked: four out of five of writer-director James Gray’s previous films were nominated for Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. Ad Astra itself was inspired by a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems by Tracy K. Smith, all about gazing up at the stars and grieving for her father.

The film’s visuals and sound design should have worked. It draws inspiration for its dizzying opening sequence from the well-documented space-parachuting adventures of Felix Baumgartner in 2012, adopts elsewhere the visual style and sound design of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 hit film Gravity, and, when we get to Mars, tips its hat to the massy, reinforced concrete interiors of Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 Blade Runner 2049. For all that, it still feels original: a fully realised world.

The incidental details ought to have worked. There’s much going on in this film to suggest that everyone is quietly, desperately attempting to stabilise their mood, so as not to fly off the handle in the cramped, dull, lifeless interiors beyond Earth. The whole off-world population is seen casually narcotising itself: “Chuck one over here, Candy Man!” Psychological evaluations are a near-daily routine for anyone whose routine brings them anywhere near an airlock, and these automated examinations (shades of Blade Runner 2049 again) seem to be welcomed, as one imagines Catholic confession would be welcomed by a hard-pressed believer.

Even the script, though a mess, might have worked. Pitt turns the dullest lines into understated character portraits with a well-judged pause and the tremor of one highly trained facial muscle. Few other cast members get a word in edgewise.

What sends Ad Astra spinning into the void is its voiceover. Grey is a proven writer and director, and he’s reduced Ad Astra’s plot down to seven-or-so strange, surreal, irreducible scenes, much in the manner of his cinematic hero Stanley Kubrick. Like Kubrick, he’s kept dialogue to the barest minimum. Like Kubrick, he’s not afraid of letting a good lead actor dominate the screen. And then someone – can it really have been Gray himself? – had the bright idea to vitiate all that good work by sticking Roy McBride’s internal monologue over every plot point, like a string of Elastoplasts.

Consequently, the audience are repeatedly kicked out of the state of enchantment they need to inhabit if they’re going to see past the plot holes to the movie’s melancholy heart.

The devil of this film is that it fails so badly, even as everyone is working so conspicuously hard to make a masterpiece. “Why go on?” Roy asks in voiceover, five minutes before the credits roll. “Why keep trying?”

Why indeed?

Lost in the quiet immensities

Watching Aniara for New Scientist, 7 September 2019

In the opening sequence of the Swedish sci-fi film Aniara, a space elevator rises into low earth orbit to meet an interplanetary cruiser, bound for new settlements on Mars. (The Earth, pillaged to destruction by humanity, is by now literally burning.)

But when we cut to its interior, the elevator turns out to be, well, a night bus. A tight focus on lead actress Emelie Jonsson, staring out a misted-up window into the featureless dark, accentuates, rather than conceals, the lack of set.

The interplanetary cruiser Aniara is a pretty decent piece of model work on the outside but on the inside, it’s a ferry. I know, because work for New Scientist once had me sailing down the coast of Norway on board the same vessel, or one very like it, for an entire week.

Have writer-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja turned out a film so low-budget that they couldn’t afford any sets? Have they been inept enough to reveal the fact in the first reel?

No, and no. Aniara is, on the contrary, one of the smartest movies of 2019.

Aniara’s journey to Mars is primarily a retail opportunity. Go buy some duty-free knits while your kids knock each other off plastic dinosaurs in the soft-play area. Have your picture taken with some poor bugger on a minimum wage dressed as large, stupid-looking bird. Don’t worry: in a real crisis, there’s always the pitch-and-putt.

When the worst happens — colliding with a piece of space debris, the Aniara is nudged off course into interstellar space with no hope of return or rescue — the lights flicker, someone trips on some stairs, a couple of passengers complain about the lack of information, and the hospitality crew work the mall bearing complementary snacks.

“Transtellar Cruise Lines would like to apologize to passengers for the continuing delay to this flight. We are currently awaiting the loading of our complement of small lemon-soaked paper napkins for your comfort, refreshment and hygiene during the journey.”

Not Aniara, this, but a quotation from Douglas Adams’s peerless radio tie-in novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, to which Aniara serves as a particularly bleak twin. Don’t think for a moment this is a film without humour. There’s a scene in which the captain (played with pitch-perfect ghastliness by Arvin Kananian) reassures his castaway passengers that rescue is imminent while playing televised billiards. Balls and pockets; planets and gravity wells. It’s every useless planetary mechanics lecture you’ve ever suffered through and you realise, watching it, that everyone is doomed.

“They awoke screaming and clawing at their straps and life support systems that held them tightly in their seats.” (Adams again, because I couldn’t resist, and besides, it’s as good a summation as any of where Aniara is headed.)

Not only will there be no rescue. It begins to dawn on our heroine, Mimaroben (a sort of ship’s counsellor armed with a telepathic entertainment system that (you guessed it) kills itself) that there there is no such thing as rescue. “You think Mars is Paradise?” she scolds a passenger. “It’s cold.” May as well be here as there, is her conclusion. Death’s a waiting game, wherever you run.

Aniara is based on a long narrative poem by the Nobel laureate Harry Martinson, and the sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon, reviewing a 1964 American edition of the poem, said it “transcends panic and terror and even despair [and] leaves you in the quiet immensities”. So there.

But I don’t care how bleak it is. I am sick to the back teeth of those oh-so-futuristic science fiction films, and their conjuring-up of scenarios that, however “dystopic”, are really only there to ravish the eye and numb the mind.

Aniara gets the future right — which is to say, it portrays the future as though it were the present. When we finally build a space elevator, it’s going to be the equivalent of a bus. When we fly to Mars, it’ll be indistinguishable from a ferry. The moment we attain the future, it becomes now, and now is not a place you go in order to exprerience a frisson of wonder or horror. It’s where you’re stuck, trying — and sometimes failing — to scrape together a meaning for it all.

“A wonderful moral substitute for war”

Reading Oliver Morton’s The Moon and Robert Stone and Alan Adres’s Chasing the Moon for The Telegraph, 18 May 2019

I have Arthur to thank for my earliest memory: being woken and carried into the living room on 20 July 1969 to see Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

Arthur is a satellite dish, part of the Goonhilly Earth Satellite Station in Cornwall. It carried the first ever transatlantic TV pictures from the USA to Europe. And now, in a fit of nostalgia, I am trying to build a cardboard model of the thing. The anniversary kit I bought comes with a credit-card sized Raspberry Pi computer that will cause a little red light to blink at the centre of the dish, every time the International Space Station flies overhead.

The geosychronous-satellite network that Arthur Clarke envisioned in 1945 came into being at the same time as men landed on the Moon. Intelsat III F-3 was moved into position over the Indian Ocean a few days before Apollo 11’s launch, completing the the world’s first geostationary-satellite network. The Space Race has bequeathed us a world steeped in fractured televisual reflections of itself.

Of Apollo itself, though, what actually remains? The Columbia capsule is touring the United States: it’s at Seattle’s Museum of Flight for this year’s fiftieth anniversary. And Apollo’s Mission Control Center in Houston is getting a makeover, its flight control consoles refurbished, its trash cans, book cases, ashtrays and orange polyester seat cushions all restored.

On the Moon there are some flags; some experiments, mostly expired; an abandoned car.

In space, where it matters, there’s nothing. The intention had been to build moon-going craft in orbit. This would have involved building a space station first. In the end, spooked by a spate of Soviet launches, NASA decided to cut to the chase, sending two small spacecraft up on a single rocket. One got three astronauts to the moon. The other, a tiny landing bug (standing room only) dropped two of them onto the lunar surface and puffed them back up into lunar orbit, where they rejoined the command module and headed home. It was an audacious, dangerous and triumphant mission — but it left nothing useful or reuseable behind.

In The Moon: A history for the future, science writer Oliver Morton observes that without that peculiar lunar orbital rendezvous plan, Apollo would at least have left some lasting infrastructure in orbit to pique someone’s ambition. As it was, “Every Apollo mission would be a single shot. Once they were over, it would be in terms of hardware — even, to a degree, in terms of expertise — as if they had never happened.”

Morton and I belong to the generation sometimes dubbed Apollo’s orphans. We grew up (rightly) dazzled by Apollo’s achievement. It left us, however, with the unshakable (and wrong) belief that our enthusiasm was common, something to do with what we were taught to call humanity’s “outward urge”. The refrain was constant: how in people there was this inborn desire to leave their familiar surroundings and explore strange new worlds.

Nonsense. Over a century elapsed between Columbus’s initial voyage and the first permanent English settlements. One of the more surprising findings of recent researches into the human genome is that, left to their own devices, people hardly move more than a few weeks’ walking distance from where they were born.

This urge, that felt so visceral, so essential to one’s idea of oneself: how could it possibly turn out to be the psychic artefact of a passing political moment?

Documentary makers Robert Stone and Alan Andres answer that particular question in Chasing the Moon, a tie in to their forthcoming series on PBS. It’s a comprehensive account of the Apollo project, and sends down deep roots: to the cosmist speculations of fin de siecle Russia, the individualist eccentricities of Germanys’ Verein fur Raumschiffart (Space Travel Society), and the deceptively chummy brilliance of the British Interplanetary Society, who used to meet in the pub.

The strength of Chasing the Moon lies not in any startling new information it divulges (that boat sailed long ago) but in the connections it makes, and the perspectives it brings to bear. It is surprising to find the New York Times declaring, shortly after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, that Kennedy isn’t nearly as interested in building a space programme as he should be. (“So far, apparently, no one has been able to persuade President Kennedy of the tremendous political, psychological, and prestige importance, entirely apart from the scientific and military results, of an impressive space achievement.”) And it is worthwhile to be reminded that, less than a month after his big announcement, Kennedy was trying to persuade Khrushchev to collaborate on the Apollo project, and that he approached the Soviets with the idea a second time, just days before his assassination in Dallas.

For Kennedy, Apollo was a strategic project, “a wonderful moral substitute for war ” (to slightly misapply Ray Bradbury’s phrase), and all to do with manned missions. NASA administrator James Webb, on the other hand, was a true believer. He could see no end to the good big organised government projects could achieve by way of education and science and civil development. In his modesty and dedication, Webb resembled no-one so much as the first tranche of bureaucrat-scientists in the Soviet Union. He never featured on a single magazine cover, and during his entire tenure he attended only one piloted launch from Cape Kennedy. (“I had a job to do in Washington,” he explained.)

The two men worked well enough together, their priorities dovetailing neatly in the role NASA took in promoting the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and the government’s equal opportunities program. (NASA’s Saturn V designer, the former Nazi rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, became an unlikely and very active campaigner, the New York Times naming him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.”) But progress was achingly slow.

At its height, the Apollo programme employed around two per cent of the US workforce and swallowed four per cent of its GDP. It was never going to be agile enough, or quotidian enough, to achieve much in the area of effecting political change. There were genuine attempts to recruit and train a black pilot for the astronaut programme. But comedian Dick Gregory had the measure of this effort: “A lot of people was happy that they had the first Negro astronaut, Well, I’ll be honest with you, not myself. I was kind of hoping we’d get a Negro airline pilot first.”

The big social change the Apollo program did usher in was television. (Did you know that failing to broadcast the colour transmissions from Apollo 11 proved so embarrassing to the apartheid government in South Africa that they afterwards created a national television service?)

But the moon has always been a darling of the film business. Never mind George Melie’s Trip to the Moon. How about Fritz Lang ordering a real rocket launch for the premiere of Frau im Mond? This was the film that followed Metropolis, and Lang roped in no less a physicist than Hermann Oberth to build it for him. When his 1.8-metre tall liquid-propellant rocket came to nought, Oberth set about building one eleven metres tall powered by liquid oxygen. They were going to launch it from the roof of the cinema. Luckily they ran out of money.

The Verein für Raumschiffahrt was founded by men who had acted as scientific consultants on Frau im Mond. Von Braun became one of their number, before he was whisked away by the Nazis to build rockets for the war effort. Without Braun, the VfR grew nuttier by the year. Oberth, who worked for a time in the US after the war, went the same way, his whole conversation swallowed by UFOs and extraterrestrials and glimpses of Atlantis. When he went back to Germany, no-one was very sorry to see him go.

What is it about dreaming of new worlds that encourages the loner in us, the mooncalf, the cave-dweller, wedded to ascetism, always shying from the light?

After the first Moon landing, the philosopher (and sometime Nazi supporter) Martin Heidegger said in interview, “I at any rate was frightened when I saw pictures coming from the moon to the earth… The uprooting of man has already taken place. The only thing we have left is purely technological relationships. This is no longer the earth on which man lives.”

Heidegger’s worries need a little unpacking, and for that we turn to Morton’s cool, melancholy The Moon: A History for the Future. Where Stone and Anders collate and interpret, Morton contemplates and introspects. Stone and Anders are no stylists. Morton’s flights of informed fancy include a geological formation story for the moon that Von Trier’s film Melancholy cannot rival for spectacle and sentiment.

Stone and Anders stand with Walter Cronkite whose puzzled response to young people’s opposition to Apollo — “How can anybody turn off from a world like this?” — stands as an epitaph for Apollo’s orphans everywhere. Morton, by contrast, does understand why it’s proved so easy for us to switch off from the Moon. At any rate he has some good ideas.

Gertrude Stein, never a fan of Oakland, once wrote of the place, “There is no there there.” If Morton’s right she should have tried the Moon, a place whose details “mostly make no sense.”

“The landscape,” Morton explains, “may have features that move one into another, slopes that become plains, ridges that roll back, but they do not have stories in the way a river’s valley does. It is, after all, just the work of impacts. The Moon’s timescape has no flow; just punctuation.”

The Moon is Heidegger’s nightmare realised. It can never be a world of experience. It can only be a physical environment to be coped with technologically. It’s dumb, without a story of its own to tell, so much “in need of something but incapable of anything”, in Morton’s telling phrase, that you can’t even really say that it’s dead.

So why did we go there, when we already knew that it was, in the words of US columnist Milton Mayer, a “pulverised rubble… like Dresden in May or Hiroshima in August”?

Apollo was the US’s biggest, brashest entry in its heart-stoppingly exciting – and terrifying – political and technological competition with the Soviet Union. This is the matter of Stone and Anders’s Chasing the Moon, as a full a history as one could wish for, clear-headed about the era and respectful of the extraordinary efforts and qualities of the people involved.

But while Morton is no less moved by Apollo’s human adventure, we turn to his book for a cooler and more distant view. Through Morton’s eyes we begin to see, not only what the moon actually looks like (meaningless, flat, gentle, a South Downs gone horribly wrong) but why it conjures so much disbelief in those who haven’t been there.

A year after the first landing the novelist Norman Mailer joked: “In another couple of years there will be people arguing in bars about whether anyone even went to the Moon.” He was right. Claims that the moon landing were fake arose the moment the Saturn Vs stopped flying in 1972, and no wonder. In a deep and tragic sense Apollo was fake, in the sense that it didn’t deliver the world it had promised.

And let’s be clear here: the world it promised would have been wonderful. Never mind the technology: that was never the core point. What really mattered was that at the height of the Vietnam war, we seemed at last to have found that wonderful moral substitute for war. “All of the universe doesn’t care if we exist or not,” Ray Bradbury wrote, “but we care if we exist… This is the proper war to fight.”

Why has space exploration not united the world around itself? It’s easy to blame ourselves and our lack of vision. “It’s unfortunate,” Lyndon Johnson once remarked to the astronaut Wally Schirra, “but the way the American people are, now that they have developed all of this capability, instead of taking advantage of it, they’ll probably just piss it all away…” This is the mordant lesson of Stone and Andres’s otherwise uplifting Chasing the Moon.

Oliver Morton’s The Moon suggests a darker possibility: that the fault lies with the Moon itself, and, by implication, with everything that lies beyond our little home.

Morton’s Moon is a place defined by absences, gaps, and silence. He makes a poetry of it, for a while, he toys with thoughts of future settlement, he explores the commercial possibilities. In the end, though, what can this uneventful satellite of ours ever possibly be, but what it is: “just dry rocks jumbled”?



Not your typical fictional voyage to Mars

Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton

Watching The First, Beau Willimon’s new TV series, for New Scientist, 3 November 2018

FOR reasons that remained mysterious by the end of episode one, veteran astronaut Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn) has been grounded. This left him watching helplessly as a launch accident wipes out his former crewmates, bound for Mars on a rocket bankrolled by prickly space visionary Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone). By the episode’s end, the disaster has taken a huge psychological toll, not least on Ingram herself.

Welcome to the future – don’t expect it to be easy. Set 15 years from now, the world of The First is not very different from our own. Some cars drive themselves. Media gadgets proliferate. The women who currently hold high executive positions in private space companies are now public figures.

The First is not your typical fictional voyage to Mars. “It would have been safer to just get into space in the first episode,” says series creator Beau Willimon, best known for his stylish US remake of political thriller House of Cards. “But space exploration, with all of its excitement, doesn’t happen overnight. A Mars project will take years of planning.”

Virtually the whole of the first season of this intriguing Martian epic will be set on Earth. It is a risky approach, but one that persuaded Charles Elachi, a former director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, to be a consultant for the show. “Only one organisation has successfully landed something on Mars,” he tells me with relish, “and I used to head it.”

“What attracted me,” says Elachi, “was Willimon’s desire to look at the Mars project in the round, taking in the scientific aspects, but also all the technical and personal and political challenges. How do you convince people to commit to these amazing projects? Important as the science is, exploration is a human endeavour.”

Elachi has seen the truth of this at first hand, having witnessed the decades of effort and sacrifice required to land rovers on Mars, and he is impressed that the series, although it accelerates events tremendously, still reflects the likely scale of a Mars mission.

“The series starts 15 years in the future, but for me, as the show’s technical consultant, it’s really a story of the next 15 years,” says Elachi. “It’s about all the things that come before that first flight: the power sources, the vehicles, all the equipment that needs to be developed and deployed before a human ever boards a rocket.”

Building the backstory to the series was essential. And according to Willimon, it was cool: “A lot of the questions we had were questions that researchers themselves are asking,” he says. “Every design element on the screen has a clear function and a precise reason for being there. We don’t want this to be an 8-hour science lecture, but it’s important for the audience that we can explain everything in the frame.”

It takes thousands of people to get one astronaut into space. Engineers, scientists, the medical team, the ground-support team: people bring thousands of years of combined experience to the business of making several minutes tick by without failure.

Willimon, whose father served months at a time on nuclear submarines, also knows the sacrifices families make. While his father was away, he says, “I used to make these drawings and maps and plans, trying to figure out where he was, under what ice shelf, in what ocean? And I’d try to work out what he was doing.”

This makes The First a very personal project. “We all ask ourselves, What does it all mean? Is there a God? Where’s my place in the universe?” Willimon reflects. If we asked these things of ourselves all the time, we’d go mad. “But space travel,” he says, “literally travelling into the heavens, forces your hand.”

NASA, Kennedy and me

(Not that I wish to oversell this, you understand…)

Come along to New Scientist Live at 2.30pm on Saturday 22 September and you’ll find me talking to documentary-maker Rory Kennedy about how NASA shapes life on the ground, how it juggles the competing promises of the Moon and Mars, and how public and private space initiatives can work together. Kennedy will also be discussing her life as a documentary film-maker,  her memories of her uncle “Jack” Kennedy, and how the Apollo program inspired her philanthropic career.

Tickets and details here