Life at all costs

Reading The Next 500 Years by Chris Mason for New Scientist, 12 May 2021

Humanity’s long-term prospects don’t look good. If we don’t all kill each other with nuclear weapons, that overdue planet-killing asteroid can’t be too far off; anyway, the Sun itself will (eventually) explode, obliterating all trace of life in our planetary system.

As if awareness of our own mortality hasn’t given us enough to fret about, we are also capable of imagining our own species’ extinction. Once we do that, though, are we not ethically bound to do something about it?

Cornell geneticist Chris Mason thinks so. “Engineering,” he writes, “is humanity’s innate duty, needed to ensure the survival of life.” And not just human life; Mason is out to ensure the cosmic future of all life, including species that are currently extinct.

Mason is not the first to think this way, but he arrives at a fascinating moment in the history of technology, when we may, after all be able to avoid some previously unavoidable catastrophes.

Mason’s 500-year plan for our future involves reengineering human and other genomes so that we can tolerate the (to us) extreme environments of other worlds. Our ultimate goal, Mason says, should be to settle new solar systems.

Spreading humanity to the stars would hedge our bets nicely, only we currently lack the tools to survive the trip, never mind the stay. That’s where Mason comes in. He was principal investigator on NASA’s Twins Study, begun in 2015: a foundational investigation into the health of identical twins Scott Kelly and Mark Kelly during the 340 days Scott was in space and Mark was on Earth.

Mason explains how the Twins Study informed NASA’s burgeoning understanding of the human biome, how a programme once narrowly focused on human genetics now extends to embrace bacteria and viruses, and how new genetic engineering tools like CRISPR and its hopeful successors may enable us to address the risks of spaceflight (exposure to cosmic radiation radiation is considered the most serious) and protect the health of settlers on the Moon, on Mars, and even, one day, on Saturn’s moon Titan.

Outside his specialism, Mason has some fun (a photosythesizing human would need skin flaps the size of two tennis courts — so now you know) then flounders slightly, reaching for familiar narratives to hold his sprawling vision together. More informed readers may start to lose interest in the later chapters. The role of spectroscopy in the detection of exoplanets is certainly relevant, but in a work of this gargantuan scope, I wonder if it needed rehearsing. And will readers of a book like this really need reminding of Frank’s Drake equation (regarding the likelihood of extra-terrestrial civilisations)?

Uneven as it is, Mason’s book is a genuine, timely, and very personable addition to a 1,000-year-old Western tradition, grounded in religious expectations and a quest for transcendence and salvation. Visionaries from Isaac Newton to Joseph Priestley to Russian space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkowsky have spouted the very tenets that underpin Mason’s account: that the apocalypse is imminent; and that, by increasing human knowledge, we may recover the Paradise we enjoyed before the Flood.

Masonic beliefs follow the same pattern; significantly, many famous NASA astronauts, including John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin and Gordo Cooper, were Freemasons.

Mason puts a new layer of flesh on what have, so far, been some ardent but very sketchy dreams. And, though a proud child of his engineering culture, he is no dupe. He understands and explores all the major risks associated with genetic tinkering, and entertains all the most pertinent counter-arguments. He knows where 19th-century eugenics led. He knows the value of biological and neurological diversity. He’s not Frankenstein. His deepest hope is not that his plans are realised in any recognisable form; but that we continue to make plans, test them and remake them, for the sake of all life.

“To penetrate humbly…”

Reading Beyond by Stephen Walker for the Telegraph, 18 April 2021

On 30 May 2020 US astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley flew to the International Space Station. It was the first time a crew had left the planet from US soil since 2011.

In the interim, something — not wrong, exactly, but certainly strange — had happened to space travel. Behnken and Hurley’s SpaceX-branded space suits looked like something I would throw together as a child, even down to my dad’s biking helmet and — were those Wellington boots? The stark interior of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule was even more disconcerting. Poor Behnken and Hurley! they looked as if they were riding in the back of an Uber.

Well, what goes around comes around, I suppose. The capsule that carried Yuri Gagarin into space on 12 April 1961 boasted an almost ludicrously bare central panel of just four dials. Naysayers sniped that Gagarin had been a mere passenger — a human guinea pig.

By contrast, the design of the Mercury cockpit, that carried America’s first astronaut into space, was magnificently, and possibly redundantly fussy says Stephen Walker, in his long and always thrilling blow-by-blow account of the United States’ and the Soviet Union’s race into orbit: “Almost every inch of it was littered with dials, knobs, indicators, lights and levers just like a ‘real’ aeroplane cockpit.”

America’s “Gemini Seven” (two-seater Gemini capsules quickly succeeded the Mercuries) were celebrities, almost absurdly over-qualified for their task of being rattled around in the nose of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Their space programme was public — and so were its indignities, like the fact that virtually everything they were being asked to do, a chimpanzee had done before them.

It drove Alan Shepard — the man fated to be the first American in space — into a rage. On one training session somebody joked, “Maybe we should get somebody who works for bananas”. The ash tray Shepard threw only just missed his head.

The Soviet Union’s space programme was secret. Not even their wives knew what the “Vanguard Seven” were up to. They won no privileges. Sometimes they’d polish other people’s floors to make ends meet.

Those looking for evidence of the gimcrack quality of the Soviet space effort will find ammunition in Beyond. Contrast, for example, NASA’s capsule escape plans (involving a cherry-picker platform and an armoured vehicle) with the Soviet equivalent (involving a net and a bath tub).

But Walker’s research for this book stretches back a decade and his acknowledgements salute significant historians (Asif Siddiqi in particular), generous interviewees and a small army of researchers. He’ll not fall for such clichés. instead, he shows how the efforts of each side in the race to space were shaped by the technology they had to hand.

Soviet hydrogen bombs were huge and heavy, and needed big, powerful rockets to carry them. Soviet space launches were correspondingly epic. The Baikonur cosmodrome in Soviet Kazakhstan — a desolate, scorpion-infested region described in Soviet encyclopaedias as “the Home of the Black Death” — was around a hundred times the size of Cape Canaveral. Its launch bunkers were buried beneath several metres of reinforced concrete and earth because, says Walker, “a rocket the size and power of the R-7 would probably have flattened the sort of surface blockhouse near the little Redstone in Cape Canaveral.”

Because the US had better (lighter, smaller) nuclear bombs, its available rocket technology was — in space-piercing terms — seriously underpowered. When Alan Shepard finally launched from Cape Canaveral on 5 May 1961, twenty-three days after Yuri Gagarin circled the earth, his flight lasted just over fifteen minutes. He splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean 302 miles from the Cape. Gagarin travelled some 26,000 miles around the planet.

The space race was the Soviets’ to lose. Once Khrushchev discovered the political power of space “firsts” he couldn’t get enough of them. “Each successive space ‘spectacular’ was exactly that,” Walker writes, “not so much part of a carefully structured progressive space programme but yet another glittering showpiece, preferably tied to an important political anniversary”. Attempts to build a co-ordinated strategy were rejected or simply ignored. This is a book as much about disappointment as triumph.

Beyond began life as a film documentary, but the newly discovered footage Walker was offered proved too damaged for use. Thank goodness he kept his notes and his nerve. This is not a field that’s starved of insight: Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony wrote a cracking biography of Gagarin called Starman in 1998; the autobiography of Soviet systems designer Boris Chertok runs to four volumes. Still, Walker brings a huge amount that is new and fresh to our understanding of the space race.

Over the desk of the Soviet’s chief designer Sergei Korolev hung a portrait of the nineneenth-century Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and with it his words: “Mankind will not stay on Earth for ever but in its quest for light and space it will first penetrate humbly beyond the atmosphere and then conquer the whole solar system.”

Beyond shows how that dream — what US aviation pioneer James Smith McDonnell called “the creative conquest of space” — was exploited by blocs committed to their substitute for war — and how, for all that, it survived.

“Cut the cord!”

Watching Alice Winocour’s film Proxima for New Scientist, 31 July 2020

THE year before Apollo 11’s successful mission to the moon, Robert Altman directed James Caan and Robert Duvall in Countdown. The 1968 film stuck to the technology of its day, pumping up the drama with a somewhat outlandish mission plan: astronaut Lee Stegler and his shelter pod are sent to the moon’s surface on separate flights and Stegler must find the shelter once he lands if he is to survive.

The film played host to characters you might conceivably bump into at the supermarket: the astronauts, engineers and bureaucrats have families and everyday troubles not so very different from your own.

Proxima is Countdown for the 21st century. Sarah Loreau, an astronaut played brilliantly by Eva Green, is given a last-minute opportunity to join a Mars precursor mission to the International Space Station. Loreau’s training and preparation are impressively captured on location at European Space Agency facilities in Cologne, Germany – with a cameo from French astronaut Thomas Pesquet – and in Star City, the complex outside Moscow that is home to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center. She is ultimately headed to launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

Comparing Proxima with Countdown shows how much both cinema and the space community have changed in the past half-century. There are archaeological traces of action-hero melodramatics in Proxima, but they are the least satisfying parts of the movie. Eva Green is a credible astronaut and a good mother, pushed to extremes on both fronts and painfully aware that she chose this course for herself. She can’t be all things to all people all of the time and, as she learns, there is no such thing as perfect.

Because Proxima is arriving late – its launch was delayed by the covid-19 lockdown – advances in space technology have already somewhat gazzumped Georges Lechaptois’s metliculous location cinematography. I came to the film still reeling from watching the Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour lift off from Kennedy Space Center on 20 May.

That crewed launch was the first of its kind from US soil since NASA’s space shuttle was retired in 2011 and looked, from the comfort of my sofa, about as eventful as a ride in an airport shuttle bus. So it was hard to take seriously those moments in Proxima when taking off from our planet’s surface is made the occasion for an existential crisis. “You’re leaving Earth!” exclaims family psychologist Wendy (Sandra Hüller) at one point, thoroughly earning the look of contempt that Loreau shoots at her.

Proxima‘s end credits include endearing shots of real-life female astronauts with their very young children – which does raise a bit of a problem. The plot largely focuses on the impact of bringing your child to work when you spend half your day in a spacesuit at the bottom of a swimming pool. “Cut the cord!” cries the absurdly chauvinistic NASA astronaut Mike Shannon (Matt Dillon) when Loreau has to go chasing after her young daughter.

Yet here is photographic evidence that suggests Loreau’s real-life counterparts – Yelena Kondakova, Ellen Ochoa, Cady Coleman and Naoko Yamazaki – managed perfectly well on multiple missions without all of Proxima‘s turmoil. Wouldn’t we have been better off seeing the realities they faced rather than watching Loreau, in the film’s final moments, break Baikonur’s safety protocols in order to steal a feel-good, audience-pandering mother-daughter moment?

For half a century, movies have struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing realities of the space sector. Proxima, though interesting and boasting a tremendous central performance from Green, proves to be no more relevant than its forebears.


Stand me a vodka at this year’s Scifiweekender and I will sing to you of the steppe…

I’m off to north Wales on St David’s Day to take part in this year’s Scifiweekender. It’s being held at the Hafan y Mor Holiday Park near Pwllheli and will probably look something like this


though given the weather it could end up looking like this


and will add a chilly authenticity to Simon’s exploration of Soviet cinema, space exploration, and all things Klushantsev.

Saturday’s RAILWAY TO THE STARS is, a celebration of Russia’s spirit of exploration through Russian film. I’ll also bring along some off-prints of Arc to give people a flavour of what we’re up to.

The 2013 Scifiweekender runs from 1 to 3 March. Call the ticket hotline on 08700 110034.