Rudolph Herzog’s documentary swerves the usual space experts to give an unexpected view of humanity’s efforts to live among the stars, says Simon Ings
HOW will people copulate in space? How much antimatter would it take to get to Proxima Centauri b? How much skin would each of us need if we could somehow bioengineer humans to photosynthesise? These are just some of the challenges examined by documentary-maker Rudolph Herzog in Last Exit: Space, a peculiar dash through humanity’s ambition to colonise space.
A traditional documentary might look for answers via the press offices of the European Space Agency or NASA. Not so Rudolph Herzog, whose father, fellow film-maker Werner Herzog, narrated and executive-produced this film. Instead, the film zooms in on those who are dedicated to solving the conundrums of space travel, one challenge at a time.
The result is a charming, yet unfocused and slightly odd, take on space exploration. In Denmark, we meet volunteers at the non-profit organisation Copenhagen Suborbitals who are crowdfunding to build a full-size rocket to send the world’s first amateur astronaut into space.
Meanwhile, in the Negev desert in Israel, citizen scientists from the Austrian Space Forum are putting a not-too-sophisticated-looking Mars spacesuit through its paces.
“The possible future living conditions on Mars are compared to working in an Amazon fulfilment centre”
As well as looking at the technical barriers to moving off-planet, the film ponders whether it is a good idea in the first place. Among the naysayers is space anthropologist Taylor Genovese, who compares the possible future living conditions on Mars to working in an Amazon fulfilment centre. Judith Lapierre, the sole female crew member of the Sphinx-99 isolation experiment in the late 1990s, describes how this study in close-proximity living ended with her alleging sexual harassment against another crew member. It does beg the question, if we can’t get along on Earth, what chance do we have in space?
These issues will only grow with more extreme distances travelled. Interstellar travel will require a ship capable of supporting entire generations of humans. Lapierre’s testimony, says Werner Herzog’s narration, suggests that any such mission will be plagued with “strife, crime and depravity”.
In that case, we might be better off staying put. This, surprisingly, is the advice of a cleric from the Valley of the Dawn community in Planaltina, Brazil, who believe they receive energies from visiting extraterrestrials from the Capella star system. These apparently advise against interstellar travel, which I’m sure NASA would be interested to hear.
Last Exit: Space suffers from its wide-eyed, catch-all approach to the subject; I found the lack of critical analysis frustrating. We are regaled with tales of “the human pioneering spirit”, as though humans were destined to explore and become somewhat less than human when not exploring. This is an opinion not established fact. Many human cultures have made a great success of staying put. Set in false opposition to this are an astonishing assortment of dystopian fantasies: space corporations will control our water! Space corporations will control our air!
Astronaut Mike Foale and astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz provide the documentary with small but penetrating moments of reason. Space is an additional field of human endeavour, they point out, not an escape route from a wrecked home planet. “Do we need to seek our destiny among the stars?”, asks the documentary early on. Let’s hope not.
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