Space. The final frontier. It can often seem when Elon Musk is twanging cars into orbit on his new rocket, Jeff Bezos is apparently pumping ALL his ill-gotten gains into Blue Origin, and Dicky Branson is seemingly forever promising that Virgin Galactic will be up and running ‘next year’, that we’re obsessed with getting off this rock. I read Ben Elton’s ‘Stark’(in which the global elite seek to abandon a dying planet and all the proles along with it for salvation in space) as an impressionable teenager, and I guess the spectre of wealthy wazzocks jumping ship, at least partly as a result of the social and ecological carnage their own greed has unleashed, has never really left me.
‘Isn’t wanting to go to Mars and beyond like being in a dysfunctional relationship with Earth?’ asked my friend Dan of SnowCarbon and Wooferendum fame, ‘where you could make the relationship work, but Mars is (somehow?!) looking simpler, less complicated than actually dealing with the complexities of our home planet’. When was the last time we REALLY did the housework? Climate change is like the flatmate who always leaves the heating on. Ocean plastic pollution a sort of global equivalent of refusing to do the washing up. Ever. Are we the churlish, ungrateful, grumpy residents of a home that’s pushing back on us (that’s what Gaia does) who are now flirting with Mars as a more attractive option without Earth’s ‘baggage’?
To answer these questions it was our vast privilege at Futerra to host an evening with a real live astronaut last week – legendary five times Space Shuttle crew member Marsha Ivins. This was a very special occasion, not least because only about 500 people have ever actually been to space in all of human history, and only 60 of them have been women. So Marsha is a genuine rare breed. And what an evening it was.
I am fascinated by the expansion of human consciousness beyond the day to day of tedious ‘consumer insights’ and behavioural economics. We are still alongside the very first generation in history to witness ‘Earth Rise’, and our place in the Universe (or multiverse?) has been continually cranked open by the likes of cosmologist Carl Sagan (this short film ‘The Frontier Is Everywhere’ is one of my favourites) and the notion that we are merely ‘ghosts, driving meat-covered skeletons, made of stardust, flying on a rock through space at 70,000mph’.
Equally the emerging awareness of our own internal ‘microbiome’, the fact that the cells of bacteria and viruses in and on our bodies outnumber our own body cells and there is more ‘alien’ DNA inside us than there is our own, lays down provocations to literally, intimately connect us to everything else at every level. We are colonial organisms living in a collaborative ecology that relies far more on varying degrees of co-operation (or at least symbiosis) than it does the ‘red in tooth and claw’ pernicious competition we’re often led to believe is nature’s law.
Plus the very nature of consciousness itself, this weirdly emergent phenomenon, that surely can’t just be about slumping in front of ‘Love Island’ or the desire to go shopping? I’m currently enjoying writer Michael Pollan’s new book ‘How to change your mind: the new science of psychedelics’ which is an epic piece of rapportage from the front lines of consciousness research and about the extraordinary therapeutic potential of the mystical and medical experience of altered states of perception.
This exploration of inner space is for me just as exciting as that into outer space. And I think the two are inextricably linked in the curious, questioning mind. A fantastic former Futerra intern Guy Reid has been brilliantly exploring this through the medium of film, with his instant viral hit ‘Overview’ about the transformation of astronaut’s attitudes and perspectives after they’ve witnessed the fragile, interconnected beauty of the earth from orbit. And Guy followed this up with the even more amazing ‘Planetary – Reconnect to something bigger’ a feature length piece of mind-boggling, soul-stirring cinematography that is not to be missed.
So what did we learn from spending a precious few minutes with someone who has spent 45 days whirling around the planet at 17,500mph and witnessing sixteen sunrises and sunsets a day…
Well firstly it was how playful astronauts can often be! I guess ‘somewhat’ claustrophobic conditions and privacy-defying proximity mean there needs to be some fun. Watching crew members ‘superman/superwoman’ their way weightlessly down the length of the International Space Station, snatching flying pistachios from the air with their mouths like hungry birds, or inserting a rolling Go-Pro camera into a floating ball of water to film it from the inside…well, the short ninety minute ‘days’ must just fly by!
The physical effects of space on the human body were intriguing too. From astronauts developing super soft ‘baby feet’ due to the absence of gravity, to the rigorous exercise regimes they must practice to prevent the up to 17% bone loss experienced by the early pioneers. That and keeping your hair under control.
Marsha showed devastating images of the Anthropocene seen from space. Green ‘wheels’ in the Saudi desertirrigated with irreplaceable ‘fossil’ water. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The fishing boats clustered together in the Andaman Sea/Gulf of Thailand. All were pressing, poignant and tangible reminders of our physical impact on the planet.
Which brought us back to Dan’s question. Should we be getting ready to leave Earth? Yes! Was Marsha’s unhesitant response, but not because we’ve trashed our home (even if we have) but because an intelligent species that can see its (very) long term demise coming, as the Sun will ultimately swallow the Earth, or that may face the risk of a Near Earth Objectcollision sending us the way of the dinosaurs, probably has a responsibility to become a ‘Two planet species’ and beyond.
We also touched a little philosophically on Fermi’s Paradox, something I wrote aboutwhen experiencing the Milky Way in the super-dark skies of Patagonia two years ago. Are we alone? Someone asked. In Marsha’s mind it’s not an ‘if’ in regard to other intelligent life in the universe given the increasing awareness that there are around 100B Earth-like habitable planets in our galaxy alone, but rather when and how we get to make contact, or how far we have to travel to do so. That awesome sense of scale and diversity alone was profoundly humbling.
But ultimately the history of human spaceflight was about our shared humanity. How the International Space Station, currently crewed by 3 Americans, 2 Russians and a German, is one of the genuinely collaborative global projects (even if ‘He-who-shall-not-be-named’in the White House thinks a ‘Space Corps’is a good idea) between nations. How it is politics, not funding, that constrains further space exploration – incoming US presidents have repeatedly derailed their predecessors plans for example. How the surge in private sector investment from Elon, Jeff and Richard simply rides on the coat-tails of massive public sector funding, and still essentially uses old or pre-existing technologies. How this is not just about the individual heroes like Marsha. But about all of us.
Space travel is as Ellen MacArthur noted in her round the world sailing adventures, like a microcosm of life on earth – it requires you to work with what you have, be constantly aware of your context, be ingenious and resourceful when things go wrong, and to work together. That’s what originally inspired Ellen’s Foundation for the Circular Economy, and what led great historical innovators like Buckminster Fullerto describe our home as ‘Spaceship Earth’.
‘We need a ‘Moonshot’ for the Sustainable Development Goals’observed one Futerran enthusiastically afterwards. Marsha expanded our horizons to the highest possible level, grounded us in our thinking, and opened our hearts and minds to the possibility of better; a united people, loving and protecting our home planet and exploring both our inner worlds and our little corner of the Solar System, together. As one small, plastic astronaut once put it: ‘To infinity…and BEYOND!’