Arc 1.2 explores the High Frontier

23 May

Simon Ings writes:

Half a century ago, adventures in outer space captured the dreams of a generation. Some of those dreams have faded. Others have turned into nightmares. In Arc 1.2, out next Monday, a handful of us set out to find where the outward urge has got us. 

Let’s not forget that the space race is a success story. The dreams of amateur rocketeers met physical and political reality, rubbed up against it, reshaped themselves to accommodate it. The journey is taking longer than expected, but what unprecedented journey doesn’t? Even now there are serious plans afoot to colonise the moon, and mine the asteroid belt. Setting aside the technical challenges, the biggest brake on our conquest of space is that it is dark. It is empty.  Worst of all, it is boring. They don’t call deep space a yawning gulf for nothing.

Confronted with spending years at a time in a tin can, tomorrow’s pioneers are going to have to get really good at fashioning their own entertainment – a problem that keeps Regina Peldszus usefully busy as she consults on the design of future missions in deep space. A member of the AIAA’s Space Architectural Technical Committee, Regina lives and works in London and Berlin.

“Last summer,” she recalls in her feature for Arc 1.2, “some colleagues and I visited Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan ­- a trip masterminded by the Architectural Association’s Unknown Fields Division. Having persevered through a detailed guided tour of its human spaceflight museum, we were rewarded with a peek inside a cosmonaut’s typical bail-out pack. It included a close-up photograph of a firearm: part of the standard survival gear of a Soyuz spacecraft. (An emergency earthfall could conceivably land a crew in a wilderness frequented by bears or wolves.)

“It’s the first thing guests ask about: to date there are no records of a gun having been unpacked in flight. But what happens when a crew’s fragile equilibrium of exuberance and disillusion tips into recklessness?

“Potential future missions include prospecting, satellite repair, and cleaning up space debris. Each mission profile throws up new demands: dilemmas that have already been deliciously exploited in fiction. In Eolomea, a 1972 East-German/Soviet/Bulgarian co-production, a recalcitrant space pilot frolics along a sun-bleached strip of Black Sea shore as he considers quitting the service. His exhilaration is damped when, on his ‘last’ mission, he finds himself stranded on a remote asteroid base. He leaves his geodesic pressurised hut for unscheduled sorties, succumbs to binge-drinking and builds a tiny Do-It-Yourself Christmas tree made from instrument scraps (much like the ‘real’ thing the Skylab 4 crew built out of discarded food cans a year later). A Leipzig newspaper critic called our hero a ‘contemporary of tomorrow’.”

Danish filmmaker Sonja Vesterholt knows something about this kind of science-fictional isolation. Indeed, she’s lived through it. “I grew up in Leningrad with an infinite love of science fiction,” she says. “But then, I lived in the Soviet Union, which was itself pure science fiction. Communism was an idea: a premise. And for seventy years people made enormous efforts to turn that premise into a reality. The premise of communism was the existence of a better life. It could be done. The dream could come true. We all had these dreams.”

Vesterholt remembers in particular The Road to the Stars (“Doroga k Zvezdam”, 1957) – a meticulous, scientifically accurate vision of the physics, engineering, ergonomics and potential of space travel. Because the film’s release coincided with the launch of Sputnik, it was a celebrated, widely distributed piece of work.

Forty-one years later, in 1998, Sonja got a call from a friend: did she want to meet the director? Pavel Vladimirovich Klushantsev was an old man by then, his films and visions of a peaceful colonisation of the High Frontier long forgotten. Or not quite: half a world away, a small group of Hollywood effects designers were sharing memories of the man and his work – work some knew only from Corman-financed B-movie recuts with titles like Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women.

For Arc 1.2, I had the tremendous good fortune to talk to Sonja about Klushantsev, who was the subject of her documentary The Star Dreamer. Klushantsev’s films conjured up a world of peace, plenty and hope and in doing so, inspired the most terrifying movies Hollywood ever made. Films like The Terminator, and Aliens. Sonja thinks this shift, from dreams to nightmares, is no accident: merely a part of our growing up.

“We already know that technical/scientific possibilities are limitless,” she says. “ It may be that in 50 years we are able to have a small, cheap flat on Mars, eat synthetic carrots and be very unhappy people.  My hope is, that in 50 years we will discover the gene responsible for our cruelty to each other. Perhaps we will discover, in 50 years, that the greatest human talent is the capability of feeling another man’s pain”

Since the darkness, scale and solitude of space are, after all, an invitation to nightmares, I found myself making connections between Sonja’s stories and Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s forthcoming blockbuster, a lovingly horrific reworking of the 2001 myth.  In this film, the outward urge still thrums with a horrible sort of life, and the Weyland Corporation still appeals to investors by claiming that it is “building better worlds”. The journey’s not ended. But it has got darker.

Could things have turned out otherwise?

Arc 1.2 is out next Monday for e-readers, tablets, phones and computer screens, and in a collectible print edition. Visit for details

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