Space’ does a reality check on space settlement

An artist’s concept shows a spaceship on a 5,000-year journey. (Jörgen Engdahl / Courtesy of Discovery+)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wants millions of people to live and work in space — which is why he founded his Blue Origin space venture more than two decades ago.

But what if life in space is like hiding in an Amazon warehouse?

“The reality of going to another planet in our current environment, I think … the best analogy is an Amazon fulfillment center,” said Taylor Genovese, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, in “Last Exit: Space,” a new documentary about space settlement narrated by renowned filmmaker Werner Herzog.

“You can’t really see where you are,” explains Genovese. “You’re going to be in a factory and you’re not going to experience what you think you’re going to experience — that is, the kind of awe of being on another planet and experiencing that you’re outside of Earth. No, you’re going to be pigeonholed to work.’

That’s a perspective you won’t often hear in the spate of space documentaries streaming through streaming video channels, including “Countdown” and “Return to Space” on Netflix and “Secrets of the Universe” on Curiosity Stream.

But Rudolph Herzog — Werner’s son and director of “Last Exit: Space”, now showing on Discovery+ — wasn’t all that interested in making a conventional documentary about the last frontier.

“I just love the edgy, quirky stories,” explains the younger Herzog, who has built his own portfolio of film projects, on the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “I think everyone knows Elon Musk and everyone knows what Jeff Bezos is up to. … I just wanted to show how far people will go to make this dream of going to space come true.”

Herzog and his father also went to extremes: “Last Exit: Space” takes viewers to Denmark to meet the amateur rockets of Copenhagen Suborbitals; to the Negev desert in Israel to visit a simulated Mars base; to Mauna Kea in Hawaii for reflections on the balance between terrestrial and extraterrestrial concerns; and to Brazil for an inside look at the religious UFO movement known as Valley of the Dawn.

There are also interviews with a “space sexologist” and with a geneticist thinking about ways to grow radiation-hardened skin for spaceflight, perhaps even using chlorophyll for photosynthesis.

“That fascinates me,” said Rudolph Herzog. “I find that more fascinating than things I’ve already seen in the media.”

To delve deeper into the challenges of prolonged spaceflight, the Herzogs also contact retired British-American astronaut Mike Foale, who was on the Russian Mir space station when it experienced a life-threatening collision with a cargo spaceship in 1997; and with Judith Lapierre, who witnessed sexual harassment and bloody fistfights during a 110-day space mission simulation in Russia in 1999-2000.

Rudolph and Werner Herzog teamed up for ‘Last Exit: Space’. (Lena Herzog photo)

Rudolph Herzog said such stories illustrate how daunting it can be to send colonists on a one-way trip to Mars — let alone a one-way trip to the nearest star that could take thousands of years.

“Would we go crazy on the trip?” he asked. “I mean, even if we improved our bodies in a way, and had some crazy radiation shield, and we had a way to grow food, wouldn’t our minds be the obstacle to space travel?”

Although the film was made long before the crisis over Ukraine and its implications for the Russian space program, Herzog said the current state of international relations suggests we still have work to do on our own planet before reaching for the stars.

“It won’t work if it’s not a collaboration of all humanity,” he said. “People need to realize that we’re on a spaceship… It’s actually packed with great features, but that’s what it is. So we shouldn’t mess with it too much, because that’s all we have, and probably all we’ll ever have.”

In the documentary, Werner Herzog says the space efforts funded by Blue Origin’s Bezos and SpaceX’s Musk stem from a “testosterone-driven competition.”

“Some of these projects are a little ill-advised,” Rudolph Herzog told me. ‘Of course we have nothing to say about it, because it’s kind of their money. But I would feel happier if it was used to take care of our own planet alone.”

He acknowledged that as CEO of Tesla, Musk puts a lot of energy into solar energy and electric vehicles. And to be fair, it should also be noted that Bezos currently spends more money on environmental issues than on space shots.

Nevertheless, Herzog argues that humanity is not yet ready to go to the stars.

“I think we need to clean up our deeds on Earth before we go to Mars or anywhere,” he said.

“Last Exit: Space” will be streamed exclusively on Discovery+. Watch past episodes of the Fiction Science podcast on Cosmic Log and stay tuned for future episodes via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Reason. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to future episodes.

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