Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Over the past couple of days I’ve been keeping tabs on the SpaceX/NASA launch of the Dragon module to the International Space Station. This is the first time in nine years that a manned space mission has launched from the United States using US hardware, and in conjunction with a private company.
And it was spectacular. The first thing that struck me was how minimalistic the space suits were. They’re almost fashioned in a Thunderbirds-style uniform (albeit the astronauts still need to wear a helmet). As for the Dragon module itself, it too is very minimalistic. All touch-screen displays with very few physical buttons. It’s as if 2020 finally caught up technology wise (though marred with the the awfulness going on in the world right now, it has to be said that those two astronauts are two very lucky buggers escaping Earth for a short while).
While I was waiting for the module (now nicknamed Endeavour) to rendevouz with the International Space Station (ISS), I decided to take the opportunity to watch Netflix’s Space Force, created by Steve Carrell and The (US) Office’s Greg Daniels (who also manages Amazon Prime’s excellent TV series, Upload – think of that one as a funnier, yet bleak version of Black Mirror’s San Junipero.)
While Space Force lampoons a certain president’s mad ambitions to conquer space for the US, the message (and mission) is by and large a good one – to work with others to put humanity out there in space. By co-operating with each other rather than going against each other – and at the same time, treat the planet with respect. However, it doesn’t exactly start out that way.
We have Steve Carell’s Mark Naird, a four star general who is promoted to lead the Space Force division. His experience in the army leads him to make rash decisions and ignore the advice of the science team. In the first episode, a $6 billion project is in jeopardy because the science guys are not confident of a successful launch and the chief scientist (played by John Malkovich) goes out of his way to persuade Naird to abort due to weather conditions. After struggling with incompetent and annoying members of staff, advisory boards, etc. (which is why the show partly reminds me of Veep) he eventually decides to launch. He comes to realise that this is a job where you need to balance risk. The launch is a success, but is ultimately sabotaged by.. well, let’s say it gets messy.
The second episode is pure delight, and features some of the best VFX in a TV series second only to The Mandalorian. Weta FX provides a fully mocapped space chimp which was abandoned (along with a dog) as part of an earlier mission. The chimp is still alive, but hungry, and General Naird – through a sign language interpreter – has to get the chimp to try and re-attach the solar panels of the module that was launched in the last episode that were cut off by a rival nation. And the chimp has to do all this with only a promise of a non-existent banana, or a human baby (or chimp). After 3 hours of getting the chimp to pick the right tool, he goes out into space – and well, some of the finest comedy involving a drill and weightlessness ensues.
Space Force is incredibly funny. It is poignant. It highlights bureaucracy (both good and bad) of a space programme, and the potential dangers of weaponizing space. Let’s hope that doesn’t become a real thing. The SpaceX/NASA collaboration is wonderful thing to behold, for the right reasons. But let’s not turn it into something destructive.