Monday 11 July 2022

To boldly go...

Molly: NASA may be changing, Margo, but space remains an unrelenting bitch.

In the first episode of For All Mankind’s third season, which has now reached the 1990s, Margo Madison (now the top NASA administrator) and former astronaut Molly Cobb (in charge of the Astronaut Office, recruiting new candidates and deciding who goes on the missions) discuss who should lead NASA’s attempt to reach Mars. Margo argues it should be someone with solid scientific training, because NASA in 1992 is no longer the same agency that it was during the moon programme. Molly, who has a storied history as a hero of that moon programme, counters that this mission to be first on another planet should be led by someone who used to be a test pilot, someone who has the ability to quickly improvise when things go wrong, as they frequently do. It feels like a discussion that goes beyond the question of whether Danielle Poole or Ed Baldwin should lead the mission – they are both supremely qualified, and have a long history at NASA – and more of a profound disagreement over what NASA is even for. Is it exploration for exploration’s sake, to go boldly where no one has gone before, or is to advance science, to study what they find when they get there?

It’s a question that felt like it fit in well with the countless books that I’d been reading about Polar exploration after falling in love with Ally Wilkes’ (fictional) All the White Spaces and the first season of The Terror. This obsession was a surprise to me, since I’d never previously been interested in the Arctic and the Antarctic – it felt like a window opened, and in spite of having zero desire to ever visit any of the places in these books, I went on a journey there again and again with the crews of these (frequently  doomed) ships and crews. It is maybe because so much of these stories read like horror, even without the actual monster made from spells and muscle that Dan Simmons invented in The Terror, in which the Franklin expedition disappears without much of a trace, or the non-comforting variation of the Third Man Factor that haunts the crew of Wilkes’ Fortitude. Especially because of the time period – roughly from Franklin’s expedition, which set off in 1845 to never be heard from again, to the early years of WW1, these explorers went to the Arctic and Antarctic without much technological help – for Franklin, the refitted steam engines on the Terror and Erebus and early photographic equipment were as advanced as it got, for Scott in in 1910-1912, a motorised sled gave some help, but broke down as often as it actually provided an alternative to the backbreaking man-hauling that he had to resort to on his way to and from the South Pole that ended with the death of all five men that attempted it. Molly’s description of space as an “unrelenting bitch” feels just as suited to these regions, which provide a thousand different ways to die – from scurvy to exposure to starvation, all of which occur thousands of kilometres away from help. 

I was reading Julian Sancton’s Madhouse at the End of the Earth, an account of the Belgica’s journey to Antarctica from 1897-1899 (which gave Roald Amundsen his first experience of the continent on which he would later achieve what he is best known for), when the comparison between space travel and Polar exploration came up explicitly – Sancton mentions a 2015 New Yorker article about how potential astronauts prepare for the isolation and confinement of the years-long journey to Mars, and Tom Kizza outlines how NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance program uses the historical experiences of ship crews in precarious situations to study how to build resilience. More often than not, the polar crews here serve as cautionary tales. In the case of the Belgica, the crew spent two Antarctic winters – 70 days each without any sun – on board the ice-nipped ship, and went slowly mad (confinement, isolation, lack of light, disputes about the right course of action, all made worse by the onset of scurvy and the possible contribution of toxic vapours from an animal poison that was also used to develop photographs). The Belgica eventually made it out of the ice, through unimaginably hard physical work that opened a channel for the ship to travel back to the open sea, but two crew members had already died and one would soon after. 

There are so many other stories of suffering, but also, incredible survival, to be found in the history of polar exploration. To stay in the South, there’s Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Arctic Expedition on the Endurance (to read more about this, read Alfred Lansing’s Endurance) from 1914-1917 – the ship was nipped by the ice before making it to land and eventually sank, stranding the crew on pack ice, until they eventually escaped to the uninhabited Elephant Island on lifeboats, from which Shackleton and the strongest remaining men set off on an impossible sea journey to South Georgia. There, the boat landed on the wrong side of the island, forcing them to cross a glacier with barely anything more than a piece of rope. Impossibly, they succeeded, and later saved all men still stranded on the island (famous stowaway Perce Blackborrow paid for his act of daring with losing parts of his foot – he is one of the inspirations behind All the White Spaces). During the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, Australian geologist Douglas Mawson’s Far Eastern Party was beset by catastrophe when one of the three men, along with most of their provisions, fell into a crevice, leaving Mawson and Mertz hundreds of kilometres from the rest of the expedition without much hope for survival. Mertz died on the way back, and Mawson, while likely suffering from the serious effects of severe Vitamin A poisoning (from eating the livers of his sled dogs) somehow made it back alive, after a month-long solo journey (more about this in Lennard Bickel’s Mawson’s Will). 

In the North, there’s the story of the USS Jeannette under George Washington De Long, which set out in 1878 led by now disproven theories about an open polar sea to the North Pole. Inevitably, Jeannette was caught in the ice and drifted, eventually forcing the men on board to set out in boats. Two of the three boats reached Siberia, but only one of the crews made it back to civilisation alive after walking through the Lena Delta – 20 men died, De Long among them (for more, Hampton Sides’ In the Kingdom of Ice is a stunning read).  In 1881, before these first survivors of the Jeannette resurfaced, Adolphus Greely set out on the Proteus to establish a meteorological observation station for the International Polar Year, but when relief ships failed to arrive, he led his men to Cape Sabine, where they subsided on lichen, moss and sea lice – when they were finally rescued, only six men were still alive (Buddy Levy gives a captivating account of their suffering in Labyrinth of Ice). 

To return to For All Mankind – which has already shown the disasters that can befall those who go to these new empty, unexplored spaces. In its first season, Edward Baldwin, Gordo Stevens, and Danielle Poole were the first three astronauts to man NASA’s moon base, but end up stranded there when relief missions are delayed. Eventually, the isolation (and an ant infestation) leads Gordo Stevens to develop severe mental health issues, and eventually Ed is left behind by himself for months, until a risky and deadly (for Deke) rescue mission returns him to Earth. In the second season, only the heroic acts by Gordo and his ex-wife Tracy save Jamestown from a nuclear melt-down, costing both of their lives in the process. Of course, in space there is no possibility of limping back to civilisation, like some of these polar expeditions did – the only way back is through a rescue mission, which compared to financing and launching a ship, is even more difficult to do (although Lady Jane Franklin, who spent so many years advocating for the rescue of her husband in the 1840s and beyond, would perhaps disagree that it was easier). A thread that goes through these explorations is always a fascination with new technology – polar exploration, as much as space exploration, is constantly attempting to use new innovations to make things easier, from fortifications to ships to make them powerful enough to break through ice to scientific instruments to advance measurements (or, in the case of De Long’s Jeannette, a prototype of Edison’s art lighting system, meant to alleviate the horrors of the polar night, which the crew never got to work). Advances in food preservation led to tinned foods, with the dual blessing and damnation of easy transportability and hazards (ranging from the disgust that the crew of the Belgica developed with their blandness to the genuine danger of lead poisoning and their lack of anti-scorbutic properties). In many cases, the successful missions were so not necessarily because of new technology but because of the enthusiastic adaptation of very old ones – those of native Greenlanders and Netsilik who survive in the Arctic with the help of adapted clothing, tents, igloos, raw meat (which helps against scurvy) and sled dogs. 

Technologically, the world that For All Mankind presents in the early 1990s isn’t that far off from our current one – in this alternative history, the USSR never collapsed and the space races never ended, and the net-positive of this is that technology is further advanced than it was in the real world. There are video phone calls, electric cars, even versions of mp3 players. This is how it is feasible for there to be a race to Mars at this point in time, and also how a private company like Helios is in the running to get there first (it is also, apparently, why former astronaut Ellen Wilson’s campaign for President – on the Republic ticket, she remains deeply closeted – is ultimately successful). The beginning of the season shows how much the world of space travel has advanced in the intervening years – Ed’s ex-wife Karen and her new husband have built a space hotel that comes with all the modern conveniences, including artificial gravity, which creates the illusion that space is now a commodity and safe for consumption for the public, until things go horribly wrong and it once again takes an individual act of resilience and heroism to save the day. Molly’s words to Margo can be read as a warning as well – that regardless of advances in technology, or how much money appears to be readily made from a commercialisation of space travel, space itself remains inherently unwelcoming to humans, an environment that can turn into a horror scenario within seconds. It resembles that moment in the polar exploration books, when the ships travel towards their goal and then suddenly find themselves nipped in the ice, incapable of escape, able only to drift whichever way the ice takes them, reliant now on nothing but fate (except in space, the dangers are more profound – at least you can’t run out of breathable air in the Polar regions). 

In a way, the three-way race to Mars between NASA, the USSR and the private company Helios mirrors both current debates about the utility of space exploration (who is it for, how is it justified to spend so much money on something without clear usefulness  in light of other issues)  as well as historical judgement on the famed polar explorers and their relative achievements and temperaments. It is important to remember that in spite of all the horror stories of suffering and death, most of the expeditions returned with scores of scientific data, that many of these men, in spite of what they were going through, still expended the energy to take daily scientific readings, and then laboriously dragged their notes and specimen back home with them, even on journeys where every kilogram had to be manhauled (sometimes in relays) across the ice. Some of these doomed expeditions are the reason for why we have a record of polar temperatures more than 100 years ago. Think of Apsley Cherry-Garrard and his two companions, making the incredible winter journey to Cape Crozier for two emperor penguin eggs (and of Cherry-Garrard being the sole person among the three to make it back safely to England). In the episodes leading up to the launch of the three ships travelling to Mars, much is discussed about the relative importance of science – while Ed, disgruntled by NASA’s internal fighting, joins Helios to commandeer that mission, his daughter Kelly (who in the beginning of the series works as a scientist at McMurdo station in Antarctica!) decides to join NASA’s flight because she thinks that NASA values the scientific goals more than private enterprise does (the eccentric CEO of Helios, meanwhile, dreams about sending artists to Mars – which also has a long tradition in Polar exploration, which is why we now have the beautiful photographs of Australian Frank Hurley and the pencil sketches of E.A. Wilson, doctor of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition and one of the men who died on the way back from the South Pole). 

“For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton", wrote Sir Raymond Priestly, explorer and geologist. This season of For All Mankind will show with which of these explorers Ed Baldwin and Danielle Poole will align – the Russian effort remains a black box, with anything beyond what Margo gleamed in her (maybe treasonous) collaboration with her Russian counterpart the only glimpses we have of that mission. In the fourth episode, Happy Valley, the Russian ship makes a last-ditch effort to overtake the other two ships but in the process, causes severe damage to its nuclear engine – and both Baldwin and Poole agree that saving the lives of the Russian cosmonauts overrides any other goals of glory, that maritime law of saving shipwrecked sailors should apply just as much in space. But Ed works for a company now – a company that has installed a kill switch on the computer system of his ship, overriding his own commands. He might want to be the kind of explorer that people turn to in case of a catastrophe, but he is no longer in a position to deliver on that promise, whereas NASA has all the weight of international diplomacy on its shoulders. 

In his book about Shackleton’s 1907-1909 Nimrod expedition, Beau Riffenburgh (the books is titled Shackleton’s Forgotten Expedition) argues that Shackleton revealed his true character on his attempt to reach the South Pole. He set out with three companions but turned back less than 100 miles before reaching his goal, setting a Farthest South record at the time. He turned back because he knew that he didn’t have the rations to take all of his men back safely – and in light of that decision, it is difficult to think about Scott, with his ailing companions, seeing the Norwegian flag in the distance, knowing they wouldn’t be first and still having to make their way back after. After losing the race for the moon, it is hard to conceive of a reality in the early 1990s in which NASA would concede Mars as well, be it to the striving efforts of a billionaire or the USSR, but if this fictional version of NASA has studied history, it is clear that being first is only rarely worth the loss of life, that the scientific goals and responsibility for preservation of life are what ultimately survives a truer test of time.

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