Telling stories from outer space

As I’m writing this, the Cassini spaceprobe is just under 24 hours away from a spectacular, fiery plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn, ending one of the most ambitious, inspiring and successful missions of recent space history.

And there have been a few of those recently.

Thanks to the Internet, space mission finales have become something of an international spectator sport, akin to the Olympics or the World Cup. Sure, space geeks like me can live stream an orbital insertion, or make screensavers of impossible visions of the cosmos minutes after they arrive on Earth. But Mission finales are a step up. Images of distant Pluto during the New Horizons mission came slowly, and didn’t have the same spectator-sport feel, but it was still jawdropping to see.

For me, Voyager 2’s Neptune encounter — and the eerily familiar white cloud scudding over a blue planet — is the one burned into my teenage consciousness.

White clouds, blue planet. Familiar and yet alien at the same time (image credit: NASA)

For the Rosetta mission, the European Space Agency made a shrewd decision early on to boost public engagement by telling the story of the probe and its lander Philae through a series of cartoons. The icy cold metal and solid state electronics were transformed, humanised as a long-suffering parent and its cheeky, adventurous child, something that became PR gold dust as the mission unfolded.

“Now, wrap up warm for your first night on a new comet…” (image credit: AFP PHOTO / European Space Agency (ESA)

People connected with these stories at a very deep level. They remember where they were when the mission ended, and tears were shed when contact was finally, inevitably lost.

The story of Rosetta and Philae, told through cartoons and animations, had an impact way beyond the usual space community. The brilliance of the storytelling helped the science come alive, and also allowed more people to buy into the benefits of space missions.

A cartoon by Erika Nesvold being shared on Twitter owes a huge legacy to ESA’s Rosetta cartoons — and I really love it:

OK, I’m welling up (image credit Erika Nesvold)

This anthropomorphising of machines troubles some, but is entirely appropriate given that they are our remote eyes and ears (and magnetometers) in deep space.

The space community needs to do more of it. Curiosity Rover has its own twitter account and you can get a ping from Voyager telling you how many light hours it is from Earth. Not everyone will want a Pluto Plushy, but if it moves people to understand the dynamic forces shaping the Sputnik Basin, and speculate on subsurface oceans as being the norm in our solar system, so much the better.

Is that a subsurface ocean under all that fur?

It doesn’t contribute to the science of the mission per se, but this kind of engagement is critical to space exploration. Consider the 40 year legacy of Voyager, the first human object ever to travel into interstellar space, or the five years Curiosity Rover has been on Mars transforming our understanding (and consciousness) of ‘being’ on Mars. It is sobering to think that either of those missions could have been cancelled by the stroke of a disinterested politician’s pen, or been so squeezed by a tight budget that a key component failed early in the Mission.

I find it chilling to consider an alternative history in which Voyager never flew past Uranus or Neptune. How much less would we be as a species if it hadn’t taken place?

Storytelling in space is essential. For much of human history and for most human experience, we’re not there. We rely on a sort of encoding done by journalists, writers and ordinary people who tell their story, even as they are embedded in the process, observing and reporting back. Poets and Pullizer-winning journalists are critical to encoding new experiences into the wider subconscious of humanity; the price we pay for not translating space experiences into relatable stories is high.

For all its inspiring legacy and iconic imagery, the momentum of Apollo in the 1960s faltered and died out. Executed with breathtaking precision, with political (‘beat the Soviets’) and engineering (‘don’t kill anyone’) concerns to the fore, science itself had to fight for relevance on the first spaceflights, let alone storytelling.

Apathy, social discontent and the perception of a white male elite running the show all contributed. But the storytelling part was faulty. People were expected to make the connections themselves, in awe of the engineering and the conquering of a new frontier.

Apollo had two men walk on the Moon, but Jules Verne had three: one of them being a poet. Verne understood intuitively that someone would need to be there on the Moon capable of encoding the experience for the wider world. This is something scientists often don’t have the luxury to do, and in 1969 NASA couldn’t spare the weight.

Journalists, peering at Neil and Buzz through fuzzy goldfish bowl television screens, complained.

Literary bruiser Norman Mailer — who had served with the US Army in Japan — grumbled about this disconnection. Shortly after the Apollo astronauts returned, he wrote “The event was so removed…so unreal, that no objective correlative existed to prove it had not been an event staged in a television studio — the greatest con of the century” — and unwittingly sowed the seeds for the (highly lucrative) lunar landing hoax industry.

When you get the stories wrong, people will tell their own.

Humans are story machines. That’s how we interpret the world. Fiction has been described as the mind’s flight simulator, and even as the Cassini Mission ends, new ones are being planned. Their success — to enable them to literally get off the ground — will be a function, in part, of the way they are imagined, and the wider support to fund them in an austere world.

So let’s imagine a new Saturn mission, one shared between nations, with a European-built rover for Titan, an Indian-made Enceladus orbiter, a Chinese-engineered drill and a Russian subsurface sub — all launched by a SpaceX Falcon. Such a mission would be hellishly difficult to put together, hugely expensive to run, ambitious, fraught with risk and uncertainty.

And the timescales! Some scientists have spent the majority of their working lives on Cassini. A project this ambitious might take many decades to conceive, let alone launch and operate.

But you know what, if such a mission were to go ahead…well, that’d be a story to tell, wouldn’t it?