Yet another triumph for the BBC’s Storyville documentary series was George Carey’s ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door – Space Race’, broadcast last week – a quite amazing film about the birth of the Russian space program and the ideas that prefigured it and were inspired by it. And it is a fascinating portrait of some of the early pioneers and thinkers who began Russia’s race for the stars. Most people are familiar with the broad outlines of America’s entry into the space race, the Apollo missions, the Right Stuff, Chuck Yeager and all that, but few know about the origins of the Soviet space industry and the curious combination of ideas that gave birth to it (the film is still on iPlayer at the time of blogging, so go and watch it. It is astonishing and moving, especially the interview with Tamara Filatova, Yuri Gagarin’s niece).
Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov is the philosophical great-grandpapa of the Russian dream of space exploration. He believed in the perfectibility of the human race through evolution, and thought that we would one day conquer death and bring about the resurrection of the physical body through science, and live forever. He also thought that we would extend human presence throughout the solar system and beyond. His ideas about human evolution, and in particular the idea that humans should take control of the process and direct it towards their own goals (i.e. achieving greater intelligence and conquering physical limitations) have led directly to the ‘transhumanist’ movement in Russia, and are echoed, albeit in a less poetic way, in the work of the famous proponent of the ‘Singularity’ Ray Kurzweil.
Fyodorov not only believed that we must overcome the natural decrepitude and entropy of the body as a biological system, but that we would also one day be able to ‘regulate nature’ so that natural disasters such as volcanoes, earthquakes and so on no longer threatened the human population. Fyodorov is identified with the Cosmists, who advanced ideas about the proletariat conquering space and venerated the machine and technological progress. They saw the rise of the proletariat classes as a universal and inevitable phenomenon that would soon extend into the cosmos thanks to the ever-growing power of machines. A kind of intergalactic Marxist/Leninist tide of worker-explorers flooding across the universe waving the banner of Russia.
But Fyodorov goes much further and is much more radical than the other Cosmists. His ideas concern the very fundamental questions of what it is to be human, what the nature of a human being is or can be, and the purpose and direction of life itself. This is the origin of Transhumanism in the 20th century and has led to whole genres of science fiction, scientific speculation, and the development of experiments and technology to explore the reality of these concepts. The contemporary efforts to preserve life indefinitely through cryogenics follow on from Fyodorov’s writings. There are now scientific institutes in Russia which carry on research into these ideas, attempting to allow humans to communicate directly with cosmic intelligences by ‘tuning’ themselves in, a complicated process of spiritual preparation or clearing. The subject attempts to develop a new awareness, a new kind of sensitivity through which they can receive or respond to the faint communications of other minds.
Fyodorov’s ideas directly inspired another great figure in the history of Russian space science, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. As a young, dyslexic boy studying in the Chertkov Library in Moscow, Tsiolkovsky met Fyodorov (who was at the time the Library’s chief cataloguer), and the philosopher took the boy under his wing and helped him to learn about mathematics. Tsiolkovsky went on, in 1903, to publish a paper that explained in detail what would be needed to propel a rocket into Earth orbit – Изслѣдованіе міровыхъ пространствъ реактивными приборами (The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reactive Devices [Rockets]). It was the first time anyone had looked at the problem so closely, or even cosidered it a realistic scientific question. His paper was published a few months before the Wright Brothers, in Massachussetts, made the world’s first powered flight.
Tsiolkovsky’s paper did not at first attract any great praise or reaction. The unprecedented nature of his achievement was not recognised. He remained an obscure figure until a follow-up paper, published in 1911, attracted more attention from the Soviet establishment and he was elected to the Academy of Sciences. He continued to research and write about the practical problems of rocket propulsion, and in the 1920s published further papers which set out important calculations about the need for fuel, velocities, reaction mass and so on, which are now fundamental to any space launch. One of the students who was inspired directly by Tsiolkovsky’s work was the young Sergey Korolyov, who would go on to become the Russians’ chief rocket scientist and design the launcher for Yuri Gagarin’s historic first flight into space in 1961.
Tsiolkovsky, like Fyodorov before him, also held much wider philosophical views about human progress and space exploration. In 1928 he published a book called ‘The Will of the Universe. The Unknown Intelligence’ in which he claimed that humans would colonise and explore the entire galaxy. He believed that the basic physical constituents of the universe and space also had mental properties, that the cosmos itself has a kind of soul with which it might be possible to commune, and he imagined incorporeal beings whose intelligence far exceeded humans inhabiting distant realms of space. But unlike Fyodorov, Tsiolkosky’s vision of eternal life was not of a coherent physical existence, but rather a joining with the stuff of the cosmos, a re-cycling of ‘happy atoms’ into new shapes, new forms of life.
NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, the rover Curiosity, launched this week to the Red Planet. With the help of a hovering crane it will touch down in the basin of Gale Crater in approximately 8 months’ time. It is the largest robot ever sent to another world. On board there are instruments that will allow the study of rocks, surface samples, high resolution images, gas spectrometry and other types of experiment. The rover will be capable of moving approximately 100m per day in good conditions, and if it lands in the right place will be able to study millions if not billions of years of Martian geology. Together with the ESA’s Mars Express, and the continuing mission of NASA’s previous Opportunity lander, this will give us our most sophisticated picture of Mars by far.
The ‘Roadmap for Space Exploration’, a strategy co-published by 12 of the world’s space agencies, lays out a clear vision for future exploration until the early 2030s. It calls for the development of a range of new technologies, including advanced in-space propulsion systems, more efficient rocket launchers and better radiation shielding for spacecraft to allow future human missions. Our progress in the exploration of space has been tantalisingly slow so far, but there are increasingly signs that this process will accelerate. There is now a political commitment to concerted exploration efforts, and in the private sector spaceflight is becoming a reality. Once the cost of getting to space and reaching orbit gets lower, I think we are likely to see a rapid increase in the advancement of robotic and human exploration.
You don’t have to be Ray Kurzweil to believe that by the end of this century we may be on the brink of a new era of space travel and possibly even permanent habitation on other planets. We are still far from the enormous dreams of men like Fyodorov and Tsiolkovsky, but our determination to explore and push the boundaries of human knowledge has never been greater. Our pursuit of space exploration today does not have the same philosophical and spiritual corona surrounding it. We are inspired by science, by the pursuit of verifiable knowledge, but not by the dream of overcoming death or coming into closer relationships with matter and energy, praying to the angels of the cosmos. And we tend to draw a neater distinction between science and philosophy than those early prophets of the space age did. But we should not lose sight of their visions and their teachings because they still have the power to revive our desire for flight, our dream of visiting the edges of the galaxy and finding out what our human nature truly means.