The idea of leaving Earth to settle somewhere else among the stars has been a popular topic for science fiction storytelling – as well as inspiration for real-world science – for generations now. But how close are we to making it a reality?
Filmmaker Rudolph Herzog tries to answer this question in his documentary Last Exit: Space, which explores the myriad of challenges facing the exploration and colonization of deep space, from technological and biological aspects to psychological and cultural ones. Told by his father, Oscar nominee Werner Herzog, Last Exit: Space takes a detailed look at where we are in our efforts to leave behind our home planet, and some of the surprising developments that have brought us closer (and in some cases further) from that goal in recent years.
Digital Trends spoke to Rudolph Herzog about the film, what we can learn from it, and some of the surprising revelations he had while making it.
Digital Trends: What brought you to this particular topic for your next project?
Rodolphe Herzog: Well, I’ve read press releases from SpaceX or Elon Musk about wanting to colonize other planets, going to Mars and building cities there. And I thought, “Is that really possible?” And then I thought, “Should we do this?” Should we put our resources there? I was kind of wondering, and then I went down the rabbit hole and found so many amazing stories of people actually working on projects like this – even going to exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system. So that seemed like very fertile ground for a movie.
Documentary makers often go into projects with a plan, only to have it change as what they learn and the story pushes them in unexpected directions. Was that the case here? How has the film evolved over time?
Well, the overall structure has never really changed, and the people behind it since the very beginning. I always knew I was going to do it with Lucianne Walkowicz, who is a fantastic astronomer and who participated in the Kepler mission, which revolutionized our understanding of the universe. There are so many planets out there, maybe more planets than stars, some of which could be habitable. This was only known in 2008 or 2009, until the Kepler mission. She has a very humanistic approach to things that I used to question and was already talking about, saying, “Wait a second. We should really take care of our own planet, which is the only habitable planet that we know is within reach.
But inevitably, the elements have changed over time. Going down the rabbit hole, you find stuff. For example, I was talking to one of the contributors, Judith Lapierre, and she said, “Well, I know that space sexologist…” I had never heard of such a thing. So we ended up filming with Simon Dubé, who begins by asking how we would get to an exoplanet in, say, Alpha Centauri, which is 4.2 light years away. Even if we were technically able to do it, if we sent a small crew of hardy astronauts, wouldn’t there be inbreeding among them? Could the gene pool be too small? If you arrived at your destination after 5,000 years, wouldn’t the children of the children of the first astronauts be some kind of mutant, because there would be so much inbreeding? How do you handle this?
Not only were some of the areas of research explored in the film surprising, but so was the amount of science behind them.
Exactly. Another geneticist was working on making our body radiation resistant for space, etc. And they’re not crazy. These are people connected to serious institutions, like NASA and the best universities. So there are plenty of brilliant minds out there applying their wits to find solutions to these rather daunting difficulties that we would face if we wanted to venture out.
What are the most surprising things you learned during the making of this film?
Some of the most interesting things were outside the spatial context. There are so many sci-fi movies where astronauts are frozen in something like a coffin and then they’re woken up by a robot at their destination, for example.
They make it look so simple.
Law? It’s so simple! So I thought, is anyone actually working on this? And yes, NASA and other agencies are trying to figure this out. We talked to some people there, but I also found out that people actually Make they are doctors. We filmed in Baltimore with a surgeon and his team who were able to seriously lower body temperature for about an hour. They have a problem there with people coming in with gunshot wounds and about a 7% survival rate. They bleed to death on the operating table within minutes. So they came up with a method to stop the heart, drain all your blood in minutes, and pump out something like saline cooled to 20 degrees centigrade (about 68 degrees Fahrenheit).
So your blood is replaced and you’re cooled, and it slows down the metabolism in a way that buys them 40 or 50 minutes of time for the operation. Then they pump in the blood again and restart the heart. It sounds crazy, but it’s actually done today by some clinics around the world. Some of the most surprising things I’ve found in different contexts outside of space travel. That’s what really attracted me.
The film moves from scientific and technical subjects to more religious and social areas of study. What brought you to these areas in your research?
There’s a logic to that because obviously with long distance space travel there’s the question of technology – like, how we build spaceships – and of course there’s also the question of the body human. We are simply not made for such a hostile place as space, with its extreme temperatures, high radiation, lack of oxygen and many other things. But there is also the human spirit.
Even if we could build this spaceship, and if we could deal with the fragility of the human body, would we be able to make such a trip? Could I take people on a 5,000 year journey, knowing that they would live and die in transit? Even going to Mars is a years-long undertaking, and you will no longer see Earth. It will be a small point. What does that do to your mind? It’s an even tougher question to deal with, as we’ve discovered.
You mentioned Judith earlier, and her story doesn’t exactly make our prospects for coexistence in space over a long period of time very optimistic.
No, this is not the case. Judith was in a 110-day solitary confinement study in the 1990s, locked in a metal barrel in Moscow with a group of men, and they tried to see if those involved would stay sane or whatever. that is. They ended up having a bad fight. There was blood splatter on the walls and there was a very unfortunate incident with her involving sexual harassment.
This was a study of only 110 days. It’s not that long compared to some of the things you would do if you wanted to go very far into space. It’s a big hurdle, and frankly, the second to last that we may never be able to get past.
Your father’s voice adds a compelling extra layer to the film as a narrator. Had he always planned to tell it? What do you think he brings to it?
I’ve always loved humor in movies, and I think humor works best if it’s treated very seriously in the movie. My dad has a tongue-in-cheek way of saying things that get funny that way. So it’s a nice narrative twist that I like to use. But I agree with you, his voice really attracts you.
He was involved from the start, but not necessarily as a contributor. He believed in this project before me, in a way. I first wrote an article about it, like documentary filmmakers do when you are looking for funding, but this whole space race thing was not as present in the media at the time as it is today. today. So I didn’t really know if anyone would be interested. Later that summer, I was talking to my dad – because we tend to discuss all kinds of things, not always movies – and he was like, “What are you doing? I told him that I had written something but was really not sure. I told him about it — that it was about colonizing space. I said I wasn’t sure about the word “colonize,” because “colonize” sounds like a bad word to me. So I had my doubts about it. He looked at it and said, “You’re completely crazy if you destroy this.” It’s a fantastic idea.
So he pushed me to go out there and introduce him, and without that push, I probably never would have gone to see one of those people, or Discovery, with that. And because he believed in it, I thought it might be something we could do together. So he ended up telling it, and he was also with us for part of the shooting.
So what do you take away from making the film? What do you think of humanity’s prospects of leaving Earth?
Well, I hate it when people have preconceptions, and at the end of the story, their preconceptions are kind of fulfilled. But in this case, that’s how it is for me, unfortunately. I had a gut feeling about it, and it mostly turned out to be right. But I was also surprised by human ingenuity, and what people are actually capable of doing, and what people are really working on right now. It completely blew me away.
So while I politely disagree with some of the motivations [for colonizing other planets], I believe in exploration and I believe humans should go out there and push themselves, push their limits, go to space and go to other planets if they can – but for the right reasons. It shouldn’t be for extraction or for colonization or because Earth is thought to be a place that has been used. It can’t be the right idea.
We are not grasshoppers that travel from one ideal place to another, from one planet to another, feeding on whatever is there. I don’t believe in this vision of humanity, which I’m afraid hides under some of these projects and ideas. But I love the idea of exploring, and I tip my hat to all the people in my film and what they’re doing, I think it’s just fantastic.
Documentary film by Rudolph Herzog Last Exit: Space is available now on the Discovery+ streaming service.