“He is 60,” wrote the novelist Leo Tolstoy, “a pauper, gives away all he has, is always cheerful and meek.” Former schoolteacher Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov was also one of the most powerful cult figures in pre-revolutionary Russia, numbering among his followers the rocket theorist Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky.
Unusually for a Russian (the country’s huge, remember), Fedorov took the population theories of UK economist and demographer Thomas Malthus seriously. He worried that Earth would become unsustainably overcrowded, and came up with a novel solution: colonise outer space.
In The Philosophy of the Common Cause, Fedorov explains that as humans evolve hand in hand with technology, they will be able to get rid of their digestive and sexual parts, harvest cosmic energy for food, achieve psychological perfection, and become immortal.
All this has been playing around in my mind since I visited, an exhibition that was years in the making and continues at London’s Science Museum until 13 March.
There, you can browse Tsiolkovsky’s designs for rockets with steering thrusters, multistage boosters, space stations, airlocks and biological life-support systems. And you can stand, awed, beneath the lunar lander in which Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, might have landed on the moon had the Americans not got there first.
Reaching for the stars
We reached for the stars too soon, before the materials and technologies were really ready – and certainly long before they became affordable. The US spent $24 billion on sending a dozen men to the moon’s surface between 1969 and 1972,. The novelist Norman Mailer considered Apollo “the deepest of nihilistic acts – because we don’t know why we did it”.
The Russians always knew. They wanted to plant gardens. They made films about it. Pavel Klushantsev’s documentary Moon (Luna, 1965) describes the exploration, mining, settlement and domestication of a new land. The vigour and human warmth of Klushantsev’s vision earned him an unprecedented honour: the chance to meet the Chief Designer himself, head of the Soviet space programme, Sergei Korolev.
But Korolev was already dying, the N1 rocket intended to launch the Soviet’s lunar programme was a fiasco, and on 20 July 1969, America’s Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Suddenly, the Soviet state lost all interest in it.
The moon? Why make a film about the moon, for heaven’s sake? What’s wrong with films about potatoes?
The dream of gardening in space is an old one – indeed, it goes back to Tsiolkovsky. This year it went mainstream with, Ridley Scott’s best film in years, which conveyed in painstaking detail what it would be like to survive on potatoes grown in Martian soil enriched by your own faeces.
But we have to start somewhere. If we stay where we are, well, Fedorov was right: we’ll be hostage to Malthus’s cold equations.
Image credits (left to right): Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Corbis; Ray Tang/Rex/Shutterstock, artist: Robert Indiana
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