The idea of leaving Earth to settle elsewhere among the stars has been a popular topic for science-fiction storytelling — as well as the inspiration for real-world science — for generations now. But how close are we to making it a reality?
Filmmaker Rudolph Herzog sets out to answer that question in his documentary Last Exit: Space, which explores the myriad challenges facing deep space exploration and colonization, from the technological and biological to the psychological and cultural. Narrated by his father, Oscar nominee Werner Herzog, Last Exit: Space takes a comprehensive look at where we’re at in our efforts to leave our home planet behind, and some of the surprising developments that have brought us closer to (and in some cases, distanced us 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 in making it.
Digital Trends: What brought you to this particular subject for your next project?
Rudolph Herzog: Well, I read some press communications from SpaceX or Elon Musk about wanting to colonize other planets, going to Mars, and building cities there. And I was like, “Is that really possible?” And then I thought, “Should we be doing that? Is that where we should be putting our resources?” I was questioning it a bit, and then I went down the rabbit hole and discovered so many amazing stories of people actually working on projects like this — even to go to exoplanets, which are planets outside of our solar system. So it seemed like very fertile ground for a film.
Documentary filmmakers often go into projects with a plan, only to have it change as what they learn and the story pushes it in unexpected directions. Was that the case here? How did the film evolve over time?
Well, the general structure never really changed, and the people underpinning it from the very beginning. I always knew I was going to do this with Lucianne Walkowicz, who is a fantastic astronomer and was involved in the Kepler Mission, which led to a revolution in our understanding of the universe. There are so many planets out there, maybe more planets than stars, of which some could be habitable. That wasn’t known until 2008 or 2009, until the Kepler Mission. She has a very humanistic approach to the things I was questioning, and was already talking about them, saying, “Hang on a second. We really should look after our own planet, which is the only habitable planet we know is within reach.”
But inevitably, elements did change over time. As you go down the rabbit hole, you find stuff. For instance, I was speaking to one of the contributors, Judith Lapierre, and she said, “Well, I know this space sexologist …” I’d never heard of such a thing. So we ended up filming with Simon Dubé, who starts with 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 that, if we sent a small crew of hardy astronauts, wouldn’t there be inbreeding amongst them? Wouldn’t the gene pool be too small? If you arrive at the destination after 5,000 years, wouldn’t the children’s children’s children of the original astronauts be some kind of mutants, because there would be so much inbreeding? How do you deal with that?
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 bodies radiation-proof for space, and so on. And they’re not wackos. They’re people connected to serious institutions, like NASA and top universities. So there are a lot of brilliant minds applying their intelligence to finding solutions for these rather daunting difficulties we’d face if we wanted to venture out.
What were some of the most surprising things you learned in the process of making this film?
Some of the most interesting things were outside of the space context. There are so many sci-fi movies where the astronauts are frozen in something like a coffin, and then they get woken up by a robot at their destination, for example.
They make it look so simple.
Right? It’s that simple! So I thought, is anybody actually working on this? And yeah, NASA and other agencies are trying to wrap their heads around it. We talked to some people there, but I also discovered that the people actually doing it are doctors. We filmed in Baltimore with a surgeon and his team who are able to seriously lower body temperature for something like an hour. They have a problem there with people coming in with gunshot wounds who have a survival rate of around 7%. They’re just bleeding to death on the operating table within minutes. So they came up with a method of basically stopping the heart, draining all of your blood within a few minutes, and pumping in something like a saline solution that’s cooled to 20 degrees Centigrade (around 68 degrees Fahrenheit).
So your blood is replaced and you’re cooled, and that slows down the metabolism in a way that buys them 40 or 50 minutes of time for the operation. Then they pump back in the blood and start the heart again. It sounds completely nuts, but it’s actually being done today by some clinics around the world. Some of the most surprising things I found in different contexts outside of space travel. That’s what really got me.
The film pivots from scientific and technical topics to more religious and social areas of study. What brought you to those areas in your research?
There’s a logic to it because, obviously, with long-distance space travel there’s the issue of technology — like, how we construct the spaceships — and of course, there’s the issue of the human body, too. We’re just not made for such a hostile place like space, with its extreme temperatures, high radiation, no oxygen, and many other things. But then there’s also the human mind.
Even if we could build that spaceship, and if we could deal with the human body’s frailty, would we be able to go on such a voyage? Could I put people on a 5,000-year voyage, knowing they would live and die in transit? Even going to Mars is a multiyear venture, and you won’t see Earth anymore. It’ll be a little dot. What does that do to your mind? That’s an even more daunting issue to deal with, as we found out.
You mentioned Judith earlier, and her story doesn’t exactly make our prospects for coexisting in space over a long period seem very optimistic.
No, it doesn’t. Judith was in a 110-day isolation study in the 1990s, locked up in a metal barrel in Moscow with a bunch of men, and they tried to see if the people involved would stay sane or whatever. They ended up fighting badly. There was blood spattered on the walls, and there was a very unfortunate incident with her involving sexual harassment.
This was a study for just 110 days. It’s not that long in comparison to some of the things you’d be doing if you wanted to go out really far into space. That’s a big obstacle, and frankly, the penultimate one that we might not ever be able to cross.
Your father’s voice adds a compelling extra layer to the film as narrator. Was he always planned to narrate it? What do you think he brings to it?
I always like humor in films, and I think humor works best if it’s treated dead serious in the film. My dad has a deadpan way of saying things that become funny in that way. So that’s a nice narrative twist I like to use. But I agree with you, his voice really draws you in.
He was involved early on, but not necessarily as a contributor. He believed in this project before I did, in a way. I initially drafted a paper on it, as documentary filmmakers do when we’re looking for financing, but the whole space-race thing wasn’t as present in the media then as it is now. So I wasn’t really sure if anyone would be interested in it. Later in the summer, I was chatting with my dad — because we tend to chat with each other about all sorts of things, not always films — and he said, “What are you up to?” I told him I wrote something but was really unsure about it. I told him about it — that it was about colonizing space. I said I wasn’t sure about the word “colonizing,” because “colonizing” sounds like a bad word to me. So I had misgivings about it. He looked at it and said, “You’re absolutely crazy if you trash this. It’s a fantastic idea.”
So he pushed me to go out there and pitch it, and without that push, I would have probably never gone to any of these people, or Discovery, with it. And because he believed in it, I thought it might be something we could do together. So he ended up narrating it, and and he was also with us for some of the shooting.
So what’s your takeaway after making the film? How do you feel about humanity’s prospects for 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 the way it was for me, unfortunately. I had an instinct about it, and it largely turned out to be right. But I was also surprised at human ingenuity, and what people are actually capable of doing, and what people really are working on at the moment. That completely wowed me.
So, while I politely disagree with some of the motivations [for colonizing other planets], I do believe in exploring, and I do believe that humans should go out there and push themselves, push their limits, go into space, and go to other planets if they can — but for the right reasons. It shouldn’t be for extraction or for colonizing or due to thinking that the Earth is a place that’s been used up. That can’t be the right idea.
We’re not locusts that travel from one sweet spot to the next, one planet to the next, feeding off everything there. I don’t believe in that view of humanity, which I fear lurks below some of these projects and ideas. But I do 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.
Rudolph Herzog’s documentary film Last Exit: Space is available now on the Discovery+ streaming service.