Documentary | Outer space

Will we have to leave our planet?

Billionaires like Elon Musk dream of travelling to far-flung planets. But is that even an option? A conversation about striking a work-life balance on Mars and concerns about cosmic colonialism
In a desert landscape two people in bulky silver space suits are walking around

Film still: In the Negev desert, an international crew is rehearsing life on Mars. Is this what our future as space colonists will look like?

Interview by Ruben Donsbach

Mr. Herzog, in your documentary “Last Exit: Space” you negotiate an existential question: Do humans have to leave planet earth in order to survive as a species?

I approached this topic by asking questions: I wanted to know what the state of technology and science is. Then you quickly learn that things look pretty bleak in our planetary neighbourhood. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about Destination Mars. De facto, it is a pure desert planet without any atmosphere or water resources worth mentioning. It makes even the most inhospitable places on Earth look almost inviting. You would have to live there permanently in underground bunkers to be safe from the deadly cosmic radiation.

A protagonist in your film says it would be like spending your life in an Amazon logistics center without ever being allowed to go outside.

And that‘s probably how few people imagine life on a new planet.

Another scenario, according to the protagonist, is that oxygen could simply be reduced for workers who protest against poor conditions there.

It is a necessary consideration how things would actually be in such an extraterrestrial colony. How do you deal with the fact that people are unpredictable in the long run? What if someone goes crazy and knocks a hole in the protective wall? Then the whole collective would be in danger. That kind of thing promotes authoritarian systems. Anyone who talks about travelling into space has to think it through to the end. And in our scenarios so far it has only gone as far as Mars. Exoplanets similar to Earth outside our solar system, on which a more “normal” life would be conceivable, are insanely far away. A crew would be confined to a spaceship for thousands of years and would have to reproduce there for several generations within a limited gene pool.

“Mars is a desert planet with no atmosphere or water, making even the most inhospitable places on Earth seem inviting”

People become mentally unstable, even in rush-hour traffic. Would we be psychologically capable of getting along with each other for the duration of such space journeys?

That is the crucial question. We are made for life on Earth. Even on the International Space Station (ISS) there are hardly any windows. And if there are, you look back at the Earth. And that is what moves most astronauts: looking back at the beauty of our world. When travelling into space, the Earth quickly shrinks to less than the head of a pin in the sky. What does this sight do to people in a hostile and cramped habitat where they constantly have to endure extreme stress situations? Even after numerous discussions with experts from the fields of psychology, anthropology and biology, this has not become clear to me.

A more enjoyable aspect of your documentary is the prospect of what it would be like to have sex in zero gravity. But even that is complicated, why?

Two bodies meeting in space repel each other. That's not exactly ideal if people want to be intimate with each other. So, you’d need special clothing to attach to each other.

In your film, the space sexologist Simon Dubé talks about the fact that completely new desires and practices would be conceivable in space.

That would be the only ray of hope in this case (laughs). The problem is simply that we all grew up with Star Wars and Starship Enterprise. That tempts one to believe that it is only a matter of time before we will travel quite comfortably to new planets. The truth is that it is very difficult. We talked about the physical and psychological hurdles. But even a system similar to the warp drive of the Starship Enterprise, which would enable travel at the speed of light, is pure fiction. It takes longer to mine the necessary antimatter than to travel the sheer distance to exoplanets in our cosmic environment.

“Earth is a spaceship perfectly equipped for our needs. Let’s take care of it”

Does it make any sense at all to populate space, as planned by as billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos? 

What makes me doubt it is the mindset behind it. The approach of saying: When the Earth’s resources are exhausted, we’ll fly somewhere else and “colonise” a new planet. Colonisation is a problematic word that stands for exploitation and oppression. Humans are not locusts that eat whole planets and then move on. Elon Musk is very good at giving his ventures a humanistic appearance. He may even be serious. But one should be aware that at the core of this plan lies hard economic interests such as the extraction of rare raw materials.

Is that the real punch line of your film: Our spaceship is the Earth?

I think so. The idea that you can simply fly to Mars and create a new atmosphere there is basically pure male fantasy. Behind it is tough competition: who will be the first to make it how far into space? Musk talks about melting the ice caps of Mars with nuclear bombs and thus creating oceans and a new atmosphere. Except we can‘t even manage to keep our own atmosphere and climate on Earth in balance. It is true: Earth is a spaceship perfectly equipped for our needs. Let‘s take better care of it.