Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wants to have millions of people living and working in space — that’s why he founded his Blue Origin space venture more than two decades ago. But what if living in space turns out to be like holing up in an Amazon warehouse?
“The reality of going to another planet in our current environment, I think … the best analogy is an Amazon fulfillment center,” Taylor Genovese, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, says in “Last Exit: Space,” a new documentary about space settlement narrated by famed filmmaker Werner Herzog.
“You won’t be able to actually see where you are,” Genovese explains. “You’re going to be inside of a factory, and you’re not going to experience what you think you’re going to be experiencing — that is, the kind of awe of being on another planet and experiencing being off Earth. No, you’re going to be working inside of a cubicle.”
That’s a perspective you won’t often hear in the wave of space documentaries flowing through streaming-video outlets, including “Countdown” and “Return to Space” on Netflix, and “Secrets of the Universe” on Curiosity Stream.
But Rudolph Herzog — Werner’s son and the director of “Last Exit: Space,” now playing on Discovery+ — wasn’t that interested in doing a conventional documentary about the final frontier.
“I just like the edgy, quirky stories,” the younger Herzog, who’s built up his own portfolio of film projects, explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “I think everybody knows about Elon Musk, and everybody knows what Jeff Bezos is up to. … I just wanted to show the incredible lengths people will go to, to live this dream of going to space.”
Herzog and his father went to incredible lengths as well: “Last Exit: Space” takes viewers to Denmark to meet the amateur rocketeers of Copenhagen Suborbitals; to Israel’s Negev Desert for a visit to a simulated Mars base; to Mauna Kea in Hawaii for reflections on the balance between earthly and otherworldly concerns; and to Brazil for a look at the UFO religious movement known as Valley of the Dawn.
There are also interviews with a “space sexologist,” and with a geneticist who’s thinking about ways to grow radiation-hardened skin for spaceflight, perhaps even containing chlorophyll for photosynthesis.
“That’s fascinating to me,” Rudolph Herzog said. “I think that’s more fascinating than stuff that I’ve already seen in the media.”
To delve more deeply into the challenges of long-duration spaceflight, the Herzogs also check in with retired British-American astronaut Mike Foale, who was on Russia’s Mir space station when it experienced a life-threatening collision with a cargo spaceship in 1997; and with Judith Lapierre, who experienced sexual harassment and witnessed bloody fistfights in 1999-2000 during a 110-day space mission simulation in Russia.
Rudolph Herzog said such tales illustrate how daunting it could be to send settlers on a one-way trip to Mars — let alone on a one-way journey to the nearest star that could take thousands of years.
“Would we go mad on the trip?” he asked. “I mean, even if we improved our bodies in a way, and had some kind of crazy radiation shield, and we had some way to grow food, wouldn’t our minds be the obstacle to space travel?”
Although the movie was made long before the crisis over Ukraine and its fallout for the Russian space program, Herzog said the current state of international relations suggests we still have work to do on our own planet before we reach for the stars.
“It won’t work if it’s not a collaboration by all of humanity,” he said. “People have to realize that we are on a spaceship … It’s full of great features, actually, but that’s what it is. So we shouldn’t mess with it too much, because that’s all we have, and probably all we’ll ever have.”
In the documentary, Werner Herzog says the space efforts funded by Blue Origin’s Bezos and SpaceX’s Musk arise from a “testosterone-fueled competition.”
“Some of these projects are a bit ill-advised,” Rudolph Herzog told me. “Of course, we have no say in it because it’s kind of their money. But I would feel happier if it were used to just look after our own planet.”
He acknowledged that Musk is putting a lot of effort into solar power and electric vehicles as the CEO of Tesla. And to be fair, it should also be noted that Bezos is currently spending more money on environmental causes than on space shots.
Nevertheless, Herzog argues that humanity isn’t yet ready to head for the stars. “I think we’ve got to clean up our act first on Earth before we venture out to Mars or anywhere beyond,” he said.
“Last Exit: Space” is streaming exclusively on Discovery+. Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Reason. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.