Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar makes an admirable attempt to be scientifically authentic, but science fact will always trump science fictionby Frank Close / December 11, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Deep in space, a little robot known as Philae travelled with its mother ship, Rosetta, looking for a comet. On 12th November, after a journey of 10 years, Rosetta reached its goal, a quarter of a billion miles away, where signals from earth take nearly half an hour to arrive at the speed of light. Rosetta released its baby and Philae descended, landed, bounced not once but twice, before finally coming to rest third time lucky. It was wonderful to see the science of space exploration leading all the major television news programme that night. For some in the media, however, the achievement of the European Space Agency in landing a spacecraft on a comet seemed less signfiicant than the cost of the whole enterprise.
The climax of the Rosetta mission came just a fortnight after the release of, Interstellar, a Hollywood space epic directed by Christopher Nolan. The cost of Rosetta to European taxpayers—roughly €3 per head—is significantly less than the price of a ticket to watch this blockbuster. Science fact is relatively cheap in comparison to science fiction.
As it happens, the cost and the politics of space exploration are a theme in Nolan’s film. The story begins in a post-apocalyptic world in which once fertile lands have become dust bowls. Nasa is working in secret out of an isolated former air base. The head of the base, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), explains the need for secrecy: “There is no spend on space exploration when it’s a struggle to put food on the table.” Such is the public’s antipathy to wasting money on apparently useless science that school history textbooks now downplay the importance of space exploration. In this new world order, the Apollo missions never happened—they were faked as part of a plan to induce the Soviets to bankrupt themselves. When Murph, the daughter of the film’s hero, Dr Cooper, a former astronaut, insists otherwise, she is sent home from school.