Unearthly home: as our numbers grow and we find ever less space on earth, living on the Red Planet becomes a tantalising prospect. Illustration: Mars Headlines Woodstock by Luis Medeiros.
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Death on Mars: would you take a one-way trip into space?

Within a few decades, we will have the technological ability to send humans to the red planet - as long as they don't want to come back home again.

“I want to die on Mars,” said Elon Musk last year. “Just not on impact.” The 42-year-old was not being flippant; he plans to use the $9bn he acquired through business ventures such as PayPal to leave earth’s orbit for ever. He believes it is the only way for the human race to guard against the fragility of life on a single planet, at the mercy of a supervolcano, asteroid strike or nuclear war.

Musk’s enthusiasm has energised a new phase of the space race: the conquest of Mars. Just over a decade ago, the US space programme looked severely dented, if not moribund. The explosion of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003 was both a human tragedy (all seven astronauts died) and a PR disaster for Nasa. Its space shuttle fleet was grounded for two years while the cause of the accident – a faulty foam block – was confirmed, and for a while it looked as if the Americans would need to cadge a lift if they wanted to get into orbit again. In his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Chris Hadfield describes that time as “one of the lowest points in Nasa’s history” and recalls that “many Americans were grimly questioning why tax dollars were being spent on such a dangerous endeavour as space exploration in the first place”.

Now, the picture could not be more different. Around the world, an unlikely alliance of tech billionaires, state agencies and private contractors is increasingly confident that, within 20 to 30 years, human beings will once again be striking out further than anyone has gone before.

The next big prize in the space race is the second-smallest planet in the solar system, a barren desert buffeted by 100mph winds, covered in the fine iron oxide dust that gives it its distinctive colour – Mars, the Red Planet.

To get there, our species must overcome four types of challenge: technical, economic, physical and psychological. The first is in some ways the easiest, or at least the most straightforward. We need better engines, and probably better fuel, too. “We can go to the moon with the engines we have, but we can’t go beyond,” Hadfield told me when I met him in London in December, just six months after he returned from his third trip to the International Space Station. “It’s crazy to accelerate for 12 minutes and then coast for six months.” When launching probes such as Rosetta, it is possible to use the gravitational pull of the planets and the moon as a kind of slingshot. But that method is too slow for a manned spaceflight.

“All the slingshot does is change direction, really,” Hadfield says. “You can do it through this long, laborious process of dipping into the atmosphere, but it takes months – and if you have a crew on board, they’re eating food and going to the bathroom, and wearing out contact lenses … it’s impractical. We can’t provide enough tuna for people for a two-year voyage; it’s crazy.”

He believes the answer might be ion propulsion, using electrically charged particles to create thrust: “Instead of putting a large amount of fuel out of the back pretty fast, you want to put a tiny amount out extremely fast.” Nasa already uses ion propulsion in small spacecraft such as the Deep Space 1 and Dawn probes, but it requires a sizeable input of power, and to scale it up to move people would be a huge challenge. “You probably need a nuclear power plant, and that’s really hard to launch safely,” Hadfield says drily. Nonetheless, he is optimistic. “You could have said exactly the same thing about cars in 1895 or airplanes in 1940: we can’t possibly make this work until we have new engines. We’re in the 1910 phase of rocket engines – we can do it, but it’s dangerous, and it doesn’t work all that well.”

Gathering enough speed to reach Mars is only half of the problem, though. The other half is stopping when you get there. The planet has stronger gravity than the moon – it’s 38 per cent of earth’s, whereas the moon is 17 per cent – and a very thin atmosphere, which does not generate much drag to slow a descent. “The atmosphere really just gets in the way,” says Tom Jones, who flew four space shuttle missions between 1994 and 2001, when I reach him on the phone. “It’s not thick enough to use a parachute for any appreciable deceleration.”

Preparing to land the Curiosity rover on Mars in August 2012, Nasa realised that the dust kicked up by a high-speed landing could damage the vehicle’s sensitive instruments, so it developed a system known as the Sky Crane. Essentially, after a parachute had slowed down the craft as much as possible, the rover detached from it, attached to a rocket-powered platform. The platform controlled its descent until the rover could be lowered safely, then explosive charges cut the cords between the two. The platform then flew off to crash-land.

Curiosity on the surface of Mars. Image: Nasa

The Sky Crane worked perfectly, but again – it won’t scale to a human-sized craft. “The minimum size for a rocket lander that would put a couple of people and their supplies for a year and a half on the surface of Mars is something like 60 or 70 tonnes,” says Jones. “We have a huge jump in technology to go from putting one tonne on the surface with the Sky Crane technology that Curiosity used last year, with airbags for the prior landers, to something that’s capable of putting down human crew and their supplies.”

Even if we did make it down successfully, there is a whole new set of challenges in staying alive for more than a couple of seconds. “The atmosphere of Mars has a density of 1 per cent of the earth’s and it is 95 per cent carbon dioxide,” says the astrobiologist Louisa Preston, a researcher at the Open University. “If a human being stood on the surface of Mars and took a deep breath … well, they wouldn’t be able to, because there’s not enough atmosphere, but what they did breathe in would probably kill them within three minutes.”

Trying to navigate the conditions on Mars is a sobering reminder that the “envelope” in which human life can thrive is tiny. The temperature on the planet is roughly -60°C, which might not be a problem in itself (human being live on research bases in Antarctica, where it can reach -90°), except that it can also change rapidly. Your equipment might be able to cope at low temperatures, but can it deal with a swing from 2°C to -90° in a single day?

The planet is also plagued by “dust devils”, tornados full of particles, like the ones on earth, only 50 times bigger. In the past, these have helped Martian rovers by cleaning accumulated grime off their solar panels, but a gigantic storm could abrade or even destroy vital infrastructure. (Because of the low pressure, if you stood in the middle of a 100mph dust devil, you wouldn’t feel much of a wind, but your equipment might get irreparably clogged with grains of sand.)

Preston’s research focuses on another technology that is vital to long-term colonisation of Mars: gardening. “It’s in the realms of science fiction, but we have an idea of essentially terraforming – where you could change the surface of Mars by creating a more earthlike atmosphere, and you could do that by planting acres and acres of grassland and trees.” She concedes such marked changes are centuries away, and in the short term there is an international agreement not to contaminate the soil of the moon or Mars with any terrestrial algae or bacteria; we might finally have learned the lessons of ship rats, or taking rabbits to Australia. But she insists: “If you’re going to move to Mars, you want to go with plants.”

We should be able to hydrate them without bringing water all the way over from Planet Earth: Mars has ice, and it is looking more likely it might have flowing streams, too, judging by the tracks the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has recently found on its surface. There may even be life on Mars, though it’s more likely to be “extremophile” bacteria than little green men.

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One thing that any Mars mission will need is money, lots of it. It cost between $20bn and $23bn to get to the moon in 1969, when the median yearly wage was about $6,000. In 2009, Nasa calculated that the Apollo programme, with its six moon landings, cost roughly $170bn at current prices.

In an age of austerity, where will that kind of money come from? The obvious answer is the private sector: Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is probably the highest-profile commercial operation, but its short-term ambitions are relatively limited. Although technically it goes into space – defined as crossing the Kármán Line, 100 kilometres above sea level – its passengers will get only a couple of minutes of weightlessness in return for their $250,000 ticket. (When I ask Chris Hadfield if he’d take a free ride, he replies diplomatically: “Oh, sure . . but you know, it’s quite expensive. I am so spoiled; I’ve had a tremendous experience.”)

Yet Virgin is far from the only player. A company called Planetary Resources, with a line-up of backers including the director of Avatar, James Cameron, and Google’s Larry Page, wants to mine asteroids. In 2012 Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to send a spacecraft to the ISS under a $1.6bn deal with Nasa. And the not-for-profit B612 Foundation wants to comb the skies for anything that might be on a collision course with us, to help stop a real-life remake of Armageddon.

Musk’s ambitions are the most expansive: he sees SpaceX as his ticket away from this poky planet and on to a new colony off-world. But, for any of the nascent private spaceflight companies, the discovery of valuable minerals in space, along with the technology to mine them, would create a version of the gold rush. As the former astronaut Sandra Magnus, now the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, put it to me: “If somebody finds a way to, say, bring an asteroid here [to mine it], it’s a game-changer … because now you have the entrepreneurial spirit. The risk/reward totally changes and governments almost are totally out of the equation. It could be 20 years, it could be 100 years, but eventually that’s going to happen.”

Much has been made, too, of the increasing interest from emerging economies in spaceflight. Last year, China’s Jade Rover became the first spacecraft to land on the moon since 1976. When it malfunctioned before powering down to survive the lunar night, it was “mourned” across social media. (There is something slightly pathetic about the thought of rovers sitting on a distant world, all alone: Nasa’s Curiosity played “Happy Birthday” to itself on 5 August, the first anniversary of its landing on Mars.)

 

 

Where the “space race” was once characterised by competition, now co-operation is the order of the day. Since Nasa retired the shuttle, its astronauts have relied on the Russian Soyuz module to get to the International Space Station, crushing the hopes of all those strapping Americans who are too tall to fit in the smaller craft. There are three countries represented aboard the ISS: Russia with Mikhail Tyurin, Sergey Ryazansky and Oleg Kotov; America with Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio; and Japan, with Koichi Wakata. Chris Hadfield – the best-known astronaut of recent times, thanks to his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” going viral on YouTube – is Canadian.

Because of this global alliance, the official languages of the ISS are English and Russian and all astronauts are expected to know both. “You have to remember that we all train together internationally as a group,” says Magnus. “All the time, you hear French or Spanish, German or Russian or Swedish or whatever in the hallways.” For her, this co-operation is one of the most “impressive, intangible benefits of the space station programme – the fact we made it work. All of these cultures, all of these languages, all of these different approaches to solving engineering problems, all these national agendas, the English system versus the metric system … you name it, we made it work.”

The private-sector companies aiming to go to Mars are replicating this international approach. Mars One, a project set up by the Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, announced that it would accept applications in any of the 11 languages most commonly used by people on the internet: English, Arabic, French, German, Indonesian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, or Korean. Among the 1,058 candidates through to the second round were people from Uzbekistan, Rwanda, El Salvador, the Maldives and Saudi Arabia.

Several of Louisa Preston’s students applied for Mars One, though she didn’t fancy it. “I don’t mind being in a tin can, but I don’t like the idea of not coming back. They’ve got eight to ten years of training and education before they actually get to go, and in that ten years, what are the chances of you meeting somebody, getting married, wanting to have kids … and you just can’t do any of it because you know you’re leaving and not coming back? I couldn’t do it. They’re much stronger than I am.”

This brings us to the final element of any Mars mission, the moving part that is most likely to break down: those delicate sacs of organic tissue that need to be kept warm and dry, kept hydrated and fed, allowed to evacuate their waste, and to be protected from the vacuum of space. The humans.

 

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On 3 June 2010, six men stepped inside a suspended module at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems. The series of interconnected tubes, just 180 square metres in total (the average British home has only 96.8 square metres of floor space) was to be their home for the next 520 days. It had been designed to represent as accurately as possible the conditions that human beings attempting to travel to Mars would endure. These “astronauts” would eat dehydrated food, exercise in the gym, and visit a sauna to rub themselves down with napkins rather than take a shower. Three of them even got the chance to “spacewalk” in the sandy car park, converted to give it a passing resemblance to the Red Planet.

Although one woman had been involved in an earlier, shorter trip in the Mars mission simulator, no woman was chosen for this year-and-a-half-long stretch. A similar test in 1999 turned chaotic when the Russian captain forcibly kissed the only female crew member, a 32-year-old Canadian health specialist called Judith Lapierre. “We should try kissing, I haven’t been smoking for six months,” he reportedly told her. “Then we can kiss after the mission and compare it. Let’s do the experiment now.” Two of her Russian crew mates then had a fight so violent that it left blood splattered on the walls, prompting another member of the team, a Japanese man, to quit. Lapierre stayed only after the astronauts were allowed to put locks on their bedroom doors.

Luckily, the most recent Mars 500 mission faced no such problems. Its astronauts emerged on 4 November 2011, looking pale but healthy, the capsule’s walls apparently free from bodily fluids. But the experiment was not an unqualified boost to humanity’s hopes of getting to Mars. Four of the crew suffered sleep problems during the 17-month mission, probably related to the lack of natural daylight and close confinement. One was sleeping on average half an hour less each night by the time he left the simulation: a seemingly small difference, but one that could have had a big impact on his ability to carry out complicated tasks under pressure. Scientists monitoring the men concluded that they had, in effect, gone into hibernation. “This looks like something you see in birds in the winter,” said David Dinges at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who led the study.

The record for continuous time in space is 437 days, a title held by Dr Valeri Polyakov since his second stint on the Russian space station Mir in 1994-95. Like most astronauts, he experienced a loss of bone density because of the lack of gravity, although he recovered when he got back to earth. The ISS is now equipped with specially adapted gym equipment to offset this problem: there are treadmills with harnesses to ground you on the running belt. But at present there is no way to replicate the effect of gravity on your hips and upper femurs; without a load to bear, the load-bearing part of your skeleton wastes away.

Probably the easiest way to solve this is to design a fancier exercise machine, rather than create artificial gravity: there’s already a gizmo on the ISS that uses an evacuated cylinder to mimic resistance, which helps build leg and arm muscles. By contrast, artificial gravity involves “spinning things”, as Chris Hadfield puts it. “They’ve talked about having a tether, where you have a spaceship here and a mass at the other end, and spin them round each other. But tethers break and then you’re dead.” He pauses. “The moon has one-sixth gravity, which is probably enough to keep you healthy.” He doesn’t add: particularly if you’re never coming home to full-strength gravity anyway.

Illness will be a major concern of any long-term space mission. Hadfield knows this all too well, having nearly missed his final flight to the ISS after suffering an adhesion of his intestines to his abdominal wall caused by an old operation. (In the end, keyhole surgery freed the sticky glob of scar tissue and he was cleared to fly.)

Chris Hadfield lands in Kazakstan in May 2013. Photo: Getty

Being in space makes every medical problem a potential emergency. It’s not just the lack of doctors or equipment; it’s the confinement in a closed life-support system. On the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, Commander Wally Schirra developed a bad cold a few days in and passed it on to the other two crew. They became so bunged up – your sinuses don’t drain efficiently without the help of gravity – that they refused to wear helmets for landing, much to Nasa’s despair. On the next Apollo flight, one of the astronauts developed vomiting and diarrhoea (in mission log jargon, this was referred to coyly as “loose BM”). It left the inside of the spacecraft “full of small globules of vomit and faeces that the crew cleaned up to the best of their ability”, in the unimprovable words of Apollo 8’s Wikipedia entry.

Now, space agencies do as much as they can to mitigate sickness by quarantining crew members for several days before they get in a shuttle (astronauts also have to wear a nappy for launch because they are strapped in for so long). Yet even if you sterilise the craft and quarantine the crew it’s impossible to eliminate all pathogens.

When flights last months or years, there is the possibility of developing chronic or degenerative illnesses, too. Several astronauts have become depressed and withdrawn: one Russian on the ISS “checked out”, as Tom Jones describes it, and his crew mates had to cover his workload.

When you talk to scientists and former astronauts, this theme of human fragility emerges repeatedly. With the ISS, only 390 kilometres up, you can bail out and come home. On a longer mission, you can’t.

Since the Columbia shuttle disaster, Nasa has carried out extensive “war games” to test for the impact of astronauts’ death, liaising with the family, working out who will deal with the media, debating how to dispose of the body. That becomes even more vital when a Mars mission is on the cards. Oddly, half a century after Laika the dog orbited the earth for a few hours before expiring from overheating, many people would find it easier to accept the death of a person than an animal in space. After all, the human being chose to take the risk.

The last piece of the puzzle is the most intractable: can we cope psychologically with leaving the only home we’ve ever known? And can a small crew live in such a small space for so long without either retreating into themselves or having a punch-up? No one knows, but our experience so far provides useful indications of what not to do.

The space shuttle Atlantis. Photo: Getty

First, Sandra Magnus says, astronauts must be kept busy. “How many of us are just comfortable being couch potatoes, where we sit on the couch for 25 hours and don’t do anything else?” she asks. “We’re very busy on the space station. Even in our downtimes when we were ‘off from work’, there were things to do. Some of it was just taking pictures and cataloguing pictures, or watching movies and things like that.” It is unlikely that Mars colonists could surf the internet or chat with friends: there would be a 20-minute delay in communications with earth. (Even now, the internet on the ISS is so slow, it can barely stream YouTube videos.) And they couldn’t pass the time looking out of the window. As Tom Jones says, “Hadfield and I had the joy of looking at the earth if we cared to: it was always different, always amazing. When you’re on a cruise to Mars there won’t be anything to look at except the stars. And even then, if you have the cockpit lights turned up and you look out the windows, you’ll see just black.”

Second, astronauts need personal space. On the ISS everyone has a private cubicle, but a travelling craft is more crowded. “The shuttle was more like a camping trip, in that you would unroll your sleeping bag at the end of the day and stake your ground,” Magnus says. The selection of astronauts is crucial to cope with a confined space; Hadfield’s book describes how the alpha-male “Top Gun” test pilots of early Nasa missions have given way to more easygoing types. One suggestion, put forward by the non-profit Inspiration Mars Foundation, is that the ideal crew to send to Mars is a middle-aged married couple who are used to spending lots of time together; give them an allotment and a box set of Midsomer Murders and they’ll be happy as Larry.

Whatever the challenges in getting to Mars, everyone I asked was confident that they were not insurmountable. “I’d say 2040 is a reasonable guess [for the first flight],” says Jones.

The pioneering spirit that took us to the top of Everest and the bottom of the sea, that drives people to spend the winter imprisoned on an Antarctic research base, will always win out. Despite the risks – perhaps because of the risks – there are people alive today who probably will die on another planet. They’ll look up at the pale blue dot in the sky and, unlike any generation before them, that planet won’t be their home.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

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Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

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This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue