A screenshot from Pavel Klushantsev's "Луна́" (or "Luna"), 1965. Image: Screenshot
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This is (maybe) how we’d have colonised the Moon if the Soviet Union had got there first

This fascinating documentary from 1965 shows what Soviet scientists hoped would be possible with colonisation of the Moon. 

Looking back at the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s it can be startling to realise just how much was pioneered in such a short period of time. The narrative of that era is often constructed as a political one, with two superpowers spending significant proportions of their national budgets on scientific endeavour in an effort to be the first to reach the Moon. This is fine, and true, but with the passing of time it feels as if that story we tell - one of the Soviet Union reaching space first with Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, but the United States coming from behind to triumph with Apollo 11 - implicitly downplays the fact that both "sides" involved were responsible for some astonishing scientific advances and breakthroughs, both before Neil Armstrong's first lunar step and after.

Here's just one of them, in full colour - the first ever spacewalk, by fighter pilot and cosmonaut Alexey Leonov:

For 12 minutes, Leonov floated around on the end of a 5.35m-long steel tether. His spacesuit ballooned hugely in the vacuum of space, and he became wedged in the hatch opening of his spacecraft, Voskhod 2, when he tried to re-enter. He had to slowly release air from inside his suit, and wait to see if it would deflate enough for him to squeeze through without the air pressure dropping so much that he would pass out. It must have been terrifying - an experience almost on a par with that of Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano, who almost drowned from a leak of water inside his helmet.

Here's an English translation of the narration in that clip:

Man continues to assimilate (or make his own) [indecipherable]. In the Soviet Union, for the first time in history, man has performed a spacewalk. This is genuine documentary footage, filmed on March 18 1965 by an automatic film camera mounted on the outside of the Voskhod-2 spacecraft, piloted by [Pavel Ivanovich] Belyaev. Aleksei Leonov leaves the spacecraft - a man in outer space! He lives, he works, he smiles, and this means that people can repair spacecraft, build and maintain space stations, transfer from rocket to rocket, get out of [difficult? not clear] situations. A bold and important step has been taken on our journey to the moon, and it was achieved by a Soviet [indecipherable]."

(And many thanks to Ben Phillips (@BenPhillips1989) and Elizabeth Harrison (@CorArdens) for answering my call on Twitter for Russian speakers to translate it.)

As a historical artefact, that clip of Leonov is striking - the framerate makes his actions seem jerky, the way he floats almost as if an actor on strings. It's literally surreal, a real event with the qualities of a dream, and the time when Leonov made his spacewalk was a time characterised by some rather intense dreaming about the stars, and the future.

The clip above is part of a longer documentary directed by Pavel Klushantsev and released in 1965, called Луна́ (literally "Moon", but usually translated phonetically as "Luna"). It's available on YouTube, and even if you don't speak Russian (I don't) it's a feast of retrofuturism:

Klushantsev was a documentarian with a background in special effects and an obsession with the utopian possibilities of space travel, and he combined the two in a series of films in the 1950s and 60s that beautifully illustrated what he thought the future of humanity in space would look like. The first half of Luna is factual, featuring Soviet rocket and space scientists talking about what we knew of the Moon at the time, from mountains to craters, ancient volcanism to whether the surface is solid or covered in fine dust. (We now know that it is, but not so deep that a spacecraft cannot land in it.) There's a great bit starting at 22 minutes showing what happened to the Soviet Union's Luna 1 and Luna 2 probes, too, which were fired at the Moon directly and took some of our first good close-up photographs of the lunar surface. (Luna 1 was another Soviet space first - by missing the Moon it became the first human-made object to enter into orbit around the Sun.)

Yet it's the second half that's truly fantastic. Leonov's spacewalk segues into animated sequences showing how rockets might carry dogs and humans to the Moon, and then... we're there:

Klushantsev envisions teams of suited cosmonauts clambering over the lunar surface, climbing its mountains and surveying its ridges. These are film sets, with actors, but one of Klushantsev's great achievements is that there's little difference (to the casual eye, at least) between footage like that of Leonov's spacewalk and Klushantsev's Moontopia:

With the benefit of hindsight we can see the flaws in some of his fantastical imaginings - there's a spider-like lunar lander which crawls around unusably slowly, for example, and the other planets in the Solar System wouldn't loom as large, or as vibrantly, in the night sky - but there are other moments which have a hint of prophecy about them. The reason space agencies around the world are now talking about going back the Moon is because it might finally be economically viable, with substances like deuterium (a heavy isotope of Hydrogen, vital for generating power through nuclear fusion) relatively plentiful and cheap to extract. In Luna, the cosmonauts prospect for gold and oil:

Luna was a sequel and update of sorts to what is perhaps Klushantsev's most famous and influential work, 1957's Дорога к звёздам (Road to the Stars). Released around the time of Sputnik's launch, it was a comprehensive exploration of the current state of rocket and space technology as it existed then, while also imagining the future milestones to come: the first human in space (wearing classy leather fighter pilot uniforms), the first manned space station, the first spacewalk and the first colonisers of the Moon. Among its most groundbreaking achievements is what is considered to be the first accurate depiction of weightlessness on film (beginning 07:00):

Many of the shots in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey are almost identical to those found in Road to the Stars - from conversations over videophone to circular space stations with artificial gravity - while his influence on other science fiction directors like Ridley Scott and George Lucas is pretty undeniable. Klushnatsev spoke to Robert Skotak for a piece in American Cinematographer in 1994, five years before his death, about how he filmed these scenes:

"The ordinary theatrical or circus methods of hanging in a girdle wouldn't do for us," Klushantsev notes. "That's good enough when the actor has to fly straight ahead in a line or in a circular fashion, not changing his position. We had to do slow floating with somersaults, turns, etc. In all of my space pictures we employed [several] methods of imitating weightlessness. The first method was the 'vertical shot' The actor is dressed in a strong girdle and hangs from the ceiling via a thick steel rope, pulleys, and counterweights. The camera stays on the ground, the objective vertically above. The rope by which the actor hangs is hidden from the camera by his body."

To be effective, such a shot needs plenty of vertical clearance. Klushantsev and crew had to cut a hole in the stage floor to put their cameraman in the basement, again arousing the ire of the studio bosses. This method was used for shots in the spacecraft cabin and for shots depicting the building of an orbiting station in space. When Stanley Kubrick made 2001: a Space Odyssey in 1968, he claimed to have been first to fly actor/astronauts on wires with the camera on the ground, shooting vertically while the actor's body covered the wires. But Pavel Klushantsev had actually used the technique years before.

After the Apollo 11 Moon landings, many of the conspiracy theorists who believed that the United States had faked the whole thing believed that Kubrick must have filmed it on a set somewhere, possibly in a desert - after all, he'd pulled it off with 2001. It is somewhat ironic, then, that Alexey Leonov has been claimed by that group as one of their own after saying that it's possible that Kubrick did film some unimportant shots for the TV coverage, like a hatch opening or the flag being pulled out of its container, beforehand. Some of the fantastical ideas that Leonov's first spacewalk inspired were more grounded than others.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Apple-cervix ears and spinach-vein hearts: Will humans soon be “biohacked”?

Leafy greens could save your life – and not just if you eat them.

You are what you eat, and now bioengineers are repurposing culinary staples as “ghost bodies” – scaffolding on which human tissues can be grown. Nicknamed “biohacking”, this manipulation of vegetation has potentially meaty consequences for both regenerative medicine and cosmetic body modification.

A recent study, published in Biomaterials journal, details the innovative use of spinach leaves as vascular scaffolds. The branching network of plant vasculature is similar to our human system for transporting blood, and now this resemblance has been put to likely life-saving use. Prior to this, there have been no ways of reproducing the smallest veins in the human body, which are less than 10 micrometres in diameter.

The team of researchers responsible for desecrating Popeye’s favourite food is led by bioengineering professor Glenn Gaudette and PhD student Joshua Gershlak at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). They were discussing the dearth of organ donors over lunch when they were inspired to use their lunch to help solve the problem.

In 2015 the NHS released figures showing that in the last decade over 6000 people, including 270 children, had died while waiting for an organ transplant. Hearts, in particular, are in short supply as it is so far impossible to perfectly recreate a human heart. After a heart attack, often there is a portion of tissue that no longer beats, and so cannot push blood around the body. A major obstacle to resolving this is the inability to engineer dense heart muscle, peppered with enough capillaries. There must be adequate flow of oxygenated blood to every cell in order to avoid tissue death.

However, the scientists had an ingenious thought – each thin, flat spinach leaf already came equipped with its own microscopic system of channels. If these leaves were stacked together, the resulting hunk of human muscle would be dense and veiny. Cautiously, the team lined the cellulose matrix with cardiac muscle cells and monitored their progress. After five days they were amazed to note that the cells had begun to contract – like a beating heart. Microbeads, roughly the same size as blood cells, were pumped through the veins successfully.

Although the leafy engineering was a success, scientists are currently unaware of how to proceed with grafting their artificial channels into a real vasculatory system, not least because of the potential for rejection. Additionally, there is the worry that the detergents used to strip the rigid protein matrix from the rest of the leaf (in order for human endothelial cells to be seeded onto this “cellulose scaffolding”) may ruin the viability of the cells. Luckily, cellulose is known to be “biocompatible”, meaning your body is unlikely to reject it if it is properly buried under your skin.

Elsa Sotiriadis, Programme Director at RebelBio & SOSventures, told me: “cellulose is a promising, widely abundant scaffolding material, as it is renewable, inexpensive and biodegradable”, adding that “once major hurdles - like heat-induced decomposition and undesirable consistency at high concentrations - are overcome, it could rapidly transform 3D-bioprinting”. 

This is only the most recent instance of “bio-hacking”, the attempt to fuse plant and human biology. Last year scientists at the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa used the same “scrubbing” process to separate the cellulose from a slice of Macintosh red apple and repopulate it with “HeLa” cervix cells. The human ear made from a garden variety piece of fruit and some cervix was intended as a powerful artistic statement, playing on the 1997 story of the human ear successfully grafted onto the back of a live mouse. In contrast to the WPI researchers, whose focus is on advancing regenerative medicine – the idea that artificial body parts may replace malfunctioning organic ones – Andrew Pelling, head of the Pelling Laboratory, is more interested in possible cosmetic applications and the idea of biohacking as simply an extension of existing methods of modification such as tattooing.

Speaking to WIRED, Pelling said: “If you need an implant - an ear, a nose - why should that aesthetic be dictated by the company that's created it? Why shouldn't you control the appearance, by doing it yourself or commissioning someone to make an organ?

The public health agency in Canada, which is unusually open to Pelling’s “augmented biology”, has supported his company selling modified body parts. Most significantly, the resources needed for this kind of biohacking – primarily physical, rather than pharmacological or genetic – are abundant and cheap. There are countless different forms of plant life to bend to our body ideals – parsley, wormwood, and peanut hairy roots have already been trialled, and the WPI team are already considering the similarities between broccoli and human lungs. As Pelling demonstrated by obtaining his equipment via dumpster-diving and then open-sourcing the instructions on how to assemble everything correctly, the hardware and recipes are also freely available.

Biohacking is gaining popularity among bioengineers, especially because of the possibility for even wackier uses. In his interview with WIRED, Pelling was excited about the possibility of using plants to make us sexier, wondering whether we could “build an erogenous interaction using materials that have textures you find pleasing [to change how our skin feels]? We're looking at asparagus, fennel, mushroom...” If he has his way, one day soon the saying “you are what you eat” could have an entirely different meaning.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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