Neil Armstrong's star. Photo: Getty Images
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After Neil Armstrong

What future for space exploration?

To mark the death of Neil Armstrong, we have republished this 2008 assessment of Nasa on its 50th birthday

Fifty years ago this month, President Eisenhower announced he was going to end his nation's space race humiliations. He would be establishing a national aeronautical agency that would control America's civil rocket launches and restore the country's ailing scientific reputation. The Soviet Union was then grabbing world headlines with space spectaculars that included putting the first animal, Laika the dog, into orbit. By contrast, America had little else but explosions and ignition failures on launch pads to show for its efforts in postwar rocketry. A National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) would stop the rot and restore America's faltering space endeavours, Eisenhower told Congress on 2 April 1958.

Thus Nasa, which went on to earn itself a reputation for unfailing technological expertise, was brought into existence primarily to save America from political ignominy. Grand schemes for traversing the heavens and revolutionising space exploration were afterthoughts. And thereby hangs a tale. In coming months, as the agency celebrates its 50th birthday and displays itself as the source of endless technological triumphs, there will be much harking back to glory days: to US flags planted on the Moon and to giant leaps made for mankind.

But behind the bunting and the bombast, it will be hard to avoid the sense of unease hanging over Nasa. Yes, it has achieved great things, but it is also beset by major political and financial worries. This, after all, is one of the world's most lavishly funded scientific organisations, an agency with an annual budget of $16bn (£8bn). American taxpayers who provide that money are entitled to see significant results. The question is: do they get enough of them? After 50 years, has the agency done enough to justify the money that has been pumped into it? What has it done for science and, more importantly, what is it likely to do in the future? Answers to these questions make disturbing reading.

For a start, we should note that Nasa has now less than a dozen flights to make on the space shuttle, the only craft it has for putting human beings into space. In 2010, its shuttle fleet is to be grounded permanently; the risks of another Challenger or Columbia disaster occurring are considered to be too high to be endured. Thus, in a couple of years, Nasa will be unable to send men and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS), even though its $100bn cost has been met principally by US taxpayers. Instead America will be entirely dependent - until 2014 or 2015 when replacement rockets are ready - on Russia to get men and women into space, a situation that Moscow is likely to use, primarily, to extort geopolitical concessions from the US.

But how on Earth has Nasa ended up rocket-less and technologically impotent? Most agency supporters blame politicians. Nasa has certainly been shunted in every possible direction by different White House administrations, many of them deeply suspicious of and unfriendly towards space exploration. The claim is only partially valid, however - for Nasa, right from the start, has tried to control political agendas as much as it has let itself be shaped by them, according to the historian Gerard DeGroot, author of Dark Side of the Moon. In 1960 John F Kennedy used US space failures to attack the Republican Party and win the presidency by claiming America was dangerously exposed to Russian rocket attacks. He exaggerated Soviet space achievements and underplayed America's. Nasa, which might have been expected to defend its reputation, said nothing: it knew it would flourish under Kennedy. "Thus Kennedy was like Nasa," says DeGroot. "On the surface, both were handsome, articulate, bold and brave. Underneath, both were manipulative, mendacious, scheming and untrustworthy."

Later Kennedy found he had inherited an agency that was devouring more cash than any other federal programme. However, the president was assassinated before he got a chance to do something about this haemorrhaging of money. The space programme became a homage to the dead president and therefore untouchable, adds DeGroot.

Then came the Apollo Moon landings, which were Nasa's crowning glories, though it should also be noted that many serious risks - the launching of untested equipment, technical short cuts and use of untried software - were taken, but revealed only decades later. Apollo 8 was originally scheduled for only an Earth orbit mission, for example, but at the last minute was sent to circle the Moon in 1968 to restore Nasa's slipping lunar landing schedule. The world marvelled to hear astronauts reading from the Book of Genesis while in lunar orbit. Yet the mission was "the greatest single gamble in space flight then and since", according to the astronaut Deke Slayton. "We didn't even have the software to fly Apollo in Earth orbit, much less the Moon."

Nevertheless, Nasa pulled through, survived the near destruction of Apollo 13 and flew its last lunar mission, Apollo 17, in 1972. After that it was downhill all the way. The space shuttle, first launched in 1981, was intended to be a space truck that would fly missions every week once its four-craft fleet was in operation. Nasa was going to make space travel commonplace.

But the spaceship - although brilliantly engineered and constructed - possessed a crucial design flaw. Instead of sitting on top of fuel tanks filled with thousands of tonnes of high explosives, the shuttle was strapped to the side of them. There would be no escape should these tanks explode - as they did on 28 January 1986, destroying the shuttle Challenger. And when pieces of insulation fell off the top of fuel tanks during launch, they often hit the shuttle below, as they did on 16 January 2003 when Challenger's sister craft Columbia sustained wing damage that caused it to disintegrate during its re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere 16 days later. Those two accidents claimed the lives of 14 astronauts, a death toll that makes the spaceship one of the least safe forms of transport in existence. Hence the decision to scrap it in 2010.

And finally there is the International Space Station. Conceived in the Reagan era as a Cold War response to the Soviet Union's Mir station, it was remodelled by Bill Clinton's administration as an international orbiting laboratory that would keep Russian space scientists out of the hands of rogue nations after the Soviet Union disintegrated. The station - which also depends on Canadian, European and Japanese involvement - has already taken ten years to reach its current half-complete status and its costs so far are staggering. Not a single piece of scientific data of any worth has been produced in that time. Nor is any expected for the foreseeable future. Thus Nasa's most palpable legacy, as it celebrates its 50th birthday, is the most expensive and wasteful piece of technology ever constructed, a device built to satisfy political aspirations but incapable of solving a single important scientific problem. Moreover, the agency will soon have no means of its own to reach this orbiting white elephant.

As to the future, Nasa is committed to the development and use, around 2015, of Orion and Ares rockets - its shuttle replacement launchers - for which men and women will be put back in capsules that will ride on top of rockets just as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins flew towards the Moon on top of a giant Saturn V booster. This will be the technology that will take human beings to the Moon by 2020 and to Mars a couple of decades later, says Nasa.

Just why mankind is returning to the Moon is unclear. Nor is it obvious that the manned exploration of Mars is anyway justified by the costs involved. In any case, the funding for such missions has yet to be pledged by the White House, which has merely indicated a general desire that Nasa aim for these goals.

 

 

Robot missions

At the end of the day, Nasa is beset by the most fundamental of all problems that concerns space travel: thinking of a good reason why men and women should undertake it. In an age of mini aturisation and telecommunication marvels, astronauts waste space, oxygen, room and payload. Yet Nasa's raison d'être was, above all else, to put human beings into space and, in particular, to get Americans higher and further than Russians. Everything else that it has done has been an afterthought. Yet humans have brought nothing but trouble to the agency.

By contrast, Nasa's unmanned space probes have produced magnificent returns and demonstrate what the agency can do when it is left to get on with science. Its robot missions have shown us that Venus is a searing, acid-shrouded hell; that Saturn and Jupiter have moons with ice-covered oceans; that Mars has canyons and ice-filled craters; and that our own planet is now suffering from serious climatic change.

Best of all, however, have been the stunning photographs of distant galaxies, stars and nebulae gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope. These are the most popular by-products of any Nasa endeavour - by a long way. Yet their cost represents a tiny fraction of the money spent by the agency on human space flight.

Nasa clearly has the "know-how" to explore space. After 50 years, that much is clear. But demonstrating that prowess while saddled with projects such as the ISS and a new set of manned Moon launches has become a challenge that will stretch Nasa to its limits. This, in short, is an agency that badly needs to find a way to free itself from the shackles of its past.

Robin McKie is science editor of the Observer

 

NASA by numbers

1958 US Space Act establishes National Aeronautics and Space Administration

1961 Yuri Gagarin is first man in space

1965 Alexei Leonov takes first space walk

1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the Moon

1986 Launch of Mir space station; Challenger explodes on take-off

1990 Hubble Space Telescope sent into orbit

1993 International Space Station (ISS) project established with support of 16 countries

2003 Columbia disintegrates on re-entry into Earth's atmosphere

2004 Nasa's rover robots look for water on Mars

2010 ISS due to be completed; shuttle comes out of service

Research by Simon Rudd

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile