In the near future, the first human mission to Mars is underway. An Indian flight director prepares to lead an international team across our solar system, watched by two billion people. A young Dutch astronaut on Mars learns that something terrible has happened to her partner, back on Earth.
Pioneer, the poignant sci-fi thriller coming to the Watford Palace Theatre next week, has both a very big and a number of smaller stories to tell.
Jack Lowe, the artistic director of theatre company curious directive and director of Pioneer, explains that the play was inspired by the overwhelming scientific scepticism surrounding the real-life, one-way mission to Mars – Mars One – which is planned to land in 2025.
“We saw Brad Lansdorp, who started Mars One, talk at the Natural History Museum in London,“ says Jack, 29, from Norwich, “and quite soon afterwards we all sat down together and said ‘Shall we respond to this?’ It came from the human element of what it would be like to go to another planet.
“Originally, it was just going to be about Mars One the corporation, but we realised that most scientists at the forefront of this sort of thing don’t think it’s going to be a success, so we had to change tack, so the fiction of our play is that the Mars mission has failed and this is the next attempt.
“We’re dealing with some really controversial areas of science, and what we know about travelling to Mars changes daily, but the bigger questions – the sense of discovery and space travel and that kind of stuff – doesn’t change as much.“
Jack and the company curious directive shaped the play with the help of a number of experts, from a psychologist specialising in human space flight, an astrobiologist and an astrophysicist, and the insider knowledge has clearly paid off as Pioneer has been getting numerous five-star reviews at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, not to mention a Fringe First award from The Scotsman newspaper, for innovation.
The play asks some big questions about what sacrifices need to be made when it comes to pioneering, making great voyages such as human travel out into space.
“There’s always a cost to someone,“ says Jack, who founded curious directive in 2008. “When the Founding Fathers left Plymouth to go to America, they were leaving behind their families and everything they’d ever known, and it will be exactly the same when we do eventually start getting in spaceships and going to other planets.
“The thing that has changed, though, is that everything is much more visible now so everyone in the world will know the names of those people who get in that spaceship and go to Mars.“ What does Jack think about humans travelling into space? Should we really be worrying about other planets when it could be argued that perhaps we haven’t done the best job with the one we’ve got?
“I don’t know whether we should or shouldn’t, but I think it’s inevitable and that we should be prepared to have opinions on it.
“I think someone will probably make a lot of money out of it and that’s how space travel will work – it will be led by capitalism, by people who can make money from meteorites, asteroids, mining and that kind of stuff.
“I think as long as we’re educated about it and have opinions about it, we’ll be OK.
“When major events, dangerous developments, have happened in history, the general public hasn’t always known about it, so we don’t want to make the same mistakes again when we do travel out into the solar system.
“I think we’ve got the chance to reshape how these things happen, now.“