Space. The final frontier. Unless you’re one of the people hoping to win Google’s reward for building a lander to the moon. That’s the Google Lunar X Prize, launched in 2007 to inspire entrepreneurs to invent affordable space technology – and the subject of Google’s new web series, Moon Shot, exec-produced by JJ Abrams. The message is clear: space is not something only NASA can do.
“Right now, private teams around the world are in a $30m race to explore the moon,” begins every episode. This budget space race unfolds in seven-minute chunks, each one devoted to another player in the field – but despite the prize money deadline of 31st December 2017 looming on the horizon, there’s little sense of progression or narrative in this non-fiction tale. Surprisingly, that’s not as big an issue as you might think: the “right now” is less the pressure of rushing against time and more the thrill of the present, the excitement of knowing that at this very moment, amateur scientists are shooting for the moon.
It’s that combination of technology and passion that makes Moon Shot an enjoyable watch. We see, in the news, updates from space programmes around the world on a fairly regular basis, each trending hashtag on Twitter a reminder that the human race remains as obsessed with the space above us as the pioneering Russians were in the 1960s. Back then, Soviet’s Vostok descent modules couldn’t even slow down enough to land safety on Earth, which meant cosmonauts had to eject from the spacecraft to make it back to the ground safely. Safety and technology may have improved since then, but that sheer determination to conquer the heavens is still alive and well.
We normally get a scientific breakdown of these televised breakthroughs, explaining the ins and outs of how the Phoenix landed on Mars, or how New Horizons took its photos of Pluto. Moon Shot, though, is more about human interest than scientific interest: we get some glimpses of the geekery in action (one shot of a lander riding past a lake in a park is a delightful piece of juxtaposition), but the focus is firmly on the people behind the soldering irons.
There’s roboticist Red Whittaker, who teaches engineers in rural Pennsylvania, Professor Kazuya Yoshida, who was lucky to escape harm’s way in Japan’s 2011 tsunami, Alex Dobrianski, who moved from the Ukraine to Vancouver to find a better life, Indian scientist Deepana Gandhi, who dreamed of her career as a a young girl… the list goes on. What emerges is just how different their motivations for joining Google’s space race are: for Berlin-bases Robert Bohme, it’s all about the development of technology and freedom of information, while for Dobrianski, it’s about using that technology to build a better, safer world. Gandhi, meanwhile, is the epitome of being inspired to wish big – and act even bigger.
These people are all smart, but they’re also sympathetically normal – and Oscar-nominated director Orlando von Einsiedel coaxes the private motivations out of his subjects with the same ease with which the slick visuals slide by. The show has an ear for soundbites as much as an eye for montages, reinforcing the programme’s, encouraging message.
“Most people go about their lives and think they can’t achieve great things,” notes Bohme. “The truth is, they can.”
It’s unusual and refreshing to see something so relentlessly upbeat. The fact that so many of the subjects are surrounded by friends and family both helping them and cheering them on highlights just how much space and technology – and the idea of reaching one’s full potential – can bring people together. The result is engaging as well as intriguing, something helped by the bite-sized runtime that prevents your attention from wandering; it could do with perhaps a bit more science to go with its sentiment, but a quick dose of one of these episodes on the bus to work will undoubtedly leave you feeling suitably uplifted for the day.
“I’m a professor, businessman and a farmer,” smiles Whittaker in the likeable first episode. “And now, I’m going to the moon.”
Moon Shot is available to watch for free on Google Play – and will be released on YouTube from 17th March.