​Every Space Mission Should Have Its Own Sci-Fi Short

Starring Littlefinger, preferably.

Oct 27 2014, 5:50pm

A still from "Ambition." Image: YouTube/ESA

Over the weekend, the European Space Agency (ESA) released a short film entitled Ambition, directed by Tomek Bagińskiand starring Game of Thrones veteran Aidan Gillen as Littlefinger-in-space. It's a promotional video for the comet-hunting Rosetta mission disguised as a slick futurist short, and it's about as subtle as an explosion at an anvil factory. See for yourself:

You have to love that clunky Rosetta shoe-in. But despite the maudlin dialogue and random rock explosions, Ambition is pretty fantastic. The production value is very high, the explanation of Rosetta's mission and potential legacy is well-framed, and it makes good use of a top-tier actor. But most importantly, the short is an inventive way to contextualize space missions that may otherwise seem esoteric or even pointless to the public.

Which raises the question: Why don't space agencies use sci-fi and speculative fiction as PR tools more often? Despite scouring the internet nearly all morning, I couldn't find a comparable short film for any other modern space mission, though many seem perfectly calibrated for science fiction.

Indeed, Rosetta isn't even the first comet-hunter to make for good fictional fodder. NASA's Stardust mission, launched all the way back in 1999, captured pearly fragments of the comet Wild 2 in its aerogel net, and returned them to Earth. Forget a short; the premise of the Stardust mission—retrieving ethereal substances from ominous celestial bodies—has all the makings of a juicy fantasy story.

Or imagine, as another example, a futurist film about the exoplanet-hunting Kepler Space Observatory. Perhaps Kepler has already discovered a system that hosts life-bearing planets, which would be a great premise upon which to build an Ambition-style ruminative short. The James Webb Space Telescope, the Curiosity rover, and the Space Launch System (SLS), among many other contemporary missions, would make great jumping off points into speculative film shorts.

One obvious reason the public might not be getting more of these creative riffs could be that aerospace agencies already catch a lot of flak for profligate spending, though whether they deserve that criticism is hotly debated.

The high production values of Ambition may intensify the charge that agencies aren't careful with their money. Perhaps even people involved with the missions would argue against spending money on sci-fi promotions instead of the project itself.

It could perhaps also be argued that a science fiction angle undermines the science fact behind these missions. Shouldn't chasing down a comet and landing on it be interesting enough for the public without throwing a telekinetic Littlefinger into the mix?

Yes and no. On the one hand, I would hope most people would be impressed by Rosetta's ambitious itinerary, but public apathy about space exploration usually seems tied to confusion over the relevance of these missions to everyday life.

More than anything, that "big picture" scope is what Ambition addresses—how Rosetta might impact the future of humanity, rather than a detailed accounting of technical minutia. Gillen's character explains that water is the key ingredient for life as we know it, and comets may well have seeded it (and perhaps life itself) on Earth. The exchange is vague because the answers to these questions are still up in the air, but the short makes clear that Rosetta has a clear hand in solving them.

Hopefully, the film will inspire other agencies and companies to take a similar, broad view when presenting missions to the public. Much like surreal space art, short films like this can translate the upshot of space exploration more succinctly and widely than nonfiction presentations. Case in point: Ambition already outpaced most of the rest of ESA's YouTube collection a hundredfold.

When push comes to shove, most people prefer to have their science delivered with planet-smashing and theatrical charisma. And who can blame them?