I studied science in school and I somehow completed a course in Electrical and Electronics engineering and I think that through this grueling process my sense of trust on everything and anything scientific was solidified. That said, even though I am interested in science, I am not an expert in it because I’m not in touch with the subject on a daily basis due to the nature of my work (Which actually keeps me close to science-fiction). However, with the advent of the 30th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope, I got the chance to launch a bunch of questions at someone who is and that is the executive producer of Sony BBC Earth’s Hubble: Wonders of the Space Revealed, Steve Crabtree, and asked him all about aliens, religion, the economic flow around space exploration, and more.
How was Hubble: Wonders of Space Revealed conceptualised?
“We knew that Hubble was about to celebrate its 30th birthday and we thought it’d be really lovely to have a program to look back and tell the whole amazing story. Because pretty much everybody agrees that it probably won’t get to its 40th birthday very sadly. So, we just thought that the 30th anniversary gave us the perfect excuse to make a program, showing exactly what it has achieved during its lifetime. One of the lines-of-thinking in the film is that it’s one of, if not the most productive machines that humans have ever invented, in terms of the number of scientific studies that have been written off the back of it. I think [one can ask] whether the large hadron collider has had more purpose, but it certainly is one of the most productive machines that we’ve ever invented.”
What are some of the things that you weren’t aware of about space that you got to know about while producing this show?
“I think that’s an absolutely brilliant question! I wasn’t aware of just how small the group of people is that look after Hubble. I think that was surprising to know that it’s got a small office in NASA with these dedicated small teams of people who look after it. And obviously, each service mission sends astronauts up there. So, there’s only been, I don’t the exact number, a small number of astronauts who have actually been in service there. And you’d think that it’s such an important big machine that there would be thousands of people. But actually, once it’s up in space, it’s actually looked after by a small dedicated team, which I thought was really impressive. You can really tell that they look after it like it’s their baby. So, that was one thing! Also, I wasn’t really aware of how many studies have been published off of the back of it. And I think that one of the things that. while doing the film, we tell that each service mission isn’t linked to a new scientific discovery. I didn’t realise that it was Hubble that made all those scientific discoveries. That was quite fascinating. I had heard of them, obviously. But I wasn’t aware that they could all be traced back to Hubble.”
There’s a lot of chatter around aliens going around right now. Do you believe that life other than ours exists?
“I personally, definitely believe that there is other life in the universe! Personally speaking, the universe is just too big to not have other life in it. What’s interesting is that the next telescopes that have been sent into space like the James Webb Space Telescope, which is kind of Hubble’s replacement, will kind of start to answer those questions. We have to speak to a scientist who can say that for you. But it’s certainly capable of finding more information about exoplanets. I think that one of the things that have happened in the last decade thanks to Hubble as well as other telescopes that are out there is that we have now realised that there are many[x4] planets in this universe. I think there are around 4000-5000 planets that have already been discovered just in the last ten years. I interviewed a scientist, not in the Hubble film, who said that probably every single star has countless planets around it and every single star in the universe may have planets. [laughs] So, I think that it would be extraordinary if one of those didn’t have life on it.”
Why is it difficult for the common folk to digest the idea that extraterrestrial life might exist and easy to accept something as magical as religion and Gods?
“Oh! I don’t know the answer to that. I think that one of the things that scientists are trying to do is that they’re trying to be straightforward in terms of what they’re discovering. And it kind of lets people learn for themselves [based on] what they’re seeing. I think that with Hubble telescopes and other space telescopes that we look through [into space], ‘we’ as in scientists who operate can say ‘Well, look we found this system, there’s a star, and there are planets around it. That’s what we know’. [Based on that] I think people just have to kind of draw their own conclusions, really. It’s interesting.”
With the increasing economic divide, do you think that it’ll become more and more difficult to convince people that space exploration is important?
“Again, that’s a really good question! I think that the thing with space exploration is that, and please remember that I am someone who just makes television programs [laughs], the economy around space exploration is huge. All the countries that do it, there’s lots and lots of money, and they employ people, they invent things and it’s interesting, and the exploration of space is certainly an industry that is growing and more and more countries are investing in it. And if it’s sort of for the knowledge and the goodness of humankind to explore space and we can build better and better communication with satellites and we can create better technology that can give us new experiments on the International Space Station to design and try and find new medicines or mixing new materials, I think it’s a good thing. Because it employs lots of people in an interesting and highly scientific and specialised industry, really. That’s what I have learned. I have made a lot of programs about space and I know a lot of people who work in that industry and the thing is what they really want to do is just push our sense of understanding of science, technology, and engineering to its furthest limits. So, that’s a good thing.”
What are some of the most accurate, non-documentary movies or shows on space exploration?
“[laughs] That’s very good. Let me think about what I have watched. Everybody likes The Martian. I think that The Martian is a very good film that I have watched a few times. You see, I am probably the wrong person to ask that because I like proper science-fiction, if that makes sense. I am a fan of the science-fiction genre, which is still completely unrealistic. So, I like TV shows that show things that we haven’t got yet like warp drives or time travel or other devices such as that. But in terms of accuracy, I am not really sure I can answer that [laughs] because they aren’t the kind of films that appeal to me. What I like is to take concepts and push them. I did a film, another Horizon film, called How To Build a Time Machine, and the idea for that was to imagine that the greatest engineer that has ever lived, what do they have to do to build a time machine. And what we did is that we met some brilliant scientists from all over the world and asked them to sort of solve this puzzle with physics or you’ve to invent some kind of technology that would open a wormhole. So, for me, that’s the genre that I love, which is the impossible rather than what’s actually doable.”
This is a question that I often think about and hence I will extend it to you. If you were given a chance to go on a one-way trip to all the celestial bodies captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, would you take it and why?
“It’s a great question! I am in my early fifties. But I think if I was in my early sixties or seventies, it would be great, as long as I knew I could get there. You know, as long as I knew that it’s technologically safe because traveling in space is really risky. So, I think I’d take it. Yes. But in 10 or 20 years’ time. And why? Because I’d want to go and see a particular set of planets and moons, like Saturn. I am absolutely obsessed with Saturn. I think that it’s amazing and again, we did a film which looked at some of the moons of Saturn. And there’s one moon called Titan and it is really brilliant. Titan is a really small moon and the gravity on it is very low, which means if a human would stand on it and would just attach wooden wings to their arms and just flap, they could fly around. I always had the dream of doing that, to fly like a big superhero. So, I’d like to travel to the moon Titan with wings, stand on the surface, and fly around like a bird.”
Given the current situation of this planet, I’d really like to blast off into space, literally anywhere, I don’t even need to know where I am going, with all the amenities that’ll allow me to survive till my seventies (I guess?) and never come back. But since that is more science fiction than science, it’s not a possibility. Instead, like Steve said, we have to rely on science and the information that comes out of it for the betterment of this pale blue dot, fix it as much as we can, and then start making plans of taking that one-way trip into the deepest, darkest, sectors of space. But before doing that, don’t forget to wish the Hubble Space Telescope a belated happy birthday (And a hearty congratulations to the people who have kept it more than functional) for doing its job up there and giving us several glimpses into what lies beyond our field of vision for so many years.
Hubble: Wonders of Space Revealed premieres on 19th December at 9:00 pm on Sony BBC Earth.
Cover artwork by Bhavya Poonia/Mashable India