What does space travel, and the idea of moving to Mars, seem like from today’s perspective? When we’re more concerned than ever about the state of our own planet? Moving to Mars, a new exhibition at the Design Museum in London, asks these questions by taking us on a trip through the history of space exploration.
The Design Museum gifted me a pair of tickets so that I could write this review.
The history of moving to Mars
The idea of moving to Mars can feel a bit quaint these days. And the first exhibition space in Moving to Mars goes back to the old days, when space travel was a romantic dream. The first things we came across were some antique astorological instruments – an 18th Century model of the solar system, and a globe of Mars from 1909.
Further in, more recent film posters and magazines showed dramatisations of terrifying Martians, and plucky space heroes. It all felt a bit colonial. Martians as savages, who needed to be conquered. Space as a land that needed to be claimed by civilised earthlings.
But, apart from a short film inspired by the words of Elon Musk, the Design Museum’s exhibition moved away from the idea of Mars as something that’s ‘our’ territory. Instead, it explored the beauty and the terror of the place.
Next to the Mars posters were reconstructions of the rovers that have charted Mars’ surface. They looked surprisingly flimsy, coated with something that looked like gold-coloured tin foil.
The images captured by one of these rovers appeared in the next room, on a wraparound panoramic screen. There, we learned that temperatures on Mars average -60C, and that it takes at least seven months to get to the Red Planet. Radiation levels are intolerably high, and the dust is so fine and sticky that it would get inside our lungs, choking us. It all felt terrifyingly hostile. But intriguing, too.
What are the effects of space travel on humans?
The next rooms focused on the more human aspects of space travel, like the effect on the human body of being in space for a long time. In a zero-gravity environment, astronauts would find their muscles deteriorating, and they would lose bone mass. Designers and technicians have devised a range of suits that constantly stimulate muscles, to keep them working.
Astronauts wouldn’t be able to eat crumbly foods, like biscuits or cake, because the crumbs would just end up floating around their heads, impossible to clear up. But space food has developed through the years, from the early days of nondescript sludge. You can now even drink chai tea in space.
Designing life on Mars
The last room in the exhibition focused on experimental designs, and it was this space that we found the most interesting. Making the best use of scant resources was the theme of this room. Clothes by design company RAEBURN fused leftover parachute silks into radiation-resistent space garments.
Maquettes showed the sorts of living spaces that Mars pioneers could build out of regolith, the rubble and grit found on earth’s surface.
There was even a boot made out of a fungus grown on human sweat.
Nothing goes to waste on Mars. In such an inhospitable climate, every little thing has to be given a purpose.
Mars as seen from planet Earth
It was the last room that brought us full circle, back to Earth. In thinking about ways to make life possible on Mars, we can consider how to preserve and repair our own planet. When the first astronauts went into space and saw Earth from afar, its fragility became apparent. It’s an ecosystem with a delicate balance.
Scientists have looked at ways to develop an ecosystem on Mars. There are plants growing under hydroponic lights in the final room of the exhibition, along with notices about how delicate this ecosystem would be. And it would also be a million times less complex than the one on Earth. If we can contemplate sending amoeba and plant species out into space, to try and make Mars fit for habitation, surely we could make a concerted effort to save the ecosystem we already live in?
This question was asked by Venetia Falconer, climate activist and one of a number of talking heads that featured in a short film at the end of the exhibition. From Astronaut Tim Peake to designer Anna Talvi, the people in this film discussed what moving to Mars might really mean for humankind. What would they miss the most? Venetia Falconer said the thing she’d miss most was access to music via Spotify. What would you miss the most about moving to Mars?
How child-friendly is Moving to Mars at the Design Museum London?
A screen in each room showed a video with a challenge for the younger visitors to complete. In the first room, they had to make their own space rover from building blocks. In the final room, children were challenged to list some of the resources that they’d have to take to Mars, to make sure they survived.
Moving to Mars is advertised as most suitable for children over eight. Younger children are welcome (and I did see a couple), but they might not have the attention spans to absorb some of the more exciting information. They’d have to be able to read through the text next to the exhibits to get to the really juicy bits. But Moving to Mars was an elegantly laid out display of gripping stories and sometimes surprising objects. I went with an adult friend, but I’m going to go back with my 10 year-old son, as I think he’d enjoy it.
Moving to Mars is at the Design Museum, London until 23 February 2020. Depending on the size of your family, family tickets are £29.50 or £37 at the weekend, and £21.75 or £32.50 on weekdays. Adults pay £16.30 at the weekend and £14.50 during the week. Child’s tickets are £8.15 at the weekend and £7.25 during the week.
How to get to the Design Museum London
Design Museum address: 224-238 Kensington High Street, London W8 6AG
The closest stations to the Design Museum are High Street Kensington tube station and Kensington (Olympia) train station. For more information, visit the Transport for London website.
For another family-friendly exhibition in London, read our review of Beasts of London at the Museum of London.