The vision of space portrayed in near-future science fiction often speaks to the hopes and fears of contemporary society. Children’s SF in particular can influence the scientific and technical innovators who might bring such visions to fruition. Here, as a case study, I take a look at the coherent vision of human space utilisation presented in the recent animated television series Thunderbirds are Go!
[NOTE: I’ll avoid spoilers about actual plots, and hopefully you shouldn’t need to be familiar with the series to appreciate the areas I’ll be discussing.]
Thunderbirds are Go!
Broadcast between 2015 and 2020, Thunderbirds Are Go reimagines the 1960s television series Thunderbirds (1965-6, created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson for ITC Entertainment) for a young contemporary audience. It follows the adventures of International Rescue - an organisation in which a team of five brothers and their associates provide last-resort rescue capabilities in the event of life-and-death emergencies. The animated series updates several key aspects of the original version - notably removing a patriarch figure and establishing far more active female roles - but remains closely aligned with many of the fundamental premises of the original Thunderbirds universe. The episodes are also substantially shorter than the 1960s production, at 25 rather than 50 minutes. The impacts of this shortening on story-telling are somewhat mitigated by pacier direction, the use of recurring guest characters with their own character development, occasional two part stories, and several long-running multi-episode story arcs.
The setting of the show is the early 2060s, some two decades after “the global conflict of 2040”. This near-future setting is reflected in a number of innovative technologies such as projected 3D holograms, new materials, propulsion systems and advanced artificial intelligence. A consequence of the conflict appears to have been some measure of world unification, with a powerful global defence force and international authorities, although local prime ministers are also mentioned, suggesting some measure of regional autonomy. However some aspects of the society portrayed closely reflect the times more familiar to the young audience - social media, for example, is predicted to retain its powerful cultural influence across the next four decades.
The series also features a higher proportion of space stories than its progenitor - no fewer than 27 episodes in the run of 78 (across 3 seasons) feature significant space action, as opposed to just 4 of 32 episodes in the 1960s version. This is perhaps a little surprising given that the AP Films team were writing at the height of the space race, and suggests that human spaceflight retains its power over the contemporary imagination - despite the notable lack of progress in this area to date.
Together these episodes present a surprisingly coherent and convincing vision for human space utilisation.
Perhaps the most obvious use of space in Thunderbirds Are Go is that of commercial and industrial companies. Mining for minerals and materials is seen in the asteroid belt (“Slingshot”) and on Mercury (“Night and Day”). While working in space may be unusual on a global scale, the individuals shown in this context are normal, blue-collar individuals, doing a routine and not necessarily even particularly skilled job. We're told that "to work on Golvanna Mine you have to be space rated - morse code is still a requirement!". Even so, the mining operative in "Slingshot" still appears to be little more than a desk-worker, operating an automated mining platform via remote control with the help of his only companion - a geranium called Gladys. In other words, space-rating may be a professional qualification akin to those currently required for piloting aircraft or sea vessels.
Space freight certainly appears to be common. Two space cargo freighters, each refusing to yield the right of way, drive the plot of orbital drama “Crash Course”. These are carrying bulk cargoes of aluminium oxide and rubber polymer, and the pilots are (at least initially) more interested in reporting one another to the “space transportation commission” and loss to their companies and reputations than their own perilous situation. As one of them exclaims, “orbital navigation code requires any freighter entering [orbit] from spinward to yield!”
Again, the suggestion is that such things are as relatively routine as a minor road collision might be on Earth - involving loss of profit but otherwise of no particular concern. Indeed in some regions of near-Earth space, bulk cargo freighters appear to form a positive traffic jam (see image to the right from “Space Race”).
More complex technologies can be found in two episodes focused on other industrial operations in space. In “Impact”, Fischler Industries is in the process of daringly moving a comet into Earth orbit for use as a water supply (which might make more sense if it was being taken to another world!). By contrast, the episode “Bolt from the Blue” features an experimental orbital solar platform beaming energy to the ground - a genuine technology that has been explored in a range of science fiction and technological speculation.
The space transportation commission is just one example of a civilian administration governing space utilisation in the series. A second can be found in Space Hub One (“Long Haul”). The controller in charge of traffic arriving at this lunar-orbital station (and indeed of making the call to evacuate it after an accident) is a young and relatively inexperienced man, clearly no more a member of the military, or product of particularly intense scientific training, than an air traffic controller at a busy airport on Earth would be. While there is little evidence for settlement on the Moon, the mining and other industrial operations sited there appear to be purely civilian operations, managed and regulated by civilian rather than military or scientific authorities.
Also in near-Earth space, we see an orbital hotel (“Falling Skies”) and a tourist space elevator (“Chaos part 2”, image left), and are told that a wealthy couple “just bought the penthouse at the Estrella Orbital” (“The Man from TB5”; it's unclear whether this is a direct replacement of the same hotel that failed before!). We also see small private space vessels - such as the Solar Wind taken by celebrity explorer Francois Lemaire to Halley’s comet (“Comet Chasers”, see below), and that used by cryptozoologist social media stars Buddy and Ellie Prendergast (“Deep Search”) who "travelled for more than a year" to visit Jupiter’s moon Europa. Space travel, then, is akin in the new series to the role of air travel in the 1960s original - the preserve of the wealthy but certainly not limited to a mere handful of highly trained and expert individuals. This is luxury space tourism in operation.
Perhaps an outlier here in terms of civilian spaceflight is the space vessel Calypso - a deep space scientific mission (“SOS part 1”), rather than everyday commercial or leisure craft. This was designed to leave the solar system and reach interstellar space on a twenty year exploration mission, with its crew in cryosleep for the majority of that time. While this is an example of less routine space travel, by specialist authorities, it’s also worth noting that it is seen on its return, almost two decades after its proper time (so may reflect an earlier paradigm), and that its remit extends far beyond the inner Solar System range occupied by most of the series.
While we see various moon bases and industrial platforms in the series, there is no evidence of actual lunar settlement - perhaps unsurprising given the Moon’s low potential for long-term habitability. However space colonisation - as opposed to utilisation - does appear in Thunderbirds Are Go in the form of two different colony ships seen on screen.
It’s apparent, for example, that space colonisation beyond the Earth-Moon system is still in its early stages. While we see various mining and industrial operations throughout the Solar System, Helios is the first colony ship to Mars, aiming to plant a population of “just 200 people”, including dozens of families, as permanent residents (“Colony”, “Life Signs”). It’s interesting to note that Helios is essentially a passenger transport vessel - the colony itself having been prepared in advance of the colonists arriving. It’s unclear whether the preparation was done by earlier crewed missions (we know, for example, that Jeff Tracy was one of the first men to set foot on the planet decades earlier) or whether accommodation and life support was prepared by the ubiquitous AI-powered robots in this vision of the future. In either case, here, the fundamentally civilian nature of the colony is obvious - unlike in some colonisation fiction, the colonists (including many children) are meant to occupy and develop their settlement, rather than endure the rigours and hardships of building it from the ground up with their own hands.
A more ambitious (if less successful) colony ship, Eden, features in the episode “Ghost Ship” (shown left). This is a generation ship designed to travel in space for hundreds of years, and presumably to reach nearby stellar systems at sub-light speeds. The vessel is large, with rotating components which would provide centrifugal gravity. It also has AI-powered maintenance robots - hinting at the kind of self-sustaining and robust self-repair required for any generational vessel in which the education and competency of future generations cannot be guaranteed. However this ship is considered a derelict, the project having been abandoned an undefined length of time before the series begins. The very large and apparently mostly-complete vessel is parked between the Earth and the Moon in a holding orbit, with a caretaker to monitor it. It’s unclear why the project was abandoned - whether it was too ambitious, whether the many problems inherit in the generation ship concept were reconsidered, or whether some political or financial problem (perhaps the 2040 conflict or its aftermath) intervened. In any case, while the ship was never used, it does not appear to be a matter for jokes or contempt as might be expected for a high-profile technical failure, but of mild regret, suggesting that the idea of generational space travel is by no means considered beyond the scope of possibility in the Thunderbirds Are Go universe.
Where’s Space Force?
An interesting feature of Thunderbirds Are Go’s vision for space is the lack of a clear and strong military presence outside of Earth’s atmosphere. We meet one space-bound character who is an officer in the Global Defence Force (GDF Captain Ridley O’Bannon), but her role is first as caretaker checking on Eden (“Ghost Ship”) and then as commander of space station Global One (“Impact”) - both essentially civilian positions, without any evidence for armaments, offensive equipment or military deployments.
An exception can be found in the GDF-run high security facility known as The Hex (“Breakout”), but even here, the prison is essentially a defensive establishment designed to contain criminals, and prevent escapes, rather than an explicitly military vessel. There’s also a brief mention of an Orbital Patrol, but in a context where this could easily be a civil authority.
While it’s tempting to envisage a utopian future in which the Outer Space Treaty is rigorously upheld out of universal good will, a hint that something else may lie behind the absence of armed enforcement in space can be found in the episode “Space Race”. Here, Thunderbird Three encounters an AI-controlled nuclear stealth mine left in orbit amongst drifting space debris “after the global conflict of 2040”.
If such devices were common during that conflict, with devastating effect both on existing military space hardware and potentially for the Earth below, then not only would some of the larger items of space junk seen in the series be explained, but so might a decision never to allow rearmament of space by military forces.
The new space paradigm
So in Thunderbirds Are Go we see a near-future vision of space in which space travel is still exciting, and only common for those with deep pockets, but in which technological advance has made it relatively safe and sufficiently inexpensive for large scale industry to be profitable. It’s a space that is overwhelmingly civilian, with some measure of regulation, but no military presence. And it’s a vision of space that is looking outwards towards further exploration, but which does not do so at the expense of the planet still occupied by the vast majority of humanity (the space technologies are complemented by atmosphere scrubbers, heavy metal clean-up from the seabed, and green energy sources). It’s a surprisingly convincing picture, and - given the way in which technology can and has developed in a forty year time period - appears rather plausible.
So what are the key breakthrough technologies required for such a vision?
- The first and the most fundamental requirement is one that is never directly addressed in the series - a cost-effective and energy-efficient way to lift mass from the Earth’s surface into space. Although we see rocket take-offs in the series, in actuality we are a long way from having reusable, single-stage-to-orbit rockets that can reach space as quickly as any we see on screen. In all fairness, it is possible that the majority of freight is transported through large commercial space elevators - a couple of small examples of which are seen in the series. This is indeed a plausible solution, which could accelerate space utilisation relatively quickly once the first such elevator is built, although it would require materials beyond our current capabilities to manufacture cost-effectively, and the initial investment would be huge.
- As well as elevator cables, new materials capable of protecting both crew and cargos from radiation outside of the Earth’s magnetic field, capable of dealing with micrometeorite erosion in the stellar wind, and capable of dissipating heat in atmospheric reentry are required.
- Plausible interplanetary drives seen on screen include high-impulse ion fusion engines (notably on Thunderbird Three) and solar sails. However neither of these as currently envisaged would permit the high thrust, high acceleration manoeuvring seen on screen. Thus we must presume a breakthrough in this area.
- Artificial intelligence and cybernetics are shown to be developed to a very high level in the series. These are required to translate human movements and reactions into the detailed calculations required for space navigation and emergency manoeuvring. They allow autonomous operation and maintenance of the extensive equipment required to keep humans alive in space. Further, they would almost certainly be necessary in automated industries, to reduce the threat to human life to a minimum given the riskier environments to be encountered beyond the atmosphere.
- We must presume a breakthrough in political cooperation in terms of space regulation and resource distribution… perhaps the hardest of all to imagine.
It’s worth noting that series head writer Rob Hoegee (who also wrote a number of key episodes personally) was not unaware of the importance of this worldbuilding. Many of the designs in the series were inspired by genuine concept vehicles or technical designs, and he commented several times online and in interviews regarding the importance of getting the technology right. In a twitter exchange at the end of the initial broadcast run, he directly addressed the issue of scientific plausibility, noting that:
'I loved the science most of all and it was important for me to get it right - or at the very least "plausible".'
[image right: twitter exchange between Bill Raucci and Rob Hoegee, dated 16/6/2020 - 17/6/2020 and coinciding with the first broadcast of "The Long Reach (part one)".]
The original 1960s Thunderbirds is credited with having inspired engineers, scientists, surgeons and others, both in its original run and in its popular resurgences following a BBC repeat broadcast in the 1990s. While Thunderbirds are Go is operating in a more crowded entertainment market, it is part of a genre that overtly aspires to reshape the vision of a generation, and hence to reshape the world.
Of course, no vision of space is perfect. Throughout the series, emergencies arise as a result of greed, arrogance, incompetence, human error or technical problems, as well as natural disasters. Space junk is discussed as a hazard, and at least two rescues are required after solar flares damage electronics - demonstrating the dangers of space weather even to vehicles with advanced technologies. Nonetheless, Thunderbirds Are Go presents a vision of space utilisation that is surprisingly well considered and which might yet inspire the next generation to ensure that the future is FAB.
“A FAB new vision for space?”, Elizabeth Stanway, Cosmic Stories blog. 15th May 2022.
All thoughts, opinions and comments offered here are my own, and not the opinion of the University of Warwick.
All images have been sourced from publicly available material online and are used here for commentary and criticism.