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B7 Media and Boffin Media are responsible for some of the best science audio and audio drama being put out right now. Space Race, which I’m three episodes into, already feels like their greatest achievement to date. Narrated by Kate Mulgrew, it’s the story of crewed spaceflight’s past, present and future. All of which are happening at once.
‘Return to the Moon’, the first episode cleverly balances the incredible engineering feats of Apollo with the context that led to their creation. There’s a wonderful sequence inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, so large it has its own weather and a detailed look at the challenges of training astronauts to be geologists. There is no reference to training astronauts how to drill holes. I checked.
I know, I know, audio of people being excited about geology doesn’t sound gripping but it really is. There’s a moment from Apollo 17 where the landing crew find orange soil on the Moon that’s incredibly exciting because everyone involved has precisely no chill whatsoever. The bleeding edge of human innovation is still human and that’s both brilliant and has consequences, both of which are discussed here. All that, plus a pleasingly side-eyed discussion of the ‘plan’ to return to the Moon in five years makes the first episode a smart, driven pilot. Better still, as I say, it flits between the past, the present and the future, using a minor accident on a ferry in 2050 to explore the dire consequences of injury in space.
‘Cold War Space’ focuses more on the past and benefits from that purity of setting. It explores the complex moral and political grey areas that arose between the US and Russia after the war. Contrasting Von Braun’s hero’s welcome in the US with Sergei Korolev‘s quietly horrifying life it’s a stark reminder of two things; how young this science is and just how much pressure everyone involved in its creation was under. So much so in fact, that Korolev is revealed to have become deeply attached to the dogs sent on experimental flights and inconsolable when they didn’t return.
But he kept launching them anyway. And the Americans ‘sanitized’ the records of the Nazi scientists needed to get to the Moon. Under two decades after developing the weapon that devastated London, Von Braun was presenting a Disney TV show. Brave new words for a brave new world that quietly doesn’t make eye contact with what came before.
‘Space Warriors’ is where everything comes together. Stories of the horrific injuries astronauts endured on acceleration couches are mixed with the birth of NASA itself and Kennedy’s own attitude towards space travel to show you just how uncertain the ground beneath the program was, at first. From there it folds in the Mercury 7 and the Mercury 13 and finishes with John Glenn’s flight. Oh and a cliffhanger, which is a really smart way of not only upping the stakes but showing how the process has evolved.
What impresses me more and more about the series is both the scope and the honesty. Episode 2 focuses in, almost entirely, on the moral vacuum at the heart of the US Nazi retrieval program. Episode 3 is all about not the astronauts, but the people who built what the astronauts would train on. It also pulls no punches about the disgraceful way the Mercury 13 were treated, including naming the beloved astronaut sent to drive the final PR nail into the coffin.
This is a complex, detailed series about a complex, detailed human endeavor. It’s fair, balanced, light on it’s feet and clearly has a plan. I’m looking forward to the other episodes.
The Space Race is available on Audible now.
The excellent documentary on the Mercury 13 is on Netflix now.